On My Culinary Soapbox – Hope I Don’t Fall!

So a good friend of mine who is living in the frosty paradise of Minnesota is working on a class assignment where they have to conceive and plan a restaurant.  She enticed me to here wall thread by sending me a message to read her restaurant post.  Of course, being a chef, I’m a sucker for a restaurant wall post so I bit.  That’s when I saw it was an assignment.  I read all of the comments and my magical soap box drop like a brick out of my nether-regions.  So before I could hijack her peaceful thread I took some deep breaths and told her I would post my thoughts here so that they would be accessible to her co-threaders and so I could be my usual long winded self and not feel bad about being this smelly dark pompous cigar cloud on her wall. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I think that all of her friends had great comments and insights that I’m sure will be great for her assignment.  But when you ask for my opinion about restaurant concepts and design you’re asking for a very large piece of baggage to be unpacked and dumped forth.

The overall responses were in the vein of cuisine themes or gimick themes. 

Gimick themes (ie the dutch oven restaurant with covered wagons, or the mexican place with the cliff divers (Casa Bonita I think), etc)  most definitely have their place on the culinary landscape and they make great business sense because most are family friendly.  But being a chef I have a bit of an arrogant food snob side and I am not a fan of 99% of those restaurants.  Although if and when I get my own restaurant group running (see about the kitchen) I will definitely have one or two chain restaurant veterans on my staff because those people know how to make money in the food biz.

Cuisine Themes.  One of her friends who talked about cuisines asked a question about why ethnic cuisines are generally poor quality in this country.  (Hold on let me see if I can find that soap box in my carpet bag…oh here it is) Okay I can get rather heated about this subject because here is the problem.  I am american so when I make Chinese food it will be American-Chinese food.  The only exception to this is a chef who has spent YEARS in the country of origin of that cuisine doing nothing but studying and practicing and absorbing the food and the culture.  Like Rick Bayless at Topolabampo in Chicago.   A cuisine is more than it’s spices and it’s varied foodstuffs it’s also it’s culture and it’s traditions.  If I want to cook authentic and delicious Indian food in America I need to move to India “become Indian” and then come back.  (P.S. this theory is slightly flawed because it is acually never going to make my food 100% authentic because I can not help but bring my own experience, culture, tradition, and palate to the stove and that is just as much an ingredient as coriander or saffron).  Even when natives come here and open a restaurant you sometimes find that their time here has changed there experience and has added something American to their food.  Plus sometimes the type, quality, etc of a key ingredient might be different here than in an origin country.

So after all that here are some ideas for a restaurant(s) that I think my friend should look into.

First of all Minnesota has some wonderful native ingredients including wild game and whole grains.  There is a great company out of St. Paul I think called Indian Harvest (www.indianharvest.com) that has some amazing grains.  I’ve introduced several to BYU this year.  Obviously with the posts on this blog I’m becoming an avid supporter of seasonal/local/sustainable/organic more so in restaurants even than at home.  (I’ll post more about that next week)

Some restaurant models I like include the One World Everybody Eats Community Kitchen model out of SLC.  No Menu, No prices.  Everyone pays what they can when they can and the owners are making a statement and a profit.  I also like the Kogi Korean BBQ truck out of L.A.  I’d love to see that in a restaurant setting though I worry that it will dull the excitement because chasing the dragon seems to be a big part of the experience (extraordinary atmosphere is not just about a dining room).  Taco

My previous (twenty minute) restaurant experience had  a great mix of culinary ideas on it.  There was some Asian influence and some Mexican influence and a whole lot of American influence.  America has an amazing culinary heritage if you go looking for it.

Anyway I hope, my friend, this helps.  If you want I can post some menu ideas on your wall to help further inspire you if you want.  Let me know.

Okay this post is too long I’m going to end here.  Before I go though everyone check out a new link on my sidebar.  (bestamericanretreats.com) Okay, yeah I’m a little biased because I know the owners but these guys know their stuff.

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~ by Mel's Boy on Thursday, 18 June 2009.

