Aviary is Haunted

When you get to be a regular, you flatter yourself by thinking you know the staff who serve you. They learn your name, and you learn theirs. There’s friendly banter. Jokes. Stories. After a while perhaps, it feels like you have history.

That doesn’t mean you know them, of course. Not really.

So it was with me and Jason Cevallos, who manned the bar downstairs, from its opening until recently. He made me many delicious cocktails, and I spent a lot of time chatting with him, undoubtedly bugging him while he was busy working. I can’t say I really knew him though.

But that doesn’t make the awful news of his passing any easier to take. Jason was a talented, interesting, and profoundly decent man, and I’m going to miss him.

amj

Epilogue

Since I’ve decided to kill Ahab and shutter AiH, it made sense to resume the first person. If you’re one of the two or three readers since the very beginning, you may recall Ahab initially was an inconsistent presence anyway. It took a while to find his voice. And to work out the shtick with the Moby Dick quotes.

I made the decision to stop on September 25 — an awful day for me personally — but there were a few draft posts queued and some loose ends to address before I could close shop. Besides, it felt churlish to end this silly little experiment just days after Nick Kokonas graciously reached out to me.

About this silly experiment, some of you have asked — and I’m sure most of the rest of you have wondered — why blog pseudonymously about Aviary for 2.5 years?

You may recall before Aviary actually opened Chef Grant Achatz talked about the Office, suggesting it’d be invitation only and the public wouldn’t get to see it. Taking that as a challenge, I decided to chronicle my quest to get downstairs. As it turned out, Chef Achatz exaggerated the exclusivity more than a little bit because I made it there quickly. But I was bored with my then job and other blogs of the moment, and so I kept at it. For half a thousand posts.

Seeing that in black and white, I acknowledge it’s more than a little ridiculous. Until recently though, I had fun writing this. I hope others enjoyed it as well.

The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth?—Because one did survive the wreck… On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

AIH, the tale of the tape

After 540 posts (and 503 Moby Dick quotes), here are a few of Ahab’s personal favorites.

  • The first time Aviary was up for a James Beard, Ahab’s odds were dead on.
  • In retrospect, this was the best night ever.
  • A look back at Aviary’s opening menu. With annotations.
  • And where did the quotes come from? Not here certainly.

Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone.

On February 19, 2013, the Chicago-Kent College of Law’s Intellectual Property Law Society hosted its annual Gastro IP symposium, which featured a panel discussion including, among others, Nick Kokonas. And after badgering emailing the outgoing and incoming IPLS presidents over the past several months, the video is finally online.

Kokonas offered some interesting comments within the context of the panel’s discussion of the application of intellectual property law to restaurants and dining. For example, he explained the brain trust hasn’t been too concerned others will copy Chef Grant Achatz. In fact, the mothership even started with what Kokonas characterized as an open source approach:

Early on in 2004, we basically decided to put our business plan online. My general feeling was good luck copying it. It requires a tremendous amount of labor, and it’s very different than a company like DuPont. If anything, being open source for us allows people to share what we do across the Internet, allows them to become passionate about what we do, to try it at home and to see it’s not impossible but it’s not simple either.

(It would interesting to look at the business plan today, almost a decade later. Some day, perhaps on some other blog.)

Expanding on this theme, Kokonas later remarked:

You can go home and cook a black truffle explosion. I can teach you how to do it. I’ve made it. It’s possible. It tastes really, really good, even though you made it at home. But what you didn’t get it is everything else all around it. I gave a talk not so long ago at TEDx called “designing experience.” And what you can’t believe perhaps is that the food is a necessary but not sufficient condition to having a great restaurant. And we have great food and great chefs in our restaurants but we also train our staff constantly. Every day at four o’clock, there’s a meeting, and we know exactly who is walking through the door and what their preferences are. And it’s all about the entire dining experience. It’s part of what you are paying for. It’s a huge part of what you are paying for, beyond the food. So, as I always say, that information is out there. I’ll give you any recipe you want, and you can go home and cook it, spend the eight hours it takes to make one of those little bites. And it will be a relatively unfufilling experience for you. You can try to build a restaurant that has all those other things to go along with it, but you’re going to have to work really hard and get up really early in the morning to do it and to compete with us.

