Dave Beran is one of America’s most accomplished chefs, a 2014 Food & Wine Best New Chef awardee and a man who continues to rack up national accolades. The upstate New York native entered America’s culinary consciousness while working for cutting-edge Chicago hitmakers Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas at Alinea and Next. Since landing in Los Angeles, Beran launched Dialogue Restaurant, a long-term Santa Monica pop-up in search of a permanent home that’s part of Eater’s 18 Best New Restaurants in America and GQ’s Best New Restaurants in America, 2018. He’s also got a French restaurant in the works. Despite all of this success, Beran had no intentions of cooking for a living.
He attended Lake Forest College near Chicago on a hockey scholarship, earning a Business degree in the process, and planned to be a stock trader. The course of his life changed considerably when his father, who taught hotel and restaurant management at Syracuse University, visited town. He brought his son to the National Restaurant Association Show by day and to trendy restaurants like mk at night. I recently interviewed Beran at Dialogue, and we pick up his thoughtful story from the summer before his junior year of college.
Dave Beran: That summer we found out that my grandma was really sick. She had pancreatic cancer. I went with my dad to northern Michigan and lived with her for the summer while he and my uncle traded off visiting her. I got a summer job at a restaurant called Latitude, which was one of the better restaurants up there. That and Tapawingo, where Stuart [Brioza] from State Bird Provisions was the chef at the time, were really the two best. That summer, I fell in love with [cooking]…It shared everything I loved about art and athletics. At that point I decided that I should go to culinary school after college. The next summer I got a job as a personal chef for a family and kind of wasted a summer. I got back to school and started applying to culinary schools. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford it.
After I graduated college, I moved downtown and applied to probably 20 restaurants. Eventually, I got a job at mk, which is that first restaurant I really fell in love with. For the first six months, I made French fries…It was 2003. After six months of going out drinking every night with the cooks, lacking focus, and just not really putting in effort, I kind of reassessed my life and calmed down, quit getting crazy and worked. The next year I ran through all the stations and was offered a job as sous chef…I didn’t quit immediately, but I realized that if you can’t be a sous chef anywhere, you shouldn’t be one somewhere. I wasn’t ready to be a sous chef, so I started looking elsewhere.
At that time (early 2005) Tru and Trotter were battling for best restaurant in Chicago, and Alinea was about to open. I applied to all three. It was my second time applying for a job with Achatz. I never heard back. I hadn’t heard back from Trio either. Tru was the only restaurant that responded to my resume. I staged and was offered a job at Tru, which was awesome…I don’t think I could name a single dish other than old Tru staples like the fighting fish bowl or caviar staircase, but it was probably the most immersive crash course in learning how to cook at a higher level. My chef de cuisine was from Ducasse. I don’t know why, but he liked me. Every six weeks, he would put me on a new station and work with me for two weeks. When I was cooking fish, he’d stand next to me and cook fish. I would basically say things like, “If we were at Ducasse, what would you have done?” It went from having pre-cut portions that we were cooking sous vide to having whole sides of fish and breaking it down to order. Every fish went into its own pan and we wouldn’t use the oven because at Ducasse, it was all wet heat, not dry heat. Everything was basted with different compound butters. It was the ultimate year of, “This is how you cook things properly.”
Joshua Lurie: Who was this chef?
DB: Joel Dennis. He’s somewhere in New York now…We lost touch after I left Tru. Tru was the real deal. They offered me the potential of becoming sous chef. Joel and I talked about it, [Joel] looked at me and said, “You don’t want to be here. I’m going to be leaving. It’s not going to become the restaurant you want it to be.” He helped me line up stages at The French Laundry and Joel Robuchon, saying “Those are the places that you should be.” I was all lined up, had plane tickets, was all ready to go., At the last minute, about three weeks before my first stage, I threw a hail Mary e-mail to Alinea thinking if I leave Chicago, I’m never going back. I had to try one more time. I got a response, a stage, and got the job. I cancelled my other stages, wasn’t interested anymore.
JL: What was that first job at Alinea?
DB: I started at Alinea as a food runner because that was the waiting line for the kitchen. If you wanted to work in the kitchen, you had to be a food runner. I ran food for eight weeks before someone quit and I was given the opportunity to go in the kitchen. I cooked a station for six months, tournade for six months, sous chef for a year and a half, and then chef de cuisine.
JL: What are some of the most valuable lessons that you learned from Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas about being a chef, restaurateur, and leader?
