RESTAURANTS NEED TO PAINT OUTSIDE THE LINES

What ever happened to creativity and the fun associated with developing something new, exciting, delicious and trend defining in restaurants. Certainly you could cite those handful of unique restaurants that grace the cover stories in trade magazines, win James Beard Awards and Michelin stars, and are home to chefs with names that are present on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but what about the other 950,000 restaurants in the United States along with business cafeterias, college cafes, and health care facilities? Are there exceptions to the rule, you bet, but they are few and far between.

Playing it safe is the rule of thumb, until someone creates that “ah ha” moment in restaurant dining that reinvents a segment. Do we really need another shop that serves Pizza Margherita, Ameri/Mexican restaurants with burritos and Chimichangas, white tablecloth operations with Shrimp Scampi or Veal Piccata? I have found myself many times referring to how important the classic dishes are and that they are always great to fall back on because after all – they sell! The problem is not their acceptability or the taste profile; the problem is that the industry is too boring. Did I really say that? Yes, the restaurant business is boring.

Customers play it safe, just like restaurants do, and thus the cycle continues. Those chefs and restaurateurs who try to break the mold gain notoriety among journalists, young chefs looking for excitement and that 2% of the population referred to as innovators, but walk down the street and you will find dozens of restaurants who are content (or stuck) with doing the same thing that everyone else does.

I am not a fan of what has been referred to as “molecular cuisine”; however, I am fascinated by those chefs who are head-over-heals committed to pushing that envelope. Grant Achatz, Ferran Adria, Wylie Dufresne are part of the pack of rebels who (forget what you think about the food) are trying hard to pull us out of our shells and learn to “think different”.

Steve Jobs was a genius. Some loved him and others despised him. Say what you will, but as the soul of Apple Computer he embraced creative thought above everything else. He had the uncanny ability to go beyond what people wanted or needed, he anticipated what they were going to need before they ever thought of it. So too is the case with a few contemporary chefs and restaurant owners/operators.

If Achatz, Adria and Dufresne are too radical for you, consider some who have been with us for a long time, treasure the classics, but who interpret those items in a way that breaks the barriers of “playing it safe”. Eric Ripert, Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Alice Waters, Charles Carroll, Daniel Boulud, Gavin Kaysen, Marcus Samuelsson and Cat Cora all continue to move their creative ideas to the forefront of restaurants that carry their signature while 950,000 others continue to ignore the need to be just a little unique.

Part of our job as chefs is to educate the staff members who work with us and the guests who choose to grace us with their presence. Of course, I am fully aware of the fiduciary responsibilities that go along with taking the helm of a restaurant and the fragile nature of restaurant economics. It is also our responsibility, however, to grow our business, attract new customers, and most importantly: exceed guest expectations with a food experience that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

To quote a culinary friend of mine from the past: “There is little talent in cooking a steak. Certainly there is a skill that goes along with timing and organization of a char-grill, but the talent is in preparing a chicken leg or inexpensive cut of meat in such a way, and presented with such unique grace, that its value far exceeds that of even the best steak.”

Please do not misinterpret what I am saying: I love classic Italian, French, Asian, German, Polish, Irish, Norwegian and every other traditional ethnic food. I sometimes salivate just thinking about that perfectly cooked steak, but how often is it that a restaurant experience truly excites and builds unforgettable memories?

Creativity is not exclusive to high-end restaurants. Starbucks was a real “wow” when they first began. The quality, the variety, the atmosphere were game changers. When was the last time that this type of change has taken our breath away in the coffee business? I would dare say that there is little difference between the Starbucks of 1990 and the one of today. Remember the first time you experienced an Au Bon Pain or Panera Bread and how it was fun to take it all in? Where is the next game changer hiding?

Playing it safe has a price. The price is complacency and transition of unique concepts into commodity restaurants. I am waiting for the next Steve Jobs in the restaurant business to catch everyone else off guard. Every once and a while we need to paint outside the lines.

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