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Next's Bocuse d'Or menu, which grew out of chef-owner Grant Achatz's involvement with the U.S. team, is, it turns out, less a reproduction of the competition than a series of riffs on French cuisine using the competition as a framework. And also as a design motif—Next brought in TVs to play the most recent competition during the meal, and in the meal's most showbizzy moment, artfully arranged platters of the fish and meat courses are paraded through the dining room as trumpets blare. (Two shows nightly.)
Dave Beran, Next's executive chef, says it's the fish and meat courses in the middle of the 15-course menu that come closest to the actual Bocuse d'Or experience. "The middle section of the menu is two fish courses and two meat courses. In the Bocuse d'Or in previous years, the chef would produce one fish platter and one meat platter which were designed to feed 14 judges," he explains.
But even the French don't serve those kinds of whole fish covered with aspic and garnished with lemons cut into roses anymore, so now in the competition the fish course is plated for each judge individually. Recognizing the artifice and anachronism of the presentation platter, Next's platters are full-on, impractical whimsy—one, which pays tribute to Chicago's Printer's Row, spells out "Bocuse d'Or" in metal type and includes a beef roulade plated on a vintage paper cutter. The actual dishes are more recognizably deconstructed (if that makes any sense; it does in Next's world), turning sauces into solids and recasting a proper Bocuse dish like smoked pheasant into a plate that looks like a knocked-over flower pot. The one remaining practice that's recognizably French is the stacking of plates—the tiniest bite might come out on four gold-rimmed plates, one on top of the other, to give it suitably Gallic pomp. That's a playful sort of luxury—as opposed to heavy use of luxury ingredients, of which Beran says, "Anyone can serve a big chunk of foie, and it's just a big chunk of foie. It's kind of more fun [to do] without."
"The menu's really written like a classic French menu, where there's a series of canapes at the beginning, and then it moves into more substantial courses, cheese, and desserts," says Beran. "What we did was, we looked at classic French dishes and flavors, and rethought their presentation. So like the salmon dish, it doesn't look like anything you'd recognize, but at the end of the day it's salmon and brown butter and lemon."
So how do the other parts of the meal relate to the Bocuse d'Or? "Well, they don't at all," Beran admits. The meal starts with a veal terrine (served, of course, in Le Creuset cookware) and then canapes, some taken from Bocuse's own recipes. Starting with the terrine was a deliberate choice to break with the usual pace of a tasting menu: "Instead of getting you moving, getting you going and dropping a bunch of things that are like little fireworks happening right away, we sit you down and want you actually to slow down and be more comfortable. It's almost like if you were going over to someone's house."
The desserts, in turn, are loosely based on the Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie, a pastry competition that runs parallel to the Bocuse d'Or, in which chefs are required to make an ice cream dessert and a plated dessert. Surprisingly, the dessert flavors turn out to be far more Illinois than Île Saint-Louis, using midwestern fall ingredients like apple, pecans, and huckleberries.
That is, Beran says, what Next's menus, whether regional (Paris 1906, Kyoto) or conceptual (Childhood, the Hunt), have always been about—the creative clash of an approach from outside with the products of our region. "I think that's something that's really become a part of what I've been doing here is trying to bring a [midwestern] point of reference," says Beran. "At Alinea our goal was, whatever it is, best in the world—let's find it and bring it in. Here we've started telling more of a story as the menus progress. Like with the kaiseki menu [Kyoto], it became almost midwestern kaiseki. What do we have that's local, and how do we bring that philosophy to what we have here? Even Vegan, it wasn't like, what kind of crazy fruits do they have in Brazil that we can show on a vegan menu, it was—what farms do we like to work with? What can we showcase? I think that's become kind of the identity of the restaurant as it separates from Alinea."
In some ways this menu is a return to the territory of the 2011 menu that launched Next as the hottest, hardest-to-get ticket in town—Paris 1906. Beran sees it as the more refined and accomplished sequel: "This menu, overall for the kitchen, is probably one of the more challenging ones, because there's so much classic and modern technique in this one. There's things set with different hydrocolloids and there's a souffle. There's no trickery to that, it's just straight-on Bocuse. There's one chef who basically spends the whole night whipping egg whites." Looking around the kitchen a few minutes after the first guests came in, as the dozen or more cooks hustle around him setting up their first courses for yet another sold-out night at what remains, after three years, one of the most in-demand restaurants in the world, Beran shrugs and says: "Hey, it keeps these guys on their toes."
Tomorrow: Go inside the kitchen at Next with a course-by-course slide show.
Next, 953 W. Fulton, 312-226-0858, nextrestaurant.com