Sometimes I wonder if we (those of us in the restaurant business) are pricing ourselves out of business. Sometimes I wonder if many chefs and restaurateurs live under the illusion that great food experiences are reserved only for those who can afford it. Sometimes I wonder if too many of us are wrapped up in an elitist mentality that separates customers based on their ability to pay rather than their love of good food. Sometimes I wonder if we are missing the point of being blessed with the ability to cook well, present what the farmer grows with respect, and build great impressions of the traditions and history behind the food that we make.
I have loved nearly every moment that I spent working in kitchens; spending time with the honest, hard working, and talented people who stand behind the range for 10 or 12 hours every day, and having the opportunity to create memories with food. I am, however, disappointed at how we have relegated this gift of cooking to an enterprise that believes that price is no object and offer menu items with an oblivious eye to value and how we are becoming more and more exclusive.
I also thoroughly enjoy dining out, experiencing different restaurants, delving into a chef’s interpretation of food preparations and presentations, admiring restaurant design, and relishing real service – but, as time goes on I am also taken back by a restaurants desire to brag about their obscure ingredients and not bat an eyelash at charging truly obscene prices for a meal. I get it – it’s all about the experience – hey, I have been preaching that for years, but far too many have taken it too far. We have priced a significant percentage of the population out of the game. Why should great, beautiful food, be only enjoyed by those with American Express Black Cards? What percentage of the population can afford to drop over $100 per person for a three- course meal? Shouldn’t what we do be something that a majority can enjoy and relish rather than a very small, wealthy minority?
Dining out is a way of life in America and it is the current way that we entertain and network (outside of social media). Restaurants are enjoying a popularity way beyond expectations just a few decades ago – but have we created a class structure in the process with our pretention and pricing strategies? Have we separated our society even further into socio-economic tribes? People eat in quick service restaurants because it is what they can afford, they dine in causal chain operations because they are on a budget and shy away from the pretention of the better restaurants, and they dine at stellar restaurants because they can afford it and disregard price for the enjoyment of experience. Why should quality, service, and price be mutually exclusive?
Maybe I am getting it wrong – after all, I was a chef who always relished the opportunity to work with incredible ingredients and make “show quality” food that I would be proud to have showcased on Instagram or Facebook, but recently I have begun to find the connection between this level of quality and the lack of price sensitivity shown to the general public. It appears that there are no longer any barriers to pricing, no longer any shame in putting a price tag on a dish that would have made chefs roll their eyes just a few years ago.
Can we really charge $40 for four sea scallops from the coast of Maine? Is that Wagyu filet really worth $85 and a side of asparagus an additional $12? Simply because we hire a “mixologist” to work behind our bar – is it suddenly acceptable to ring up $25 for a cocktail and $40 for that short glass of single malt scotch? Sure, we throw in a amuse bouche to help create the experience, and maybe mignondise after dinner, but when we charge $20 for a bottle of Evian Water and $6.50 for an after dinner espresso, it kind of takes away the feeling of gratitude.
There are certainly a few dozen world famous restaurants that I would like to dine at and check off my bucket list, but the thought of spending $300-400 per person for a three hour dinner just seems to take away the sizzle. I don’t make that kind of money, and maybe that’s OK – who really thinks that it’s fine to spend the kind of money that could easily be used in a much more valuable way? So, my somewhat hypocritical rambling must have a point (hypocritical because I also am thrilled by highly professional kitchens, chefs who dedicate their lives to those plates of food, and truly enjoy the experience of both working in and dining at great restaurants). I do have a point, and here it is:
IF RESTAURANTS ARE TO CONTINUE TO FLOURISH AND DO WHAT THEY HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY TO DO – (Make many, many people happy and expose them to the beauty of exceptional cooking, incredible food, and fun/fulfilling food experiences)- then we (chefs) should consider the following:
 WHAT IS THE EXPERIENCE OF GREAT FOOD
Great food need not connect with the most obscure and expensive ingredients, it need not have a connection to product flown in from all parts of the world with little connection to the neighborhood where a restaurant resides, and it need not involve over-handling and meticulous manipulation of restaurant menu items. Great food can simply be a result of perfectly executing foundational cooking methods, handing the ingredients you have with care, buying those ingredients when they are at their peak of maturity, and building a strong relationship with those who grow, raise, catch, or process the ingredients that make up a chef’s storeroom.