Accordingly, even when there’s shameless copying without attribution, Kokonas said the brain trust prefers to handle it without resorting to formal legal means:

There have been times have people have crossed essentially what I consider an ethical line, not necessarily a legal one, though that too sometimes probably. And at those times we have tried to enforce our rights even though we haven’t patented something or trademarked it necessarily. But we could talk about that a bit later. But we have had a couple of unique cases like that where we’ve won with the help of the internet rather than in a court of law.

Kokonas also mentioned an anecdote that was new to Ahab, namely that the brain trust had been approached a group in London wanting to do a “greatest hits” menu featuring dishes from el Bulli, Mugartiz, Alinea, and others. The group offered to pay $4 per dish per diner, totaling $1600 or more per night, simply for the brain trust’s approval, but they declined:

Because (a) there was no way they could possibly make money and pay out that much money to the chefs and they would never last even though they were very well-financed and (b) they would cut corners and people would think that’s us. So, I guess from a monetary standpoint it’s a stupid decision but at the same time your brand and everything that we’re doing moving forward relies on that. And there’s a core integrity issue too. Part of what we do is make money and part of what we do… we try to give people great pleasure. It’s fun and delicious. So part of what we’re doing is not the monetary. The money is wonderful side aspect of doing something really well. I would argue that’s true of absolutely everything.

Which is interesting given that Aviary’s sibling adjacent did its own el Bulli “greatest hits” menu early in its run.

Every one knows the fine story of Perseus and Andromeda; how the lovely Andromeda, the daughter of a king, was tied to a rock on the sea-coast, and as Leviathan was in the very act of carrying her off, Perseus, the prince of whalemen, intrepidly advancing, harpooned the monster, and delivered and married the maid.

Aviary @ Home

Until Nick Kokonas decides to release the $20 Aviary digital book or the $250 Taschen-style art book printed in Japan — Ahab will take two copies, by the way — here is the definitive guide:

Additionally, ordering the Porthole from Martin Kastner unlocks four more Aviary recipes, the Blueberry, Cranberry, Chai, and Cider.

UPDATE: An illustrious, long-time reader asks where to get started. Ahab suggests the Bitter. Although the list of ingredients is intimidating, there are more commonly available substitutes, and it doesn’t involve a lot of esoteric techniques or equipment. Unless you count the barrel stave, and if you do, Ahab recommends you contact David Michalowski.

So that overawed by the rumors and portents concerning him, not a few of the fishermen recalled, in reference to Moby Dick, the earlier days of the Sperm Whale fishery, when it was oftentimes hard to induce long practised Right whalemen to embark in the perils of this new and daring warfare; such men protesting that although other leviathans might be hopefully pursued, yet to chase and point lance at such an apparition as the Sperm Whale was not for mortal man.

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Ahab speculates it will be an Asian-themed cocktail bar, but the muse thinks the brain trust’s new project is more likely a beer-themed venue. Certainly, there’s evidence to support that hypothesis. For a cutting edge cocktail bar, Aviary devotes considerable attention to its beer offerings. Its beer collaborations. Its beer events. And on his day off today, Chef Micah Melton is hanging out in New York with Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø of Evil Twin Brewing. (H/t Donnavie Kohl.)

In man, breathing is incessantly going on—one breath only serving for two or three pulsations; so that whatever other business he has to attend to, waking or sleeping, breathe he must, or die he will. But the Sperm Whale only breathes about one seventh or Sunday of his time.

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Even more than the odd hours, the love of pork, and the tattoos, what seems to bond cooks is a love of Fernet, the bitter, herbal Italian spirit. Ahab is an outsider but he’s had more than a few shots with kitchen crews in various places (including with an Aviary alumnus.) As befits a cocktail bar staffed mainly by cooks, Fernet Branca now is on tap downstairs.

Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say—here, HERE lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these. What bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes! What despair in those immovable inscriptions! What deadly voids and unbidden infidelities in the lines that seem to gnaw upon all Faith, and refuse resurrections to the beings who have placelessly perished without a grave. As well might those tablets stand in the cave of Elephanta as here.

