Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Chef Stretches Out

We are seeing a phenomenon now where chefs have become minor celebrities, and with celebrity comes the investor that would like to capitalize on fame by building a fiefdom of profitable restaurants for the chef. Where 20 years ago fame might have meant a cooking show and a set of signature pans (e.g. Wolfgang Puck), now the chef in question can expand from the one heralded restaurant to several, often with different conceptual culinary programs.

In New Orleans, I saw this phenomenon at work recently. At John Besh's August, one can eat a fancy, expensive meal conceived by an expert in Southern Cooking. The problem was that most of the food wasn't very good. It wasn't for lack of trying. All of the frou frou ingredients were listed, along with thoughtful mashups of southern cuisine served on small plates that might have been seen on a lesser episode of Iron Chef. It was just that with the actual Chef Besh not at the helm (and who would expect him to? He now owns eleven dining concepts in New Orleans alone), the execution was poor, the etoufee dish was not hot temperature-wise, the spicing was off, and the dessert was stale.

For the entreprising restauranteur, there is no concept not to be explored or exploited: the high cuisine spot; the food truck; the ramen noodle shop; the mozzarella bar; the dessert and bakery concept; the pizzeria.  Who wants to be the next Batali?  But being Batali would mean not physically being there.  The Chef has left the building.

So when I say the Chef stretches out, what I mean is the Chef stretches him or herself too thin. In any kind of operation, especially one with "artisanal" food processes, you can see this happening. Ideally, you want the creative chef to leave his or her imprint on every dish, and for that dish to be unique in a way that speaks to the diner. But this may not always be possible, even with a relatively accomplished and well paid staff.

The staff, the workers that are doing the cooking for the Chef, are only as good as their training.  The U.S. gastronomy movement, being so new compared to Europe, is experiencing a severe shortage of well-trained cooks.  If the cook's training is rushed and not thorough, the end result will be below the quality of the celebrity chef.  But in the effort to both please the investors and keep the ego fed by expansion, a cruel facsimile of the Chefs' cooking gets into the public mouth. The thoughtful restaurant is not something replicable and franchisable like a McDonald's, yet the average McDonald's is doing far better in the consistency department than a restauranteur stretched thin.

An organization has the tendency to replicate the traits of its leader.  So if the restauranteur is overambitious, so will the restaurant be.  And if ambition and skill is diluted by a score of dining concepts, what remains for the customer to enjoy?

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