Phil Vettel Abandons Anonymity as Price of Dining at Next

“That’s Vettel!” “No, I think it’s that one…”

You may wonder how the Tribune’s Phil Vettel manages not only to get seats for every Next menu so far, but managed to grab early enough seats for El Bulli that he is able to review it today. Did the entire staff of the Tribune click away during those crucial minutes of availability, like Veruca Salt’s father’s nut factory employees desperately unshelling candy bars to find a golden ticket? After all, Michelin, with millions to lose each year on the guide, apparently couldn’t manage it. Well, Vettel admits today that Next is a special case that required a special violation of the Tribune’s customary rules for restaurant reviewing. And special case though Next undoubtedly is, one can’t help but see this as another crack in the pretense that restaurant critics are anonymous.

Vettel notes:

Because Next changes its concept every 13 weeks or so (exception: the El Bulli menu, which launched two weeks ago, continues through May), a critic must secure a table very early in each menu’s cycle, so that the subsequent review still has relevance…

Given the extreme difficulty in securing tickets in the first place, and Next’s repertory theater approach (the company stays the same; only the scripts change), we decided to handle Next in the manner of theater criticism. We bought, under the Tribune name, a season subscription, ensuring that we’ll be able to review Next on the schedule we prefer.

Of course, that means if they know Vettel comes in on one of those tickets, they know he’ll be coming in on the others as well. What Vettel avoids discussing is exactly how the Tribune ensured getting such early tickets when tickets are so hard to get at all. Especially given that Kevin Pang has also been and reported on the El Bulli menu, one strongly suspects that the Tribune had cooperation from Next in getting these tickets at the beginning of the cycle. Nothing wrong with that, but it ought to be disclosed as well (or, if not the case, how they managed it should be explained).

In reality, all this only matters if you believe Vettel would have been anonymous otherwise, and Vettel for one accepts that this is not the case: “After three visits to Next, four to Aviary and four more to Alinea, my identity is no longer a mystery to this group.” If it ever was; we’ve seen photos of Vettel twice in our lives, and both times were on the wall of a restaurant kitchen. Those kitchens were neither Alinea’s nor Next’s, but they doubtless could have been.

So acknowledging that anonymity is a fig leaf, at least in certain parts of the scene, is necessary, Vettel says— “Being able to review each Next iteration in a timely manner seemed to be the greater consideration.” Left undiscussed is the question of whether any restaurant needs to be reviewed so often, no matter how remarkable it is (and no one could possibly dispute that Next is remarkable in many ways). Vettel has already reviewed Next twice as often in nine months as he’s reviewed perhaps the most influential Chicago restaurant of modern times, Blackbird, in its 14-year existence.

We spoke last weekend with a well-known restaurant owner who frankly feels that he can’t get reviewed because Vettel is more interested in going to Next every few months.
That’s surely an exaggeration, but Vettel’s reviews are carefully doled out over the year; he’s never been a Jonathan Gold hit-ten-places-each-weekend kind of writer. Three reviews for one restaurant every year will squeeze somebody out. Will Vettel’s devotion to Next yield extraordinary insight into the creative process of surely our most fascinating chef over time? Will that be worth the price of ignoring other things happening in fine dining in Chicago? That remains to be seen.

Why the Next review differs [Tribune]

Phil Vettel Abandons Anonymity as Price of Dining at Next