I know Thanksgiving only comes once a year. I know it’s always on the fourth Thursday of November, and it involves a turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and cranberry sauce (though in my house it’s a roast duck and assorted dishes of Chinese comfort food). I know it’s spent—for better or for worse—with our families.
This week many of us will be going home for Thanksgiving. The best part about the holiday season is that each year you bring back not only your ugly sweaters and awkward college stories, but also your memories of past Thanksgivings, each with its own funny and touching moments. And those memories can’t really be recreated, merely touched upon.
But this last Wednesday night, I had a revelatory experience that transported me briefly back to 1999, when I had my first hot lunch in an elementary school cafeteria; when I first began to try all this funny “American” food; when I first asked my parents why we didn’t have a fat turkey or pumpkin pie sitting atop our Thanksgiving table; and when they then attempted to make those American classics for me, with varying degrees of success. This blast from the past came from a 10-course meal at a restaurant called, ironically, Next.
Next is the second Chicago restaurant opened by renowned chef Grant Achatz, and the name comes from the concept behind the restaurant: Four times a year, the prix fixe menu changes to a different theme; the idea is, you never know what’s coming “next”. This season’s theme? Childhood—specifically, the childhood produced by a particularly Midwestern upbringing. Perfect for the lifelong Chicagoan.
There’s a long story behind how I happened upon a golden ticket to Next, but I’ll sum it up by saying: I’m very, very lucky. So this past Wednesday afternoon, I somehow found myself rushing back to my dorm after class, throwing on the nicest dress I could find, and squeezing into the back of my friend’s decrepit ‘98 Jetta to make a 5:30 reservation at one of the best restaurants in the nation.
Half an hour later, my three companions and I had settled into our seats in the dimly lit interior of the restaurant. We tried to hide our giddy excitement at breathing in such rarefied air with our collegiate nonchalance, but I think we betrayed ourselves by toasting each other ten times throughout the night, perpetually in disbelief at really being here. (In retrospect, it must have been pretty amusing for the servers. Luckily, we were blissfully unaware.)
For our first course, we were each presented with a gift wrapped in brown paper, with “next” printed in the center. We opened the gift: PB&J. But it wasn’t the goopy, often downright gross PB&J of my childhood: it was a tempura-battered puff of the creamiest, most delicious peanut butter and jelly I had ever tasted, and we found ourselves asking (as we would again and again): “How do they make it taste like that?”
I would go through every single course with painstaking detail, but that’d require thousands of words, so as it is, I’ll just mention my favorites of the night.
The third course was fish and chips, which featured a fishing scene: There was a balsamic vinegar girl drawn in a child’s hand, a fried-potato “net,” a perfectly (in the incredulous words of my East coast friend: “I’m from the coast and I’ve never had fish so well done!”) cooked filet of walleye, a Meyer lemon sun, tartar “sea foam,” cucumber salad waves, and a shore of beer-batter crumbs with strings of roe “seaweed.” The right approach was to play along: I swirled a little bit of everything onto my fork and imagined my way into the scene. And that wasn’t even the most creative dish of the night.
I’d give that award to the sixth course, which tasted like the greatest Big Mac you could possibly imagine, but deconstructed in a way that blew all of our minds.
The “patty,” sitting atop a thin, sweet slice of tomato, was a cut of the tenderest short rib I’ve ever tasted—it literally melted in my mouth. The “buns” were somehow recreated in mysterious squares of sauce on the bottom of the plate, along with homemade ketchup and barbeque sauce, slivers of lettuce and pickles, and just a touch of coarse mustard on the side.
And while that was great, the course directly preceding it—number five—really blew me away. It tasted—and even smelled—like Thanksgiving. Apologies to my companions (who couldn’t get over the hamburger), but “Autumn Scene” was the real star here. Described to us as “a walk through a Michigan forest,” the dish was served on a rectangular sheet of glass fogged up by the smoke from apples, chestnuts, and hay burning below in a hollowed half of a log. These scents mingled cozily with the flavors of crisp greens, wild mushrooms, cheese, a single carrot, and what seemed to be Thanksgiving stuffing. Woody, salty, creamy—it was a flawless marriage of textures and flavors. I would’ve been deliriously happy with 10 courses of this exact dish.
At the end of the night, we were each given a menu with a personal message from Achatz and chef Dave Beran. In a food-induced stupor, I read: “Wonder. Excitement. The feeling of the world unfolding before you in unexpected ways. Discovery. And even fear of the unknown and the future. There is a nostalgia we all carry for childhood innocence and naïveté As we grow older, too often we lose the sense that our lives are magical…We hope to take these memories and these foods and bring them back to you, restoring a bit of the magic and the wonder along the way.”
I couldn’t help but break out into a wide, childish grin. There was an undeniable touch of magic to the evening. It wasn’t exactly Thanksgiving, nor was it 1999—but it’s the closest I’ll ever get on a chilly night in autumn quarter, with a few college pals, miles away from home.