Chef Dave Beran rose up the revered ranks at Chicago's Alinea, one of only a dozen or so U.S. restaurants with three Michelin stars, and then rose to fame as the Executive Chef at the Alinea-affiliated Next. From its 2011 open through 2016, Beran oversaw Next's themed tasting menus like Paris 1906, elBulli, Bocuse d'Or and The Hunt, during which time he earned a James Beard Award and Food & Wine's Best New Chefs honors. He left the prized position at Next, however, to open his own concept: an 18-seat test kitchen called Dialogue. In late 2017, his concept came to life. Chef Beran opened Dialogue in Santa Monica, California with a Japanese-style kaiseki tasting menu that will change each season. Beran spoke with PRØHBTD about culinary storytelling, fermented persimmon, burnt onion ponzu and why he can't drive 55.
The menu is represented in Japanese kaiseki style. What does that mean?
Kaiseki is one of the original tasting menus. If you look at tasting-menu style, you either have French banquet cuisine, which evolves under a tasting menu, or you have kaiseki. In monasteries, the monks would have matcha tea before meditation because it supposedly keeps your mind focused and stable. Matcha can get very bitter and upset the stomach, so they would need some food in their stomachs, and the monks would eat rice, miso soup and pickles before having the matcha. Well, monks start going back and forth to each other's monasteries, and I'm going to screw this part up a little bit, but essentially egos kicked in, and people started making the menus more elaborate. It became more than just rice and pickles. All kaiseki would have that component, but then they started adding on to the beginning.
There are all of these rules with kaiseki, which we are not really adhering to, but one of the rules, and the inspiration, is to move you through time because meditation leads to forward progress. An early part of the menu would look back towards the previous season with the middle focusing on the current, and the end of the menu nods toward the next season. In our case, the [current] menu goes in three waves. The early part reflects back on spring, the middle focuses on summer, and the end looks towards autumn.
When we start to change the menu, we're going to move summer to the beginning, autumn will be the focal point, and we'll hint toward winter at the end. We'll treat the calendar as a linear time frame with three- or four-month blocks that slide and touch on the seasons around it. That's where the kaiseki inspiration comes from: We touch on three seasons with more than 50 percent of the menu focusing on the current season and the two ends looking forward and backward.
You first did a kaiseki-style menu at Next, correct?
Yes, that was the first menu we did at Next where I felt I was starting to identify my own cuisine and depart from what I'd been doing at Alinea. Kaiseki leading into The Hunt and leading into Vegan were the three menus that, for me, I identified with the most.
There's a chef up in Northern California, Kyle Connaughton, who has this restaurant called SingleThread Farms. It's worth looking up. He was the chef of Michel Bras TOYA Japon and the head research chef for Fat Duck. He's doing a Japanese kaiseki restaurant in wine country, and he helped me. When we started working on this menu, I needed a framework. At one point, I was just talking to him about menu structure, and it hit me: "I'm in L.A. I can get strawberries year round." I don't think there's anywhere else in the country where you could get amazing strawberries year round from a farmer, so why don't we do that. Embrace the seasons and say, "This is a look back, but we can still use something that's fresh now."
What storytelling elements do you weave into the coursing?
The framework of the menu itself—with the format moving through the seasons—draws the courses together in one congruent story. Additionally, we applied that philosophy to each course with something looking forward to the next course and looking back to the previous. With most tasting menus, all courses have their own identities. It's like a pop album. You have a bunch of courses put together that all work together, but they don't identify with each other. We went the other way and treated it more like a book. You would never remove one chapter without changing the others.
I love telling stories, and a lot of the dishes have personal stories, but they're also stories for you to find a connection. For example, we have a block of courses with roses. We'll often tell the story of my grandfather's rose garden. Every summer I would visit him, and he would plant roses for me, and we would pick them together. We tell this story about my grandfather and the roses, not because I want you to care about my grandfather, but I want you to look at your dining companion and talk about your grandfather. I want you to find your own personal connection.
Tell me about the vinegars and fermentations and some of the creative ways you use them.
I moved here a year and a half ago, and I didn't have a job because I came to open a restaurant. [It took a long time to lock down the space so] I hit a point where I talked to my business partners and said, "I need to do something." When you don't have a restaurant, you're not really in the mindset to create the dishes. I didn't just want to start putting food on plates and see what it's like, so I had all this time on my hands. They're like, "Well, what can you do now that could benefit the restaurant in the future?"
I looked at all the things I hadn't done because I didn't have time. The big one that kept coming up was, "I'm not going to waste anything. If I ferment it, or I age it, or I turn it into a vinegar…." You need a lot of time to do this, and it was the first point in my career where time was at my disposal. We built this whole program, and I just started experimenting. We ended up with about 60 different vinegars and a dozen barrel-aged items. For example, my friend's an apple farmer in Michigan, and he sent me 40 pounds of apples that we buried in miso for a year.
Looking at the dishes, we didn't want to be known as a fermentation restaurant because it's so trendy and kitschy, but we now have things at our disposal that nobody else has. We just started slowly plugging those things into the dishes where they're applicable. This project to keep me occupied evolved into a real staple in the food we're producing and that provides a lot of depth that we never had before.
What would be one of your favorites, and how are you using it?
Last summer, [Osteria Mozza and Chi Spacca chef] Nancy Silverton let me order some produce from her restaurant because buying produce from Whole Foods costs a fortune. I bought 100 pounds of sweet onions, fired up the weather grill in my back patio and burned 100 pounds of onions. Then we made stock out of the burnt onions. I ended up with four gallons of burnt onion syrup and barrel-aged it. Eleven months later, we took this burnt onion syrup out of the barrel, and it's phenomenal. We just add some sudachi juice, and it became a burnt onion ponzu for our beef dish. The whole premise behind the beef dish is that everything is burnt. It's a farewell-to-summer dish because what do you do on Labor Day? You grill out.
How often will you change the tasting menu?
The first changes will start to happen in about eight weeks. Some things may happen sooner, but I'm looking to switch the whole menu so the summer flavors move to the start and autumn becomes the focal point. We're trying to develop the autumn menu right now. We just bought 60 pounds of fresh dates, and they're fermenting in a burnt corn husk tea for a fresh date, corn husk and walnut dish. I have maple syrup vinegar that's been barrel-aging for six months. I have last year's persimmon fermenting as a sambal. We're definitely going to do a raw fish and persimmon dish.
Those three things are definitely slated for the upcoming menu. I want four complete changes a year because, if we're going to say our menu's representative of seasons, we should adhere to that. We're going to shut down for three or four days, put in the new menu, do a couple practice runs and then reopen, not unlike what we did with Next. I don't know that I could find a better way to switch a menu and reset your identity than doing something like that.
I read that you like fast cars. What's the fastest you've driven, and what car were you driving?
On a track I've had a McLaren 650S up to 180 miles an hour. I have good friends in Chicago that I've known since college, and their family owns one of the oldest Ferrari dealerships in the country. They've been incredibly helpful in my career and personal life. When I was leaving Next, I didn't have an income. They created this dinner series with Ferrari, and it supplemented my income so I could quit and start working on this project. They're incredible people all around.
I'm also very fortunate that they like food and I like cars. They sent me to this Ferrari rally in Florida and shipped me a Ferrari to drive for five days. They used to sell McLarens as well, so I would get McLarens randomly at the restaurant, or they would give me a Ferrari for a week. James Beard weekend, I had a Ferrari the whole time for two years in a row. I get a lot of cool cars from them, which is great because what I can afford is definitely not a Ferrari. I've owned cool cars, but they're certainly not that. They feed the need for me to drive something fun.