Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Well you certainly are a talkative bunch

Rather than individually respond to comments and posts on here and a few other places, I figured I would just do a continuation of my last post (I also ended that one kind of abruptly, so I would like to fix that!).

Daniel, I am going to take your approach here, so thanks for the format.

Great post - le sigh, that creme brulee! I've seen that, too, or at least similar situations. It breaks my heart when I go to write about a place that everyone raves about, only to see it's a bunch of pre-processed factory shit that "chefs" are essentially boiling in a bag and charging a ridiculous amount for. A lot of the problem (at least from where I stand, I can't speak from a chef's position) seems to be owners trying to cut corners to boost profits. It's greedy, it's self-serving, and it's just simply wrong. I wish customers weren't so complacent and willing to ask all the Portlandia-style questions.

Very much enjoyed this piece, looking forward to reading more.

Deanna - I think that most people, regardless of their knowledge of food or its importance in their life - would be off put if they knew frequency in which convenience products are used. This isn't exactly the same thing but I think it will make the point. I remember once upon a time on Table Hopping someone complaining about how they found out a local bakery was freezing their cakes and how they were appalled by this. And then there was this never ending comment section with people going on and on about how they couldn't believe it and that they can always tell the difference between cakes that have been frozen and ones that have not. But the reality is - I would venture a guess that 95% of every cake anyone has ever had that wasn't made in their or someone else's home.. has spent at least some part of its life in a freezer. Yet these people went their whole lives being totally fine with these cakes... only hating them once they knew they were in a freezer. Whenever I hear someone say they hate when a place uses a freezer I think of a mentor of mine telling me about working at Payard's in New York City...and their holiday production and how from the week before Thanksgiving to New Years they would sell something like 30,000 cakes. People would order these cakes from around the world. Francois Payard is/was considered one of the best Pastry Chefs in the world. Do you think they used freezers? You bet they did! Were the cakes compromised in any way? Nope!

Now.. I will go right out front and say convenience products are a necessary evil to some degree - but the downright reliance on them I have seen in many kitchens in this shocking. I wouldn't place all the blame on money hungry management/owners, but they certainly are a factor. The most obvious reason chefs use them is because they are convenient...You can be as idealistic as anyone else but when it comes down to it - unless everyone (especially management/owners) is on board - you just might not have enough time or labor hours to get everything done. The thing I keep going back to is hiring a Pastry Chef (Shocker here - I am a Pastry Chef). To the best of my knowledge, desserts are typically ordered by around 30% of your guests (obviously numbers fluctuate based on a million things - so this is just a general, average number). Your revenue needs to be pretty high to justify paying a 40-50k salary for a position that doesn't necessarily bring in a ton of cash. Its made even more complicated by the fact that - frankly you can get 'passable' desserts from any of the major food suppliers, and ordering your entire dessert menu and bread program from Sysco is a lot cheaper and less of a gamble. In many cases it makes more sense to hire another great sous chef (who will work on the menu that 100% of your guests will order from) and then have some of your cooks prep some easy desserts in their down time, and fill in the rest with prefabricated stuff you get from your supplier. I have seen this exact scenario - both with and without pastry chefs - in several kitchens in this area. This includes many of the 'high end' or 'nicer' restaurants. 

I also want to tell a quick story about a chef I used to work for - even though I am more than capable of making a cake - he would only let me serve boxed yellow cake in his restaurant. For birthdays, weddings, any special occasion. His reasoning wasn't 'Greg, you suck at making cakes' or 'Greg, you don’t have time to make these cakes' or 'We don’t have the labor $ to have you make these cakes' - it was that people were generally raised on boxed yellow cakes - and because of that they prefer it over anything else. Was he right? Im not sure. I don’t agree with it - but I don’t necessarily disagree with his logic.

Yes. It's hard to get people to break out of their comfort zones. Especially in the Capital Region. 

But I'm encouraged by the success of places like Ala Shanghai. Still, it amazes me how many food lovers have never even heard of the place despite all of its accolades in the regional food blogs and traditional media. Tara Kitchen is another place I would not have suspected to take off as much as it has. And when I heard that Vic & Heather were opening up a wine bar in Troy, I thought they were nuts. Boy, was I wrong.

