Sky Full of Bacon

The Nagrant-Gebert Sessions Rematch, Pt. 2: What Do Chefs Want?

Continued from Part 1 here. Submit your questions/observations/rants in the comments and we’ll do our best to address them on Friday.

MICHAEL GEBERT: Yesterday you brought up what I think are a couple of related trends. As far as the artisanal-named meats and all that goes, if we’ve reached a point where the farmers everybody knows the names of are selling everything they can grow, I think that’s great, because it’s going to draw others into the business.  If there’s one thing I got from the videos that I shot this year, it was Dave Cleverdon of Kinnikinnick Farm’s rousing endorsement of the invisible hand as the better farmer’s best friend.  He absolutely believes in the meritocracy of the free market, that if all these farmers do the things they believe in and chase the little market niches they see, they will continue growing the market, because they will find chefs who will fall in love with what they grow and sustain them.  That’s working like it should.

I’m a little more dubious about the butchery trend— not the motives of the guys going into it for love, but whether that love will be reciprocated.  There’s a big price differential with artisanal meat, you pay a lot not only for flavor and service, but for the much more intangible ethical part.  Will people do that?  I know more than a few foodies, at least so-called, who are almost proudly oblivious to why you’d want to do that.  I’d be curious to know how much pork that little Becker stand at Green City Market sells; you certainly look at those prices and get a little light-headed.  But God bless ‘em for trying it.

But I understand if meat-namedropping feels like this year’s indicator of lack of imagination.  I certainly understand the comment about feeling like the same restaurant opened ten times this year— you could close your eyes at Longman & Eagle and reopen them at The Fountainhead and never realize you’d just teleported, they’re practically the same room laid out in the same way.  Still, I feel like in general, the porkification of the food scene has net lowered the bullshit level on the food scene compared to where it was 8 or 9 years ago when I first started yapping on the internet about food.  Chefs who were hiding behind “Mediterranean” or Asian fusion or other trends where it’s easy to just apply six coats of flavor like Earl Scheib’s have a lot less room to hide when it’s just you and a Slagel pork chop going mano a swino.  So maybe it’s just that we’ve been to different places, but where do you see this focus on decor over food?

MICHAEL NAGRANT: As far as what should be the focus on food over décor, well I don’t know if it’s “over” as much as a lot of the creativity once reserved for food is now being spread all over the business and at some point I wonder if that lessens the food.  I mean it’s good when the cook is truly dedicated to craft and not just motivated by egotism.  But, for every Grant Achatz who will focus on flavor first and be able to reinvent cocktails, there are five chefs who think they can also be mixologists and end up sending out soapy-tasting alchohol bombs.

This is sort of a manifestation of another trend, which is that cooks don’t know how to cook the basics because they’re focused on the fame instead of the craft. I can’t tell you how much bad “handmade” pasta or dried out charcuterie I’ve had this year, because handmade pasta and sausage is hot (which is funny because they’ve both been hot since 1772 really).   Then there’s the money grab.  How many cooks have been ruined by chasing the title, the pay, or greener grass before they were ready, more so these days because there’s so much opportunity?

I mean why did Todd Stein leave a perfect thing at Cibo Matto to cook his food at the glorified airport lounge/faux library/garage sale art gallery that is The Florentine?  I guess I should ask, but you know this an informal exchange on the Internet and I don’t have a lot of time to dig, so I’ll make an assumption it was because of the promise of more in some way or another.  The good news is his pasta is incredible and because I discount everything else in service of the food (see above) I’ll still eat there.

So back to butchers, yeah, no doubt the prime cuts will still cost a lot, but I bet I’ll be able to get some flap meat or some offal from Rob Levitt at a price comparable to commodity filet and I’ll take that at that price and know that what I’m about to cook will have ten times more flavor than that Jewel choice cut.   Then again, as we’ve said – market choice – more demand, more farmers, less differentiation because everything will be higher quality means lower prices in the end. Then again it could go like cable internet and the butchers will continue to charge ridiculous fixed prices to support their coke habits and other restaurants, err cable television infrastructure.