The experience of great food is built on flavor, freshness, and passion and can feature chicken legs instead of foie gras, a perfectly executed meatloaf instead of that Wagyu filet, and well attended North Atlantic Cod instead of endangered and very expensive halibut from Alaska.
The experience of great food can be offered without an out-of-touch price tag so that all who desire to understand what it means to enjoy eating beautiful, nutritious food, are able to do so.
The experience of great food should be a celebration that allows guests to smile, laugh, clink glasses, and celebrate their good fortune whether it is a $5 meal or a $50 meal.
 WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO DINE OUT TODAY
Dining out today may be a stretch from the original perception of fine or formal dining, yet to many it is hands down – more enjoyable. The starched white table cloth restaurant with tuxedoed waiters, silver platters, stem candles, gueridons and classical music has been replaced with polished wood, copper, or zinc table tops, denim shirts, black bistro aprons, local fired pottery plates, Edison bulbs hanging from fisherman’s rope, plate service, and contemporary jazz or a touch of Post Modern Jukebox music. Fine dining is replaced with fun dining. The food is just as exceptional; the service is correct, yet casual; the wine and craft beer selections would rival even the best of formal New York City operations; but the value of the experience has increased exponentially.
When everything is clicking on all cylinders then value trumps price. This is what makes a restaurant great.
 WHAT IS OUR MOST IMPORTANT TASK AS CHEFS
Look at the job description for “chef” in any restaurant operation – it will refer to leadership, team building, training, cost controls, profitability, menu planning, smart purchasing advocacy, and building the restaurant brand- rarely does the description talk about creating exceptional customer experiences, educating the guest, making the food experience accessible, or building value across the socio-economic spectrum – yet this is what allows a restaurant to carry on and become essential to people in a community. Profitability is derived from creating customer loyalty and loyalty is a result of relationships that are drawn from experiences, education, accessibility, and value.
 WHAT IS VALUE
Value is not always solely connected to price. When price is the only value factor considered then be prepared to lose customers to the next operation that drops prices below yours. Value comes from those important tasks that should be at the top of every chef’s job description.
 PAYING RESPECT TO THE CRAFT
A statement from a colleague of mine has always rung true: “Anyone can do a great job of cooking that prime steak or a beautiful Maine lobster – the real talent of a chef comes from cooking that chicken leg or unknown piece of fish at such a level that it rivals the experience of eating those expensive cuts.” Build and refine those foundational skills and practice them every day so that accessibility, customer satisfaction, and profitability are an everyday occurrence.
 PAYING RESPECT TO THE INGREDIENTS
A potato is not just a potato in the hands of a talented cook. When the cook understands what it took to grow that potato then he or she will handle it not as a commodity, but rather as a gift. In this one example, the beautiful potato that came from the earth with the help of a farmers hands can become that perfectly caramelized home fry, golden brown pommes frites, potato dauphine, scalloped potato, a crusty baker with butter and sour cream, creamy whipped potato of equal parts butter and spud (just like Chef Joel Robuchon made famous), perfectly turned and seven-sided tourne, spherical parisienne, or crispy grilled hash brown galette. Paying respect to every ingredient opens the door to a world of options. Whether a potato or other ingredient – there is an option to fit every price point on a menu.
 MAKING PEOPLE HAPPY
Isn’t this what we should be all about as chefs and restaurateurs? Food is such an important vehicle that can lead to happiness. It fills our stomachs, entices us with aromas that bring back memories of times gone by, serves as a catalyst for communication, sets the stage for building lasting relationships, and gives people an opportunity to clink glasses, share a bite, smile, and laugh with reckless abandon. Shouldn’t we make this experience accessible to all who have the desire to break bread?
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Be Something Special – Be a Chef!
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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