Bigger isn’t always better. Bigger brings a significant upswing in headaches, unforeseen challenges, an inability to flex, and long-term costs. Bigger is less predictable and much more difficult to control and bigger takes cooks and chefs away from what they love to do, what attracted them to the trade in the beginning – to cook from the heart.
I have very fond memories of walking the streets of St. Paul de Vance in southern France, or the walled in villages of Tuscany, the narrow streets of Oslo, Norway, and the typical hidden villages found in parts of historic Germany; places that were home to those special little restaurants that reflect the terroir of the region. There were eighteen or twenty seats (mostly deuces) and in better weather maybe two more tables on the street or alleyway in front or beside these tastes of a chef. A chef/owner was busy by the stove with an assistant who also washed dishes and bussed tables and out front a single server and maybe, in the busiest of operations, a host/bartender who was likely the spouse of the chef. That was it!
The restaurants in this storyline boasted menus that changed nearly every day depending on what could be found in local open markets and from friendly farmers and those who raised livestock. The business was likely open four days per week – usually mid-day till early evening giving everyone a chance to enjoy life outside of work and the chef ample time to shop in the markets for ingredients. Those four or five employees were like family. They sat down and ate a meal together, enjoyed the company of each other’s families, and shared some of the good time profits (when they existed). The food was, of course excellent, but more importantly reflective of the region and its history and the experiences of the chef. The wine list carried the names of vintners whom everyone in the community knew and the ambience was warm and unpretentious.
There were no sophisticated profit and loss statements or cash flow charts, no point-of-sale systems or computer analytics to pour over and make decisions by; these were not the type of operations that required that level of analysis. The chef/owner knew how well (or poorly) they were doing and what the customer thought of the experience because they spoke with them every night, worked with each ingredient, took the garbage out, counted the cash, felt the pain associated with every broken plate or wine glass, and wrote the checks each week for employees and vendors. This restaurant was their house, and they had a handle on how the house was doing.
The kitchen was not filled with the most sophisticated equipment and certainly not computerized. The dish machine was likely an under counter unit and there was no need for a walk-in cooler since supplies were purchased every day; a reach-in or two would suffice. A single eight burner range and convection oven, maybe a plancha or small char grill, a couple stainless tables, sinks, butcher block, and a salamander were all that was required aside from a battery of well-seasoned pots and pans, utensils, and tiny ice machine and storage racks. This was plenty for a chef, enough to produce a wide range of items to match the freshness of the ingredients available.
There was little waste since managing twenty seats was much easier than trying to fill expansive dining rooms with a turn or two on busy nights. The chef never bought ingredients by the case, but rather what he or she needed to service their space. Instead of thirty-gallon trash cans spread out through the kitchen, there were two much smaller cans, a recycling bin, and tubs for compost. Out back on a small patch of land, or in baskets hanging from windows, the chef grew all the herbs needed to support the cuisine of the restaurant. This was a lean, fine-tuned machine that worked from the premise of being manageable and comfortable.
It’s true, a restaurant of this type is not likely to make the owner rich, but it could provide a comfortable living. This business was a reflection of the person, and the person was not a slave to a much larger, more complex beast.
For the guest there was a high level of comfort and trust. In most cases, the people who filled those twenty seats were there on a regular basis. You might find the same people there on a Wednesday or a Friday who would grace a table every week. Occasionally, they would bring a friend or visitor to the area to turn them on to “their restaurant” and meet the chef or host who were also their friends. This is where people met to talk about their families, local events, a bit of politics, a love of music and art, and laugh with reckless abandon over a plate of magnificent comfort food.
The chef was not trying to impress a local food critic or find fame through his or her latest cookbook or Michelin star, but rather just working to help his friends smile, fill their bellies, and enjoy a piece of their local traditions with food. These restaurants were comfortable, fun, familiar, rewarding, and part of their lives.
Maybe this is just an exercise in nostalgia, a drift back to personal good times, or a naive look at what once was and no longer is, but I wonder if it’s time for this to return. Maybe it’s time for chefs to return to feeling the significance of their craft and to stay connected to every aspect of what it takes to bring ingredients to the table. Could it be time for the restaurant business to slow down and serve their neighborhoods without having to support something so large and so fragile. Maybe the approach to our labor issues is not hiring a human resource director and re-writing employee manuals for the umpteenth time or figuring out ways to afford to pay for employee retirement plans, but rather to keep it smaller, bring back that family feel to employment, share in their success, and think about a quality of life where work is not something demanded of the employee but rather something that the employee embraces and enjoys. Maybe pushing for more volume and higher check averages can be replaced by creating incredible value that goes beyond price, that involves experiences and fond memories and charging what will allow the restaurant to flourish and the customer to feel as though it were worth every penny.
” Good friends, good food, good times.”
Sure, this is naïve, but remember this country’s restaurant business was built on the backs of private, single unit entrepreneurships. This industry was designed to have orders handwritten on a green order pad and was brought forward on the backs of cooks who went to market, smelled the fresh radishes and fish before they were bought, visited farmers, and discussed what would be coming out of the ground next week so that menus could be designed around supplies at their peak of maturity. These are the restaurants that are portrayed in stories of community, and these are the restaurants where young cooks first developed their passion for a serious craft.
Maybe it’s time to bring them back.
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