Q&A: How an Album by The Roots Influenced America’s Most Ambitious New Restaurant

Alinea and Next alum Dave Beran looks beyond food to inspire Dialogue.

Chef Dave Beran of Dialogue restaurant in Santa Monica Photo: courtesy Mariah Tauger/Dialogue

Heading up the escalator toward the space that will soon be occupied by one of America’s most ambitious new restaurants, I’m enveloped by the smell of fresh waffle cones being made in the Technicolor ice cream shop one floor below. What chef Dave Beran will serve in his 18-seat fine-dining restaurant, Dialogue, couldn’t be more different than his neighbor at the Santa Monica mall. The Alinea and Next alum, who has a couple of James Beard awards already under his belt, would like to build a restaurant worthy of Michelin stars (if the guide ever came back to L.A.) and inclusion on the World’s 50 Best list.

For the last 6 months, he’s been building a menu and a team while preparing to open his restaurant, which will draw on French and Japanese influences. But there’s an unexpected inspiration behind what he’s done with Dialogue as Beran looks beyond of the world of food to create an immersive experience for diners. I spoke with Beran about leaving the Alinea group, what Fourth of July fireworks have to do with a tasting menu, and what people can expect from Dialogue when doors open on September 5.

RR: You were at one of the world’s top restaurants in Alinea, and then you led Next since it opened. Why walk away from that?
DB: We talked for a little while about partnering with each other. I know the Alinea group had expansion ideas. But the more I thought about what I wanted to do, the more I realized I had to do my own thing.

What they do is so formulated and well-executed that it almost feels like it’s going to be a guaranteed success. They know what they’re doing, and they’re really, really good at it. I had ideas about how do I grow this; how do I evolve this into the next thing? It’s just like when you ask someone, why did you leave that show to go do your own show? Well, I couldn’t take it in the direction that I wanted to. It’s not a bad thing against them or me or anything. It’s just it was time to part. It had been like 11 years. I also didn’t want to stay in Chicago. It wasn’t anything against Chicago; it was just I wanted to be coastal.

RR: Now that you have your own place, what will be your style of cooking?
DB: It has evolved a lot. As far as menu construction, it often starts with a story. At Alinea, I evolved into being able to put dishes on the menu to where you wouldn’t know if they’re mine or [Grant] Achatz’s dishes. It’s not to say that I was as good as him or we’re interchangeable or anything like that. As much as if I put up 10 dishes, one of those would be good enough to slide into the menu and sort of complete that bigger-picture story.

Then when I went to Next, I thought I was like, “I’m at Alinea; I’m killing it. We’re sixth in the world, and we just got three Michelin stars.” I go to Next, and of our first three menus, one was classic French, but the other two were kind of echoes of Alinea. It wasn’t until after our el Bulli menu that I was kind of left alone to just do something. That’s when I started to figure out my own style, and it really turned into figuring out how to tell a complete story through a menu.

A lot of the food really either has a story behind it, in the individual course, or is pushing you towards a story—pushing you towards a nostalgic moment or a feeling. It’s more than just what’s on the plate. The plate just becomes a part of the bigger picture behind the course. Flavor-wise, it kind of bounces back and forth between classic French and Japanese influence, and some Thai.

RR: What will drive Dialogue’s menu?
DB: This menu is written in the style of Kaiseki—a Japanese tasting menu—which was traditionally the menu that you would eat as a monk before you would meditate. Kaiseki is a movement through a period of time: Early courses in Kaiseki would remind you of the previous season. The middle of Kaiseki would focus on the current season. The end of it would nod towards the future. You have movement, moving into the meditation, so you’re always progressing.

In Chicago, we did an autumn Kaiseki menu, and I really loved the philosophy behind it. I thought, well, we’re in L.A. What if we played with this idea of everyone saying there’s no seasons in L.A. and you can get things year-round? What if we create seasons in L.A.? What if we write a menu where early courses remind you of the spring, the middle of the menu focuses on summer, and then the end of it looks towards autumn? We move you through time with the menu.

RR: You’re opening a tasting-menu-only restaurant at a time when restaurants are moving away from that. Why are you embracing it?
DB: For me, the whole point of the tasting menu, initially, was the control. It’s controlling the entire experience, and it’s storytelling. I think diners now, when they’re going out, are either wanting to just, like, sit and grab a snack or really immerse themselves in the entertainment aspect of it and immerse themselves in an experience. I hope they do because that’s what we’re doing.

pork belly, trout roe, nasturtium, strawberry sambal

Pork belly, trout roe, nasturtium, and strawberry sambal.  Photo: courtesy Mariah Tauger/Dialogue

RR: To create an experience that’s more than just food, how much thought goes into the pacing and progression of the meal?
DB: Every minute matters in a long tasting menu. There are certain courses that should literally be like, “I’m going to take that away; here’s your next one.” Then there’s some that I want you to sit with a glass of wine for 2 minutes and taste the wine before the course comes.