DB: From Achatz, it’s the push. When I first started there, cooks weren’t allowed to come into the kitchen before noon. The door was locked, you waited outside until it was time. He wanted us to push. if you gave someone four hours to prep, they would finish their prep in four. If you gave them five, they would finish the same amount of prep in five. He was like, “That’s it. You walk in at noon and push the whole time. You don’t stand around, you don’t have time to goof off and chat, you push. You’d walk through that door and you had to be ready to work…” and after service, at the end of the night, you would be finishing the breakdown and he’d pull out a cutting board and get right back to working on new dishes. The first year and a half of working with him, I don’t think I talked to him more than twice. He didn’t talk to anyone. He just worked. We would watch him work, hoping that we could survive the day and eventually get to the point where we had more time to observe.
JL: That rule didn’t apply to him, then, as far as setting boundaries.
DB: No, [Grant Achatz] lived there. His boundary was not to fail. He was always there. Always editing, testing, changing things. His voice is always in the back of my head now. Whenever we create a dish, it’s about the self-editing. You hear that little voice pushing you, “Is this enough? What else does this need? What’s the point of it? Why is that there? What’s the purpose?” That has always resonated. In meetings, he would say, “Why are we doing this?” It really taught you to question everything you’re doing. Think about things in a different perspective.
JL: What about Nick [Kokonas]? What did he teach you?
DB: Nick’s nuts, but brilliant. I think that he had some pretty incredible ideas on how to maximize within a group, how to think differently about operations within a restaurant. The ticket system [Tock] is one of the most brilliant things he’s ever done. It allows small restaurants , like ours, to maximize without having much at our disposal. We’re an 18-seat restaurant. We have no buying power. He had ideas that were so outside the box for restaurants that it changed the operations, allowed us to take things further than we thought we could. From both of them, there’s always been that mentality – “You can always do more than you think you can.” They pushed people to step up, to take control. They asked a lot but gave you to opportunity to run with it.
JL: That clearly happened for you at Next.
DB: Yeah, “Here you go, here’s a restaurant.”
JL: What was the most challenging menu you created for Next, and what made that particular theme so difficult? Was it sourcing ingredients, unfamiliarity with that cuisine’s techniques, or other factors?
DB: There were probably two most challenging menus at Next. The first one being the least successful, in my mind. The steakhouse menu was challenging because I feel at that point I was just hitting my stride, starting to feel like “My cuisine is becoming X.” I had five menus before this where I had total freedom, and they were all starting to fall in to having a similar style. Not similar cuisine-wise, but similar in how they progressed, how there was a storyline, and they were all 16-course tasting menus. All of a sudden, and rightfully so on Nick’s behalf, they wanted to change the direction of the new menu at next. Next was becoming too consistent. Not consistent as far as quality food – it should always be that level – but too consistent as far as, “This is a 16-course tasting menu that everybody expects, for the same price.”
DB: Yeah. The whole premise of Next is we’re going to be totally different every four months. Their idea of doing a steakhouse menu, in Nick’s mind, was – “What if you did four courses, then end with fish or meat?” Which is exactly what a steakhouse is. My idea of a steakhouse menu was, “I want to do a long tasting menu and we’ll do a progression of steakhouse-style dishes” – which is not a steakhouse at all. Somewhere in the middle, we ended up with this confused menu that was around seven courses that ended with steak and tableside salad. The thing about steakhouses, if you and I go, you like one cut of meat, and I like another cut of meat. We like different temperatures. Maybe I want asparagus and you want the frites. The whole premise behind the steakhouse is that people have opinions. Ours turned into this seven-course very specific tasting menu in the style of [a steakhouse]. In retrospect, probably my fault than anyone’s, it was not true to the philosophy of a steakhouse. It was more me fighting for what I wanted to do, so it was incredibly challenging in a lot of ways.
JL: You got what you wanted, but regret it now?
DB: I don’t regret it, but I realize that I was fighting against what the restaurant was supposed to be. I kind of got half of what I wanted, and they got half of what they wanted. When anybody only gets half of what they want, no one’s really getting what they want. That was the hardest menu.
JL: What was the other Next menu that was especially challenging?
DB: The vegan menu at Next was equally challenging in the opposite direction. In my mind, it was probably the most successful from just being a huge departure from everything we’d done. It was a 27-course, entirely vegan menu that had no pasta, no rice, no fillers. It only used tofu once as an emulsifier; no one ever knew there was even tofu on the menu. It had seitan, but we called it seitan; it wasn’t fake meat. It had tempeh, but we made both of those in-house and called them what they were. It was a very cool menu that was so true to, “We’re going to tell you a story through an entire menu” that really utilized every skill set we’d ever learned, including things Achatz learned at The French Laundry, techniques I had learned from Tru; it went from classic French to modern Alinea, all with entirely vegan ingredients. That was just a really cool learning experience, and to have it sold out every night in a city that’s known for great meat and potatoes – even the most avant garde restaurants at the time were still serving, in my mind, that Chicago genre of food. You have a restaurant full of diners who are believing in the restaurant, trusting it. The menu right before it was The Hunt, which was all meat focused, now the same people are coming in and liking a vegan menu just as much. It was obviously difficult because we were learning to satiate cravings without all the things you know you can satiate cravings with.