Just don’t toast Fuckerberg’s bagels

The brain trust has mentioned its customer database a few times. Most recently, Nick Kokonas explained to Crains:

We’ve kept a database of every ticket for every table since we opened. The idea at first was simply to identify (guests) visually and thus greet them by name, like saying hello to an old friend you are greeting in your home.

But since Kokonas made his fortune in trading, it was a foregone conclusion they’d be doing more than simple stuff like wishing guests a timely happy birthday. Indeed, in the interview, Kokonas mused about mining social media to enhance the customer experience:

Perhaps we can offer you a burgundy substitute for one course instead of the normal wine pairing if we see that half of your Twitter posts are about red burgundy. We don’t tell you we’re doing so. The ‘good stuff’ just happens and it’s magical.

Which sounds a little bit creepy but also suggests they’re hoping to provide every customer — except the pseudonymous ones, obviously — the sort of regular treatment about which Frank Bruni rhapsodized.

In March, the brain trust solicited applications for a business analyst intern, and last week Kokonas explained that, among other things, the interns (plural) revamped the database over the Summer:

The interns spent much of their time redoing our CRM in a custom manner… we now have well over 100,000 customers and the accompanying notes in a single database across all three restaurants…

If any answer of his answers from the interview demanded follow-up, this was it. From the sound of it, this project involved more than merely upgrading to SAP 6.0. What the heck do you suppose they’re doing? Could the sort of customization Kokonas mentioned to Crains be coming to Aviary? (The opportunities to customize the experience at Alinea and Next are relatively limited; only Aviary offers a truly varied menu.) Whatever the brain trust’s plans, it seems there’s still work to do because they’re taking applications for a full-time business analyst.

Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself. Such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity. Then the wild and distant seas where he rolled his island bulk; the undeliverable, nameless perils of the whale; these, with all the attending marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish.

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Weeks ago, Christian Seel linked a “nice spread” on Aviary in Chilled magazine. Of course, the article wasn’t available online, which necessitated a weeks-long quest to track down a dead tree copy. Do you know how difficult that was to find in this benighted, post-literate, digital age?

Ultimately, Ahab was forced to order a six-month subscription to the magazine. (The second time that’s happened, in fact.) As it turned out, however, the new subscription actually started with the next issue. After some pleading, the nice folks at Chilled finally agreed to send the relevant issue. Out of pity, one imagines.

After such a long set up, the punchline is the article isn’t very good. In the most general terms, writer (and actress) Ariana Fekett talks about the “pioneering” ice program, the hard-working staff, the willingness to experiment, and popular cocktails like the Baked Apple, which hasn’t been served for more than six months. For fellow completists, you can read the article here.

But Ahab; oh he’s a hard driver. Look, driven one leg to death, and spavined the other for life, and now wears out bone legs by the cord. Halloa, there, you Smut! bear a hand there with those screws, and let’s finish it before the resurrection fellow comes a-calling with his horn for all legs, true or false, as brewery-men go round collecting old beer barrels, to fill ‘em up again. What a leg this is! It looks like a real live leg, filed down to nothing but the core; he’ll be standing on this to-morrow; he’ll be taking altitudes on it.

Since the Pipeworks Brewing tasting back in August, Aviary has been mum about whether / when there will be any future events. But an announcement could be coming soon. Chef Michael Anthony from Gramery Tavern has a cookbook coming out October 29, and he mentioned he’s coming to Aviary to promote it.

This highlights one of the possible downsides of cloning Aviary, assuming the brain trust successfully concludes its ongoing negotiations with the high-end hotel group, as Nick Kokonas disclosed the other day. If there’s an Aviary in New York, for example, perhaps there would be less reason for someone life Chef Anthony to travel here to promote his book. And maybe that means something like the next 21st Century Limited doesn’t happen.

For three hundred and sixty miles, gentlemen, through the entire breadth of the state of New York; through numerous populous cities and most thriving villages; through long, dismal, uninhabited swamps, and affluent, cultivated fields, unrivalled for fertility; by billiard-room and bar-room; through the holy-of-holies of great forests; on Roman arches over Indian rivers; through sun and shade; by happy hearts or broken; through all the wide contrasting scenery of those noble Mohawk counties; and especially, by rows of snow-white chapels, whose spires stand almost like milestones, flows one continual stream of Venetianly corrupt and often lawless life.