Authenticity. How important is that to a restaurant and what does it really mean? A recent discussion between Eddie Huang and Francis Lam talked about that topic with Mr. Huang coming down hard on non-native chefs gaining accolades cooking cuisines of other cultures while good restaurants from that culture toil away in relative obscurity. Mr. Lam was a bit more accepting of that as it relates to the United States’ role as a melting pot continuously absorbing and adapting the cultures of its immigrants. The net result of these adaptations is generally some very tasty food, even if it does not always accurately reflect the cooking of the mother culture down to every last detail. How can it? Sure, authentic ingredients can be imported, but they are rarely as good as they are in the home country. Even with today’s incredible transportation and delivery systems, ingredients still seem to suffer jet lag just like humans do. Even if they didn’t, there is something about eating the food of any particular culture within the context – physical and otherwise- of that culture. That, of course, doesn’t mean that the translated food isn’t good, tasty or even a fairly accurate translation. In some cases, it may even taste better than the original inspiration. Rarely, though, is the ultimate effect the same as what inspired it, no matter how intent the effort to reproduce the original may have been. This also holds true for culturally native cooks in a foreign environment. The final product is still an adaptation, even if that adaptation manages to conjure strong associations and extremely close approximations of the food in its native habitat. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, however.
Next, the second restaurant project between Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea and co-owner Nick Kokonas, with David Beran as Chef de Cuisine and Rene DeLeon as the sous chef, makes cultural adaptation its raison d’etre as a restaurant. That in itself is not in the least uncommon in the United States nor just about anywhere else around the world. What is uncommon is that the culinary adaptations of the restaurant change every 3 or four months or so, swinging wildly from place to place around the globe. Also uncommon, is that the people doing the creating and the cooking are cooks who generally have not necessarily been specifically trained within the particular cuisines that they are preparing.
The original thesis for Next, when the concept was first announced was to change the very nature of the restaurant every three months or so with each change refocusing on a different cuisine at a different period of time, whether present, past or future. The very first menu at Next was the evocative Paris of 1906, which featured a menu taken directly from the classic work of Auguste Escoffier with dishes selected from menus from the year 1906. With a neutral setting except for service pieces, the dinner was evocative and provocative, giving the diner a taste of an era that would otherwise have been within reach of very, very few, if any. The décor of the restaurant does not change, but the serving pieces and method of service does change from menu to menu, reflecting the goals of that particular menu.
Was Paris 1906 accurate? Did it really reproduce the food of that era? To some significant degree, given the level of scholarship and skill that went into the production and its focus on the food of Escoffier as written by him, it most probably did. Whether or not or how much it did, however, wasn’t truly knowable, as that could only be speculation, as there is essentially no one left in the world who would have been able to judge that through direct experience. Even if the recipes were followed to a t as they likely were, ingredients have changed. What did make that dinner so much fun, other than that it was delicious, was that it opened a window to imagine the past for those fortunate enough to experience it.
The creative team at Next followed Paris 1906 with an exploration of the food of contemporary Thailand. I never had the pleasure of experiencing that menu, but it received some criticism as well as praise. Chicago is a city that has a number of Thai restaurants, including some that are very highly regarded. Chef Achatz and his team put a lot of effort into crafting their menus and do a lot of research to bring their inspirations to the plate, but some people wondered why they should go to Next when there were so many good Thai alternatives in the area.
A theme of Childhood followed Thailand, with the dishes reflecting the food of Chef Achatz’ childhood memories presented in a very creative fashion. Once again, I was unable to make it to Chicago for that menu.
Following Childhood, Chefs Achatz, Beran and their team endeavored to recreate the food of the now closed elBulli with at least one dish from each year of elBulli’s extensive and revolutionary repertoire. The original elBulli became notoriously difficult to get a reservation for and this dinner allowed many who would otherwise have never experienced the food of the restaurant in Cala Montjoi, the opportunity to have done so. I was fortunate enough to have experienced elBulli in Cala Montjoi on three separate occasions and they are, to date, the three best overall and most memorable meals of my life. While the food of elBulli was certainly extraordinary, that was only part of what made the restaurant so special. Its location and very aura were pure magic, especially when combined with the always mind-boggling creativity of the Adrias. While much of that cooking, in my opinion, will stand the test of time, much of the magic came from the sense of discovery encountered during the meal itself. I was not in the least concerned with the ability of the team to prepare the Adrias’ dishes. I know that they can cook and cook very, very well, but I did not want to confuse my memories of that unique restaurant and my experiences there.