What I do know is that I can’t afford to shop at Dirk’s Fish everyday, but I do buy from them once a month or whenever I need something from the sea that has to be incredible.  I know that I tell anyone who will listen that his soft shell crabs are still moving and foaming at the mouth in the case and the crab just got off a boat from Alaska and I send my friends and family there once a month as well. It adds up.  There may be only one Dirk’s but it means something for our community.  There won’t be a lot of craft butchers either, but a few is all we need.

One thing I gotta ask is, why did we suddenly get 30 BBQ restaurants this year? Is it the Smoque effect?  And why are almost none of them as good as Smoque, which by the way uses Sysco peaches in their cobbler and a Southern Pride cooker (which is not an indictment as much as a surprising observation).  I mean I guess it’s the Ansel Adams thing – dude had a glorified wood box with a hole in it and he still took pictures better than the kvetching Leica owner in 2010.   It’s not the tool, but how you use it that counts.  I know some will say Smoque is not that good. I will say I ate in Memphis at a handful of hand-smoking pits and no rib was as good as the rib I had at Smoque last week.

GEBERT: Secret to barbecue in Memphis, I finally realized, is that you can’t expect the meat to have that heavy Texas smoke thing, it’s not about the meat— it’s about how the chopped pork goes on cheap white bread with mustard-tinged cole slaw and makes a harmonious dish.  Now, as far as peach cobbler goes, 128-oz. cans of industrial peaches are authentic to soul food…

But anyway, getting back to this originality thing.  You really feel you had bad charcuterie?  I don’t think any charcuterie I ever had was bad, though maybe some of it was not as interesting as it could be, which is probably the inevitable result of a bunch of chefs going gung-ho for something where the feedback loop on even your first try is months.  (The Purple Pig, for instance, I definitely suggest placing the bulk of your interest on the regular dishes.)  Who knows what it takes to become really really good at it, but let’s call it a minimum of five years’ serious effort, how many guys doing it aren’t still in the first third of that learning curve?  So it’s not surprising that our scene in that regard is still behind Seattle, or Italy.  Or behind our own ethnic charcuterie makers, for that matter; the fastest antidote to getting gouged for a few thin slices of uninteresting cured meat at the latest hot joint is to go to a place like Riviera on Harlem and get the real Italian-American, made-in-house deal for a pittance by comparison.

(Incidentally, when I had my first 46-minute-long chance to ask Grant Achatz a few questions, one of them was about whether charcuterie would be part of the first Paris 1906 or whatever it is concept at Next.  I was interested in how Alinea would do charcuterie, to be sure, but also in whether he saw any limit to his ability to just swoop into a cuisine and show everybody who’d been practicing it for 20 years how it’s really done.  And this would be one thing where he’d basically have to get it right the first time, just given the time frame.  His answer was that cured meat wasn’t really part of L’Escoffier’s thing, just forcemeats (i.e. pates and fresh sausages), and that charcuterie was doubtless in their future, but a ways off.  Which struck me as a wisely politic answer, as well as a tantalizing glimpse of what the future may hold.)

It’s revealing to me that you look at it in terms of bold, individual creativity— who’s going to be the next great name brand artist, or whether there will be one at all from this crowd.  Maybe it’s just that we’re focused on different levels of the market, but I hear you saying that this group of ever-faithful aspirant restaurant owners hasn’t really displayed enough creativity, that you don’t see the next mindblower like Alinea or Schwa in the current crop.  And maybe that’s true.  A comfort food, pork-heavy year is probably a safe year.

