I really do love the restaurant business. As a cook and chef I thoroughly relished walking into the kitchen early in the morning to the smell of fresh coffee, bacon being pulled from the oven, fresh pastries still hot from the bakeshop and the undertone smell of clean floors. I found comfort in knowing many exceptional people that I worked alongside, and for the most part took pride in seeing satisfied restaurant guests. Above all else, I continue to appreciate great food. I enjoy the simplest preparation of a perfect omelet, the crisp skin and moist meat carved from the carcass of a perfectly roasted chicken, and the satisfaction of the freshest fish in many forms. I have taken many opportunities to be on the other side of the swinging doors, dining at many life-changing restaurants, experiencing impeccable service and unbelievable food. These experiences, although I may have enjoyed more than some people, are still few and far between. They remain on my bucket list.
So, let’s talk about those extraordinary restaurant experiences. It is truly a shame that more people are unable or unwilling to take part in savoring exceptional food. The roadblock is, of course, cost. Honestly, regardless of your socio-economic position, it is pretty difficult to justify spending $200 or more for a single dining experience. There is no question that these experiences are memorable, but when an experience as fundamental as eating becomes mutually exclusive, it should require some scrutiny. Why relegate great dining to a person’s “never to be met” bucket list?
Here are some observations that I have come to focus on, as I grow older and maybe a bit more analytical:
- What is beautiful food? The extraordinary restaurants that we are all aware of, invest incredible time and effort in creating art on the plate. I certainly appreciate this as much as anyone else who respects the artist and his/her work, but this fine tuned attention costs money. The cost of the structured art of the great restaurants must be passed on to the guest.
The irony is that great raw materials are beautiful in their own right and need very little manipulation to stand out as exceptional. A perfect, seasonal strawberry is Natures art; a sun warmed, July picked, heirloom tomato is as magnificent on a plate as the most elaborately constructed pate en croute. Drizzle some first press olive oil and a pinch of quality salt and you wind up with an incredibly tasting, memorable dish. Nothing contrived, minimal labor, and gorgeous. The ingredient speaks for itself.
- What about the canvas? In order to support the intense preparations, and expensive raw materials used in the great restaurants, the operator must invest heavily in the finest china, the best sterling silver, and $50 per glass stemware to host those $400 bottles of proprietor reserve wines. The cost of these appointments must be passed on to the guest. Now, I truly appreciate beautiful tabletop appointments, and am able to detect differences in wine depending on the glassware used, but is this the most critical part of enjoying great food?
- Buying the most expensive ingredients is not always directly connected to the talent of your cooks. Those who know me or read this blog, understand that I am, and always have been, an advocate for line cooks. These professionals are the heart and soul of a professional kitchen. This being said, planning menus that try and equate a quality experience to buying obscure and enormously expensive raw materials, doesn’t highlight the real talent of a professional cook. A professional cook or chef is able to take less expensive ingredients and make them extraordinary.
A perfectly grilled Kobe steak is, without a doubt, an exceptional piece of protein, but is it a $100 experience in itself? Does this reflect the true talent of the person working that station?
Restaurants struggle to reach profitability and the core issues to that end are the cost of raw materials and the labor associate with preparing it. As much as that Kobe steak would be fabulous, I would personally prefer a low and slow braised lamb shank that can comfortably sell for less than a third the price. Should diners be placed in a situation to choose between buying a great dinner tonight and making this months car payment?
If grilled meats are the focus of your restaurant, build menus with alternative cuts, reduce the size of the portion and add interesting complements to the plate to bring visual and flavor excitement to the experience. Show off what your cooks can do, build excitement on the plate.
- Is your food manipulated too much? There was a time when I was totally wrapped up in excessively complicated preparations and presentations. Show quality food is fun to create, but it lacks the practicality that most restaurants need to be functional, and the time associated with contrived presentations costs too much, driving plate costs excessively high for the majority of the population.
When you visit communities in the U.S. or abroad, it would not be very difficult to find restaurants and cooks who are making extraordinarily tasty, beautiful food. Just ask a local where to eat. The dining experience should (in my opinion) evolve around the following:
- Authentic, well prepared, flavorful food that represents the passion of the cook.
- Real service that emphasizes the caring, food enthusiast attitude of a server who enjoys his or her work
- Exceptionally clean and appropriately decorated dining rooms
- Well planned menus that marry perfectly with wine, beer, and distilled beverage lists
- The right mix of fun and intrigue that allows the diner to relax and fully enjoy their time with the staff and the food
- A price structure that allows diners the opportunity to enjoy this experience with reasonable frequency
I will always continue to add restaurants of all types and price structures to my bucket list, but would prefer to get beyond the list and move towards actually experiencing those restaurants with friends. There is, unfortunately a class structure to dining that limits the ability of far too many from the extraordinary opportunities that well prepared and served food can bring.
Food is incredibly important and restaurants are the caretakers of the experience that raises food up on stage as the primary character in restaurant-theater. Wouldn’t it be nice if more people could afford to purchase a ticket? To those restaurants who have figured out the formula of great cooking, presentation of naturally beautiful food, real service and memorable, fun experiences at reasonable prices – a tip of the chefs toque.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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