2 Responses to “On My Culinary Soapbox – Hope I Don’t Fall!”

  1. You do make a lot of good points here. I agree most food in the US has been “Americanized.” Do you think that it is inevitable because of the chef or do you think that is to cater to the “American” palate?? I think this is one of the biggest arguments between business owners/managers and the chef. The owner wants to make money, period. But the chef… that is where the magic lies. The chef is creating art, but what if the buyers aren’t buying?? Location/demographics has EVERYTHING to do with the success of a business. I personally believe that is where most businesses fail. They don’t find the right market… because of convenience, available real estate, price, etc. There is a market for everything, you just have to find it.

    Jez and I were talking about restaurants that do a little of everything vs. specific market restaurants last night and decided that a restaurant should definitely have a specialty. I think we would own/manage restaurant, but hire out the Chefs/Sous Chefs to do the serious stuff. I believe it takes both business background and culinary background to run a successful restaurant. I’ve seen the results of all three scenarios (only business, only culinary, or mix) and I think it definitely needs a balance.

    Jez is applying for grad schools to get his MBA… we’re not 100%, but pretty sure his goal is to start his own business consulting company. He would do business plans, financial models, market analysis, etc. He would also have connections to financial backers and investors, attorneys, graphic designers, web designers, etc. Eventually he would like to become a venture capitalist and give out money to people who have big dreams. 🙂 At first we felt like that was too broad… that he needed to specialize in a talent or skill, but then we realized that being able to help other people find/develop theirs is a gift.

    Anyway, now I’ve hijacked your blog… thanks for the plug by the way. I’ve been slacking a bit, but plan to get back on track soon… Right now I still have to come up with my vision for a restaurant…

  2. Man you know how to push a guy’s buttons. Ok… here it goes:

    Do you think that it is inevitable because of the chef or do you think that is to cater to the “American” palate??

    In a word, yes. IMHO an American chef is an American chef everything he does will be colored by his experience. We’re artists by nature and you bring all of that to the table. That is why I can give three different people the same recipe or the same five ingredients and get completely different results. Your experience, your inner person is imparted into everything you cook.

    The owner wants to make money, period. But the chef… that is where the magic lies. The chef is creating art, but what if the buyers aren’t buying??

    Any chef worth his salt knows that this is a business first and foremost and if you are faced with a chef that doesn’t understand that show them the door and with a letter of recommendation to your closest competitor. Even if the chef never looks at a single P/L reports which is a big mistake. The chef has to know that it is a business and if the buyers are buying you’ve got the wrong market or the wrong chef or both. Just like here a BYU I like to push the envelope from time to time (only on days that end in “y”) but I reject a lot of ideas that I have because I know I’ve over stepped the market. But we’ve garnished soup with pear and brie ice cream, we’ve done orange corriander mousse, I’ve done cedar planked gnocchi, etc. You would be amazed at what the market will tolerate even here in Utah Valley.

    Jez and I were talking about restaurants that do a little of everything vs. specific market restaurants last night and decided that a restaurant should definitely have a specialty.

    Yes but couldn’t the specialty be eclectic american fusion? or Gourmet comfort? or white tablecloth redneck? I guess I jus get frustrated when I tell someone I want to open a restaurant and they want to know if I’m going to cook italian, mexican, or something along those lines. I personally don’t like the clostraphobia of those boxes as I explained above. But I am, like I think you are, wholly against the restaurant with 100 items that are mish mashed together.

    I think we would own/manage restaurant, but hire out the Chefs/Sous Chefs to do the serious stuff.

    I’m only a phone call away.

    At first we felt like that was too broad… that he needed to specialize in a talent or skill, but then we realized that being able to help other people find/develop theirs is a gift.

    I don’t think it’s too broad because technically he doesn’t have to employee all the people who do that he can simply contract with free lancers to do the work under his umbrella. So his clients never have to know that they are not his employees and he can offer this one-stop success shop. I’ll hire him…if you don’t hire me first. ACTUALLY I’m going to send you guys a message about something that’s been on my mind…. 🙂

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