But I think maybe even more than another mad genius or two, what our scene needs is more top-flight excellence in the classic cuisines.  I mean, there’s “Italian” quote-unquote food all over this city, but how many truly first-rate Italian restaurants would you say there are?  A dozen, optimistically?  Eight?  One or maybe two breadbakers, the jury’s out on charcuterie makers, can we really say we have a great seafood-focused place?  So maybe that’s what we’re seeing this year in these comfort food places— less interest in flashy genius and a little more in doing right by the old great things.  We’re not going to get another subatomic fusion place, but we got an authentic Dutch place, of all things, we get places like Three Aces that should be serving mozzarella sticks like any other bar and instead are making rustic dishes like beef heart spiedini. We seem to have flipped overnight from having Chocolate-Parsnips Subsonic Nasal Spray for dessert to roasting potatoes over a peasant fire with a stick as the hot new thing in Andersonville.  (I don’t mind if the desire for new sensations leads straight to the oldest things on earth, though I do wonder, where does it stop? A grill your own woolly mammoth steakhouse?)

And what surprises me is if that’s a phenomenon of conservatism creeping into the scene, nevertheless, the amount of activity on the scene is just gaga-80s. I mean, I hardly talk to anybody, it seems, who isn’t in the process of opening a restaurant right now.  In this economy, it not only means there’s still the money out there that wants to play in this game, but there’s faith on the part of so many people that the world is just waiting out there for their take on stuff.  That this city is still full of unfilled niches. So I see this really paradoxical scene that’s crying out for chefs to be stars and make their names, but encouraging them to cook pretty classic, conservative stuff with just a little filigree of individual style on top.  Again, I’m really not complaining, based on the food, but how did that happen?

NAGRANT: Regarding charcuterie: one’s man’s “uninteresting” is another’s “bad”. But I guess I sort of see it like you do, there are a lot of middling options and very few positive outliers.

As for the next big thing. I don’t think it matters whether a chef becomes a household name or is so bold that they attract some kind of fame or recognition. I’m just most interested in those chefs who ignore the noise and pursue their own voice. As with books or movies, I find the greatest experiences come from those who create their own worlds and then draw people in to them.  Despite the Michelin stars, few people know who Shin Thompson of Bonsoiree is, but he has a certain brand of Noma meets Alinea meets Nobu that no one else is doing.  Likewise, that’s why I also like the Ruxbin folks with their decoupage cookbook page ceiling and their Korean empanadas.

So you ask why is there a restaurant boom given the bad economy? Think of Schwa, Bill Kim’s joints, Mado etc as the Pixies or the Ramones of the culinary world (then again why didn’t Hot Doug Sohn have the same impact years ago?  I mean he’s like the Velvet Underground – the earliest of the influential lo-fi culinarians.)  Carlson, Kim et al, like their band counterparts, created a model of economy that worked that most chefs could relate to. Finally, there was an example that broke down this whole idea of having to serve app, entree, dessert in a stodgy setting that cost a lot to build.

I mean the Pixies weren’t hugely successful in the early days, but they were a cult favorite and they screamed and were dissonant  and tongue-in-cheek in a way that no one else was. Some dude named Kurt Cobain was like, hey that speaks to me, I don’t have to be a sell out or play verse chorus verse to do this.

Now you have chefs who used to think you had to spend a million dollars and a year on build out, who were waiting for princely investors, switch to the idea that, hey, I can totally open a place without linens and build it out in a week because that’s what Rob Levitt did.

Likewise if you’re a smaller investor or minor player it’s easier for you to get in the game now.  The problem of course when people who don’t understand a scene get involved sometimes the only thing they know how to do is ape what was successful and not do their own thing.  So after Nirvana’s huge success, every band in Seattle and some who just moved there got signed to a major label.  Hoping to reproduce the Nirvana success, labels wouldn’t let any of their new signees do anything but watered down grunge, thus leading to a whole lot of boring band failures.

I think in the culinary world the conservatism we’re seeing is similar to that. I.e. investors from outside are like ohh, Pork Belly! Pre-Prohibition Cocktails! Servers Wearing Jeans! Organ Meat!  Yeah, we gotta do that.  If we don’t, we won’t make money. And sure, it’s a good enough formula for a few year’s ride, but how many of these places will be around in five?

TOMORROW: Why everybody’s hating on foodies this week

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