Behind the Business of Grant Achatz’s Next Restaurant

PAIR OF ACES: Grant Achatz has assumed the mantle of Chicago’s hottest celebrity chef. But Nick Kokonas—the money guy behind the scenes—may be his equal in innovative thinking

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Alinea cookbook
The 396-page, six-pound cookbook
The Aviary, the cocktail lounge next door to Next, is another example of reinventing something that isn’t nearly as good as it could be. The concept is a restaurant for drinks—not because Achatz wants to turn booze into food (although he might do that) but because the highly organized kitchen system is probably a better way to make complicated things, such as artisanal cocktails, on demand. “I love The Violet Hour, love The Drawing Room,” says Kokonas, referring to two local bars that lead the hand-crafted-cocktail trend. “But you have bartenders, who are incredible artisans, having to handle 200 people. They have to cut their limes and make the drink and taste the drink and wash the shaker and wash the glasses—and it doesn’t work!”

The Aviary’s chefs, by contrast, aren’t even out on the floor of the bar but rather are cloistered behind a scrim, where each will focus on making only five or so of the menu’s complicated drinks. The goal is precision and speed, supported by an environment that doesn’t swing wildly from dead as a doornail to four deep at the bar. “The whole reason I know we’ll be full consistently is because we’re not packing people in,” says Kokonas. “Once people go there, they’re going to say, ‘Wow, this is a different, better experience.’” Located in the former Fulton Lounge space, which had a legal capacity of 299 people, The Aviary may indeed feel like a monastery by comparison, with its strict maximum seating for 72 and standing room for 14. The bar does not take reservations and, in the event of a waiting list, sends text messages to customers when tables open. Serving a couple dozen original cocktails, a few seasonal classics (a sidecar in the spring; a Jack Rose—we had to Google it—in the winter), and Alinea-like finger food, the lounge seems destined to become a play land for the geek drinker.

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Annotated dish from Next
AN ANNOTATED DISH »

David Beran’s work-in-progress hors d’oeuvres selection

A LOOK AT THE AVIARY »
A high-concept lounge next door to Next

Achatz and Craig Schoettler, The Aviary’s 24-year-old executive chef and yet another baby-faced impresario, have paid special attention to the standing area so that the customers there don’t feel like second-class citizens. “We want the people sitting to be jealous of the people standing,” says Schoettler. Standees might be regaled with a “sod” course—food and drink presented on a section of actual grass. What this is meant to evoke is not entirely clear. Golfing? Attending Lollapalooza? Chores? On the other hand, who else in the history of drinking joints has given even a moment’s thought to the unlucky blokes who can’t get a seat?

Kokonas thinks all of the above is fairly “awesome”—but he loves to talk about the cookbook. In 2006, he and Martin Kastner, the Czech metalsmith who designs special serving pieces for Achatz and Kokonas’s restaurants, began researching cookbooks and were disheartened to discover that even some of the best were dominated by pages and pages of recipes with no pictures. They realized, by cracking apart the spines, how publishers were saving money: The large, beautiful color photographs were strategically placed so they could be printed together in sections, and there weren’t many of them. Curious to know the true cost of printing, Kokonas called around and found out that even the most lush cookbooks could be made, overseas, for as little as $3 each. “So when they offer you $200,000 for a book and they tell you, ‘Well, our production cost will far exceed your advance, so you’ll have to give it all back,’ it no longer looks like a deal,” he says.

So Achatz and Kokonas self-published Alinea—in the end, a 396-page, six-pound coffee-table crusher with full-color photography on nearly every page—and did it for just $9 a book, including the dust jacket and shipping. They have sold 65,000 copies, some at wholesale and some through Alinea’s website for $31.50. “I would compare it to Charlie Trotter’s big $50 cookbooks,” remarks Aaron Wehner, the publisher of Ten Speed Press, which managed Alinea’s production and distribution in an unusual deal for a cut of the wholesale gross. According to him, Achatz’s cookbook will soon surpass Trotter’s best-selling original, published, also by Ten Speed, in the mid-1990s. “I was told by two major cookbook publishers that there [was] no shot [we’d] sell more than 5,000 of these,” Kokonas recalls. “We sold 5,000 before we went to print.”

Perhaps even better than Achatz, Kokonas understands that the dining experience they’re peddling is a rarefied, high-end product—“Nobody has to eat this way,” he likes to say—and that restaurant ventures are fraught with risk. He is also fully aware that the business owes its mojo, a fragile commodity in any market, to the prolific genius of Achatz, who has emerged, postcancer, as an articulate and accessible celebrity chef; the chef is also extremely mindful of not allowing the food or the brand to devolve into gimmickry. And, although generally low-key and affable, Kokonas does have his moments of pugnacity. “Someone wrote on Facebook that they think it’s discriminatory that we’re not going to offer a vegetarian Paris 1906 menu, and I say, no, I’m not discriminating against anyone. Anyone can come to my restaurant; you just have to eat what we serve,” he says, noting that common food allergies are accommodated. “My default is always, like, I think what we’re going to do is going to be pretty extraordinary for the money. If you don’t want to come, don’t come. It’s not arrogant. It’s just what we do.”

 

Photograph: Blackbox Studios

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