It’s tough being top chef
By Mike Thomas Staff Reporter January 18, 2014 1:42AM
The steakhouse theme has lagged behind other ticket sales at the Grant Achatz restaurant. | Christian Seel phot
Updated: February 20, 2014 6:28AM
For the first time since it opened in Spring 2011, Chicago’s vaunted Next restaurant — frequently metamorphosing brainchild of celebrity chef Grant Achatz and former derivatives trader Nick Kokonas — this month failed to immediately sell every ticket for one of its theme menus.
That’s how Next does business, by pre-selling dining slots. But seats for its “Chicago steak” experience, more numerous than usual due to a shorter menu and offered as part of an atypically large block, are somewhat less difficult to come by than has typically been the case.
The surprising (to some) shortfall at a place so intensely scrutinized by culinary mavens and the media that Achatz’s recent tweet about a crying baby in his dining room at his Alinea restaurant in Lincoln Park made national news has prompted a fair amount of cyber murmuring. An opinion column in Crain’s Chicago Business even wondered if Next is “losing its luster.”
But Kokonas claims he’s perfectly content with sales — and that lingering tickets have been snapped up for same-day visits. Recently, a dozen $165 seats were listed on Next’s Facebook page for Thursday night spots between 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. As per an update posted six hours later, all of them were gone. In fact, Kokonas reveals, Next already has sold $3.4 million worth of tickets (which amounts to 54 seats per night) for its entire 2014 season in a day and a half last December.
Still, as Kokonas, Achatz and countless other top Chicago restaurateurs know, the only thing as hard or harder than achieving excellence in today’s fiercely competitive food scene is maintaining it. In striving to do so, Zagat.com executive editor Brian Farnham notes “great food isn’t enough.”
“Whether it’s restaurants tapping local coffee roasters to create unique custom blends, or bartenders making artisanal custom ice for their cocktails, a successful restaurant in Chicago needs to pay attention to every detail in order to create an exceptional experience,” Farnham said in an email.
Every night, Kokonas says, hundreds of people come through his collective doors “basically expecting the best meal or drink of their lives. And so it’s just like doing a theater or a concert venue or something like that — [and] things happen that don’t go well at various times.
“It’s never smooth. It’s always a struggle. And it’s always a creative struggle.”
Aside from constant pressure to perform at a high level, Kokonas says success has brought with it another potential obstacle to overcome: mediocrity. Or, put another way, the amplified inclination “to think your average ideas are great.” Perspective, therefore, is key.
“We could, in theory, roll out an Alinea in New York or Vegas or Tokyo,” says Achatz, who wouldn’t mind expanding to Shanghai or Japan. “We’ve had offers from all over the place. We could open [another] restaurant in Chicago. But it’s not compelling, it’s not exciting for us. We want to do something that is new, and we won’t open another one until we figure out what that new thing is. ... A lot of people aren’t that patient. They strike while the iron is hot and then it just kind of fades away.”
On the flip side, if a restaurant sticks around for a while (Alinea is going on nine years) and doesn’t shake things up now and then, “you become a museum piece very quickly in this day and age,” Kokonas says.
Steve Lombardo, co-owner of Gibsons Restaurant Group — which includes three locations of Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse (in Chicago, Oak Brook and Rosemont), three of Hugo’s Frog Bar (Chicago, Naperville, Des Plaines), and Luxbar and Quartino downtown — has long sweated the details. His flagship establishment, Gibsons on Rush, celebrates its 25th anniversary in May and (according to Lombardo) rakes in more than $20 million annually.
Even after a largely triumphant quarter-century, however, Lombardo seems repelled by the notion of coasting. While a beefed-up online and social media presence has aided marketing efforts, he says, there’s no substitute for patron feedback.
“If you’re a good restaurateur, you’ve got your ear to the ground and you’re listening to your customers, because ultimately they’re right,” Lombardo says.
But a lot of their regulars have died or moved away, Lombardo adds, so there’s an ongoing push to lure new ones while also keeping an eye on quality.
Disappointed with the price they were paying for subpar prime beef, Gibsons applied for and after two years obtained its own USDA designation from the U.S. government. All of the restaurant’s “heritage Angus” cows on select ranches are tagged with information about their geographical origin and genealogy, and one butcher does all of the cutting. Gibsons also shut down at the start of 2014 to install a new kitchen — the first of its existence.
“You’ve got to be willing to spend the money and keep the apple shiny,” Lombardo says.
Over at Keefer’s on West Kinzie, from which longtime executive chef John Hogan recently departed, the process of maintaining a high performance level (Keefer’s has received accolades from the Food Network, Michelin and others) after 13 years is a sometimes precarious tightrope walk.
“You can’t really fool with the core too much,” says Glenn Keefer, a co-owner with radio mogul Jimmy de Castro and others. “What you want to try to do is keep the edges of it fresh.”
Because more than ever before, he says, “savvy” customers can sense when quality is slipping. And when that happens in Chicago, there’s always another option.
“I’ve never gotten paid [just] for living another year, so you’ve got to try to stay relevant,” Keefer says. “That’s probably the hardest thing to do.”