JL: I’m sure that helps you now though at Dialogue.
DB: Oh yeah. 1/3 of our menu right now is vegan.
JL: It’s especially well suited to Los Angeles and California.
DB: Honestly, that menu really redefined how I thought about food. The big analogy was always the chicken wing. When I grew up in upstate New York, I loved Buffalo wings. Our state hockey championship was in Buffalo every year and we’d go to Anchor Bar [the restaurant credited with first serving Buffalo wings]. That was a tradition. If you and I are talking about the Buffalo wing, maybe you like a two-bone wing. Maybe you like a one-bone wing. Maybe you like crispy skin. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re a dipper. Do you dip your wings in blue cheese? If you’re a two-bone person, do you take all the meat off, or do you separate the bones first. All of these things go into the Buffalo wing. There’s ceremony, there’s ritual, there’s routine behind it. That really led to the philosophy: what about this bite makes you satisfied? How can you now apply that philosophy to any course, where it’s not the protein that’s the focal point, and ingredients complement it, but instead it’s the dynamic of everything on the plate trying to achieve one thing.
JL: With that lesson in mind, and also the lesson you were talking about with Grant, the editing and the thoughtfulness – what’s the purpose? – tell me about the most recent dish you created for Dialogue. What was your approach?
DB: It’s not so much for us about individual dishes as the entire structure of the menu. We really wanted to depart from what you experience in a typical tasting menu. Most tasting menus, at least in the French style, have a premise around a progression that typically matches a wine progression. If you think about an old tasting menu, you typically have champagne, light whites moving into heavier whites, probably a red in there, and something sweeter at the end. The food kind of mirrors that; it’s lighter into heavier and richer. Somewhere along the line, there might be a palate cleanser or a break, but ultimately you move into dessert.
At any given point, you’ll change dishes. Like morels are gone. We have something else, so we need to change the morel dish. That’s course #9 on our tasting menu. We start working on something. Spring is ending, summer is starting, so our first summer dish goes on the menu. Every dish has its own singular identity and there’s an order to it.
If you think about a really great album – in a time when musicians were composing complete albums, before shuffle, before playlists, before you could pick one track – you had complete thoughts. Albums that were constructed to be played straight through, in order. In a great album song 4 is better because of songs 3 and 5. We wanted to write a menu that had everything support the things around it. In my mind, course 5 can’t be course 6, can’t be course 4. It’s better because the course before it sets it up and the course after it completes it.
What we did, every course on our menu relates to the things around it. A carry-over ingredient, so something in course 3 is in course 4. Something in course 4 is in course 5. There are stories behind each dish, but no dish is really its own singular identity. We have one dish on the menu now where if we gave it to you and you just ate it, it might be a little underwhelming. It’s a sphere of strawberry puree with black pepper and olive oil, topped with fennel pollen. Eat it, and it’s delicious. It’s liquid filled and pops in your mouth. But that’s just where it ends. In the progression of the menu, it takes you out of spring and into summer, it sets you up for the first main course of the new season, which has burnt strawberry with caviar and melted leeks, strawberry bubbles that are inflated with smoke instead of air – so when it pops you get a little burst of smoke. The strawberry sphere is needed to get you from our Earl Grey tea spring dessert to the savory summer caviar course. The progression is greater than the parts.
JL: So context.
DB: Everything on our menu is about context, structure and forward progress. We have cool dishes like the oyster leaf dish, which is the first course on our menu, like an amuse. The first course is premised around oysters on the half-shell. Sometimes you’ll just say, “I’ll start with oysters, then I’ll figure out what I want to do.” We wanted to do a vegetable focused version, inspired by the first sprout peeking out of the ground after snow. All of spring is centered around leaves and flowers. Summer moves into fruit. Autumn moves into roots, seeds, and nuts. Oyster leaf is in season right now and we treat it like an oyster. We have frozen mignonette with ice. We mix ice with a gel mignonette and lychee, because it has the same mouth feel as an oyster. And then rice yogurt, which is completely vegan, just cultured rice milk that we’ve thickened. As far the sensation’s concerned, it’s like you’re eating an oyster. It has the brininess, but also has the aesthetic of the start of spring.
DB: The whole premise was to set the stage with something familiar that you would normally start the meal with anyway, but a complete departure from what you’d expect. A lot of our food does that. We play the game of risk, reward, and challenge the guest and then comfort them afterwards. Also, we throw in a dessert at course 8 of 20 because we want to get your attention again. Course 11 doesn’t have any utensils because we want you to use your fingers to wake you back up. There’s spice in our tasting menus. There’s a lot of spice in the early courses, which you don’t normally find, but it’s all about keeping your attention, “It’s two and a half hours. We don’t want to lose you.” How often have you had a menu and forget what the middle course is?