Sicily. This was a theme that really caught my attention in a very personal way. My father’s family came from Sicily and my own childhood in Brooklyn was filled with Sicilian-American cooking. I have also had the pleasure of visiting the island of my ancestors on an extended culinary tour, enjoying the hospitality and gaining insights into Sicilian cooking and cuisine from the late, great Ana Tasca Lanza at her Regaleali estate in central Sicily, the very same estate that Grant Achatz reached out to for his own insights into constructing a menu to reflect that island of so many disparate cultural influences. My Sicilian roots run deep and this was a theme that piqued my curiosity in a different way than the elBulli menu did. While elBulli was very specific, Sicily could mean many things. Though I have my own benchmarks for Sicilian cooking, I felt that I had to experience this cuisine through the eyes and minds of Chefs Achatz and Beran, two chefs whose skills and work ethic are beyond reproach. When I received an invitation from my friend, Ron, to join he, his wife and two others for dinner at the kitchen table for an evening that happened to work for my wife and I, we jumped at the chance.
Authenticity. How important is it? The Sicilian food at Next was probably as authentic and good as it could be outside of Sicily when prepared by cooks who are not of that culture or who have not been steeped in that culture other than for the purposes of this menu. That it was as good as it was, was a testament to their incredible cooking skills and experience and the fact that they chose to highlight this cuisine was indeed an honor for the cooking of Sicily. However, the experience did bring to mind Huang’s and Lam’s discussion. Cooking from another culture is not something easily perfected, even by the very best of cooks. It is difficult, usually taking those most proficient, years to have mastered. I don’t personally believe that a cook needs to come from a particular culture to cook from that culture, but for any cook, no matter how proficient, true mastery takes time and devotion. I enjoyed my dinner at Next. Though not necessarily mirroring the Sicilian cooking that formed my own personal benchmarks throughout the meal, the food and wine were plentiful, tasty and beautiful and the company we dined with was outstanding. I don’t believe that anyone involved undertook this or any Next menu lightly. It was well conceived and reminded me of Sicily, but trying very, very hard to replicate the experience of a Sicilian grandmother’s meal as it might have been prepared in a Sicilian grandmother’s home, it still lacked that grandmother and all the associations that go with that. I was left feeling a little bit troubled. The food was good, but, perhaps unfairly, I expected to feel transported back to Sicily, or at least to my own grandmother’s dinner table. I wasn’t. I felt like I was in contemporary Chicago eating Sicilian-inspired food prepared by some very talented cooks trying their hand at making Sicilian food. It worked on its own level, but not on the level I had hoped for – a fully immersed Sicilian culinary experience. Of course, that was not a realistic expectation, after all it was in fact, contemporary Chicago and not Sicily. Yet, for Paris 1906, I did feel transported.
The problem is that unlike Paris 1906 or elBulli, contemporary ethnic themes like Thailand, Sicily and the upcoming Kyoto beg comparison to other, possibly better and less expensive options within the United States or abroad. Perhaps, the original concept of Next – transporting diners to a particular place and time – is where this restaurant really shines brightest. It allows for their intense culinary scholarship, leaving plenty of room for their prodigious imaginations, technical proficiencies and intense creativity, which the diner could fully enjoy without too many preconceived notions. Authenticity is a laudable objective and important for those seeking it, but it is also a promise by those claiming it that may be difficult to keep. The attempt ultimately evokes comparisons and criticisms when the results don’t fully conform to a diner’s own experience of what is “authentic.” Truth is, what is “authentic” is different for different people. As Picasso and the other Cubists showed, objects look different based upon the viewer’s point of view. Ultimately, what matters is deliciousness and that too, is subject to the varying tastes of individual diners.
My photos with descriptions of the meal will be upcoming shortly.