We’ve staggered it out to speed up then slow down, have a high point and a low point—no different than if you go to the fireworks on the Fourth of July. If everything was the grand finale, nothing would be the grand finale. If they didn’t have the dramatic pause, then it wouldn’t really have the buildup for the big explosion. We’ve paced it out where ideally the quickest time, if no silverware or wine has to be poured, is 1 minute. The longest time, if there’s silverware and two wine pairings, is 5 minutes.

RR: What you’re describing sounds like how a band would put together a full album back in the old days.
DB: Oh, it’s 100 percent thought of like that. The flow and the feeling for this menu is originally inspired by the Roots album And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. I feel like that album really walks you through a story and emotional experiences, where it starts very, very somber and quiet with the Nina Simone song. Song four is very, like, angry, aggressive, banging. The last song is kind of happy-go-lucky from an outside perspective of being cheerful.

At one point, I emailed Ahmir [aka Questlove] and just asked him, “What’s going on with this album? Why is it different?” He gave me the rundown on the story behind it and the backbone. If that album were two and a half hours, I would just play it start to finish through the course of the menu. It’s not; it’s like 38 minutes, so it doesn’t work. Music has been an incredible influence on how to make the flow of the menu, to the point where it’s been such an influence that now I’m struggling with the soundtrack of the restaurant because people don’t sit at the same time.

I can’t have the quiet song for the somber course, because I get that at five and you get that at six kind of thing. For the first time, the soundtrack of the restaurant is becoming a big hurdle, relative to the construction of the menu. It’s all based off music, even the way the courses intentionally have something from the previous course and then something from the next course within a course. It’s no different than if you go to see a live show and the band never stops playing, even while they’re talking. They just let one song flow into the next. It’s all the same idea.

RR: What other off-beat places have you found inspiration for food?
DB: I have a couple friends who are artists and a couple who are directors. I talk to them a lot about creating emotion within scenes. One of my friends is an artist who does a lot of huge installations, so I’ve been talking to him just about use of space. How do you fill a table without overfilling a table? How do you adjust the art in a space to change a mood without making it seem obvious? Same with the friend who’s a director. You ask him questions like, how do you make a more dramatic scene? He’s like, “Oh, you change the lighting. You adjust the sound.” Stupid little things. No different than if you looked at me and said, “Well, how do I make this taste spicier?” I said, “Oh, just add this to it.”

That’s been a big influence on how we’re trying to think about the interaction for the guest and the food on other senses, not just on a flavor experience or the visual.

RR: Chef Jordan Kahn has tried to build a totally immersive dining experience at Vespertine, with mixed reviews so far—have you been?
DB: Vespertine is incredible. It fully will have mixed reviews. I’m not surprised at all by the way people are reacting to it. It’s kind of like if you and I and one friend went to a museum and looked at the exact same painting. You looked at it for an hour and you couldn’t speak, and it just pulled you in. Our friend looked at it and started crying as soon as they saw it. I looked at it and said, “Oh, that’s blue,” walked away, and thought, “That’s silly. Why are we all standing around a blue painting?” That, to me, was what Vespertine is. If it’s for you, it will take you away to somewhere you’ve never been. If it’s not for you, you won’t get it and you’ll think it’s silly and you might make fun of it.

I’m astonished at the level of focus and thought that he put into it, right down to the way that glass moves on a table: just sitting there, and if you have a glass of wine and you go like this at a table [makes motion like he’s swirling a glass] while you’re not thinking, just rolling your wine, having a conversation—you can’t do that, so it immediately makes you think about how you hold a wine glass and how you drink out of it. Everything there has that much thought to it.

It immediately made me think like, am I doing enough? Am I thinking enough? It’s incredible. Again, I’m not surprised that people are reacting to it the way they are. Anything that intentionally moves you outside of your comfort zone becomes very polarizing. Man, go, go. Maybe you’ll love it. Maybe you’ll hate it, but you’ll experience something and you’ll talk about it for a long time.

RR: What is your ambition for Dialogue? Are you trying to build an international dining destination?
DB: I hope so. That would be awesome. I don’t want any diners to come in and walk away and say, “That was good. I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes after this.” I want them to be swept away by what just happened in that space.

We’re taking this as a very serious restaurant. We’re doing it as though it could be here or this destination up in the mountains that has a 2-hour drive to get to. We’re not taking any shortcuts at all anywhere—we just spent $15,000 just on plates. I want people to come and speak about us at the same level as any of the other restaurants I’ve worked at, or any of the other restaurants that I look up to. We want to be great. We’re not holding back and saying, “Oh, well this is as good as it can be here.”

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