JL: Is the menu always set at 20 courses?
DB: It’s set at two-and-a-half hours. We’ve gone from 19-21 courses depending on the menu. Our goal is really to keep you entertained for two-and-a-half hours and let you go, which is a ballpark. You might eat in two-and-a-half hours and I might eat in three. The general average is that most people finish the menu in two-and-a-half or 2:45, depending on whether they have wine or not. We don’t have other experiences other than this room. It’s not like you can start your meal with cocktails there and after your meal, you can sit back out there. This is the meal.
JL: You host two seatings per night?
DB: Two seatings, and because of that, two-and-a-half hours of food time is ideal.
JL: How do you define innovation in cooking at this stage?
DB: Anytime you take something that’s known and reapply it through a different set of eyes and a different philosophy, to some extent, you’re innovating. You’ve changed the perspective on it.
We have these white chocolate noodles on the menu right now. It’s a super old technique. Honestly, it’s just tempered chocolate piped in ice water. Albert Adria did it for Natura in like 2005. It’s not new, but if you show somebody who’s never seen this technique – I did it for the first time in 2007 – and you show someone now, 11 years later, and their mind is blown. Then they say, “Can you do X with it?” And it’s something that I’ve never thought of. I only know it in one set of parameters. Reapplying their vision to it adds to innovation. It changes the perspective of what you already knew.
JL: The original application is the invention?
DB: Whoever figured out how to temper chocolate invented that, and then anything from that perspective is an innovation. It’s rare to invent something new, that has never been done.
JL: Have you ever invented anything?
DB: I’d like to think so. One time I invented chocolate mousse. At Alinea, when I was in pastry – this is the dumbest story – but this little kid was eating. He just wanted chocolate for dessert, so I’m melting chocolate and whipping egg whites. I mix them together and was like, “This is the most incredible texture for chocolate.” I have no formal pastry training. All my pastry comes from just being thrown on stations – before I was chef de cuisine at Alinea, I was overseeing pastry. All of my first dishes at Alinea were all off the pastry side. So I bring this deli cup of chocolaty, foamy, luxurious stuff to Achatz and said, “This is the most incredible chocolate texture. You have to see it. So I’m going through the process. He says, “You made chocolate mousse.” Like could have been out of the book. So invention’s tricky, because if you’re not aware of everything that’s going on, then you’re inventing things that have been invented for years.
Certainly things like our smoked bubbles, I’ve never seen those before. I’ve never seen anybody inflate bubbles with things other than air. – do you know the Mugaritz chocolate bubbles? – they’re super famous. They are chocolate bubbles that look like milk bubbles. We did ours with strawberry juice, which we didn’t invent at all. The only innovation is that it’s with strawberry juice instead of chocolate. It’s cool for us, and the way we used it at the time was innovative, but the bubble itself was not. We just changed the flavor. Then we did it with raspberry, and the innovation there was not in the dish, but the menu we used it on was Summer/Autumn/Winter. Summer opened with strawberries. The next menu we did it on was Winter/Spring/Summer and we ended with the bubbles. The previously menu started with strawberry bubbles and ended with raspberry bubbles. Basically, the goal was for the two menus to mirror each other. There’s innovation in the thought process and the way we used it, but the bubbles themselves, nothing.
This menu, we’re inflating the bubbles with smoke. For me, that’s kind of innovative because it was the first time I’ve used something like that to control the release of an aroma. The innovation again is not in the bubbles, it’s that we’re inflating them with smoke. Even though we’re inflating them with smoke, I’m sure people have inflated them with other things before. For us, how do we have a slow controlled time release aroma that’s not a pillow that deflates or a candle or burning oak leaves? It’s something we’ve never seen. Is it invention? Is it innovation? Are we innovating off ourselves? It’s a fine line.
JL: You said, “I’ve never seen it.” Maybe somebody has, but I’ve never heard of it.
DB: I’ve never seen it before, but to say that I invented that, I don’t know. The chocolate brick that we shattered on the table at Alinea for the original mat plate, I figured out that technique, but at the end of the day, it’s melted chocolate and milk, charged in an ISI and sprayed into liquid nitrogen. Somebody else has done that, I’m sure. Maybe they didn’t throw it on a table, but I’m sure someone has made mousse that way. The application of presenting on the table – that was Achatz’s invention, or innovation.
JL: It’s hard to say definitively.
DB: Yeah, because I’d never seen anyone do a dessert like that on a table, but I’ve sat at a sushi counter where the sushi chef puts the food right on the counter. Innovation or invention? Sorry, I went on such a long tangent.
JL: No, it’s cool, tangents are the best parts…What drew you to Los Angeles, and what are the advantages to cooking here versus in Chicago?