What’s Next for Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas

Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas

Renowned culinary team Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas launch another resto after putting Chicago’s Alinea on the map

Nick Kokonas was a successful stock-market trader in the windy city when a meal at one of his favourite restaurants — Trio in Illinois — changed his destiny.

The trader was so impressed with the chef, Grant Achatz, that he instinctively knew someone would create a restaurant to showcase the culinary talent; little did he know he’d be that person. But, when the trader’s securities firm merged with another, the wealthy thirty-something sought out Achatz and offered him a partnership. Together they started a new dining venture called Alinea, which has since earned three Michelin stars, a recognition achieved by only 93 restaurants around the world.

Launched as an upmarket spot boasting a tasting menu, it quickly became known as a pricey establishment with dinner for two — with what it describes as “wine pairings” — ringing in at $500. The restaurant is so popular would-be diners often make reservations weeks in advance. So, after constantly listening to staff tell potential diners: “Sorry, we are fully booked for that particular date,” Kokonas began to think about opening a new restaurant with a twist.

The entrepreneur sat down with Achatz and, after months of planning, they finalized a concept for an unusual dining experience named Next. The new place opened in May, offering a unique restaurant without a reservation telephone line and with a menu that explores cuisine from around the world, changing every three months. The kicker? Customers pay upfront, sometimes weeks in advance.

To make a reservation, potential diners visit nextrestaurant.com, reserve a date and charge the meal to their credit cards. The non-refundable printable ticket provided upon purchase includes food, beverage, an 18-per-cent service charge and relevant state and local taxes. The cost of dinner varies depending on the day and time. For example, a table booking for an early meal on a Wednesday will cost less than prime time on a Saturday evening. Since the base dinner price runs from $65 to $110 (plus wine pairings at $48) an inclusive dinner for two could potentially cost $350.

Critics argue the non-refundable feature could eventually lead to the selling and bartering of tickets as plans change and dinner reservations are foiled. “We are very interested in seeing if such a secondary market develops,” said Kokonos, who claims the online ticketing system determines food purchases and fed into the decision to hire a brigade of full-time staff, rather than a mix of full-time and part-time workers.

The ambitious reservations system requires two full-time programmers to develop it; eventually the plan is to morph it into a separate company that challenges Open Table, the restaurant software giant.

On the outside, Next, which is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday (5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.), looks like any other restaurant. Inside, a smiling hostess waits in a short corridor, greets diners and collects printed tickets. The restaurant area is fairly narrow and neutral in colour with brown-padded seating along with similar coloured flooring panels and white tablecloths. A vaulted ceiling — reminiscent of Victorian train terminals — features curved track-like metal beams that evoke the feeling of travel.

Next’s debut menu paid homage to the early 20th century, a time when the iconic chef Auguste Escoffier worked at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. It featured French haute cuisine from the toque’s 1903 cookbook, Le Guide Culinaire.

Back at the table, the show begins with diners choosing their meal from a “Playbill,” before a server and food presenter introduce the eight-course dinner, foregoing monologues before courses in favour of creating a warm and fun experience. Questions are encouraged as the wait staff undergo several weeks of intensive training culminating with a 100-question exam.

In the first three months of operation Next customers enjoyed multi-course meals, featuring classic French dishes such as turtle consommé with Madeira; eggs Benedictine; a crayfish mousse in a golden broth of sauce Normandie; poached leeks; wrapped fillet of sole; lightly salted cod mixed with potatoes and a thyme-and-garlic- scented cream topped with black truffle shavings. Seating for the second menu, dubbed ‘A Taste of Thailand,’ sold out the day tickets went on sale. So one question remains: what’s next?

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