There is a hunger for better things done right. But people are so starved for innovation they are also willing to applaud mediocre things just for their novelty. 

I'm glad to have you back on the scene holding up those places that are doing things well and calling to task those who under deliver.

Daniel, Im glad that we agree that people around here are reluctant to break out of their comfort zones. I am fascinated by our different takes on things though. We both have lived in bigger cities - ones with Micheline guides and established food scenes. I know I can be emotional with my opinions and I have trouble looking at things differently sometimes. I was at Ala Shanghai the week they opened. I live in Latham - have spent the better part of the past decade essentially living with a Taiwanese family (who were Chefs in Taiwan) and would somewhat regularly make treks to Flushing for good soup dumplings. Off the bat, Ala Shanghai was a disappointment. They were serving more traditional fare but…I still didn’t think it was well done. I noticed some other things that rubbed me the wrong way too - how dramatically different the quality of food and service was when I was with the family I spoke of earlier, who would order in Mandarin, from the Chinese language menu verses when I would order the same food in English, by myself. Over the next year or so they did improve. From my understanding this was from the Chinese American community complaining to them about making their food too….’gringo’. Now…there are a few things that I feel are worth ordering - but for the most part I think the place is still kind of a bust. I always felt that it stuck out because they were doing something ‘new’ for this area and people were excited by that (or as you put it…people applauding it for its novelty) . Tara kitchen I haven’t gotten to yet - but I have been wanting to for a while. 

Its interesting that you mention Vic & Heather. Only a few hours before you posted this comment I met the two of them for the first time, and it was somewhat energizing talking with them. Vic kept saying that this area is ‘Hungry for culture’ and all you have to do is give it to them. Listening to him talk about his experience with the wine bar, and how in two years he hasn’t had a single bad night or felt down about it….its good to hear that. I think they do stand out because they are bringing an aesthetic and quality to the area that was….for the most part, lacking before. I spent a while talking to Nick and Matt, who are running the kitchen at Peck’s Arcade and it was neat hearing them express the same frustrations and thoughts about this area and food - but they were excited…talking about how they’re going to cook the food they want to eat and have fun with it …and its being well received. Look at the pop up they did. If you told me you were going to have a ramen pop up for two (non consecutive) days - and you would see nearly a thousand people walk through the doors - I would tell you that you are crazy and there is no demand for it. But guess what? I would be wrong. They were successful - doing what they want. So…its exciting - and Im interested to see how the restaurant is received. 

In response to Daniels post on FLB;

You are right in that the general feel of (lets say, one star) Michelin Restaurants is shifting. You do see less formal, more affordable restaurants with stars now…and yes, they can be affordable. While I think that you will spend more money at a starred restaurant stands true as a general rule of thumb - it is not always the case. But I think that the point I was trying to make - and I guess I wasn’t totally successful at - was that the cost of running the restaurant is prohibitive for our population size in addition to the amount of disposable income people are willing to drop on a meal. I feel that in the Capital District you may have a certain number of people willing to dine at Yono’s, 677, and Sperry’s regularly but the overhead doesn’t equal out. Theres the obvious - spending more money on labor, employing more-highly talented people, buying higher end ingredients….but there are other things to consider. Think….service pieces. Sperry’s buys their china at The Christmas Tree Shop (or at least they did when I worked there). I can’t speak for Spotted Pig but the starred restaurants I staged and worked at all had their china made specifically for them - or ordered from companies like Villeroy & Boch. These service pieces on average cost ten times what china from Christmas Tree Shop costs - and they break just as often (there is some possibility of a warranty, but I usually associate that with cheaper, durable china rather than fine pieces). I think what I am trying to say is in starred restaurants every detail requires attention and thought and (typically) money - and this helps to elevate the experience across the board. Now while a restaurant with similar price points may survive around here - Im not sure that a place would float with similar numbers…meaning a starred restaurant with similar prices would have to turn more tables than, say, 677 in order to stay afloat…and large cities have enough people to make that model work. Small cities like Albany…Im not sure. 

I also want to be clear - as I saw it in some comments…I don’t expect Michelin to ever release a guide for Upstate New York - I am merely using Michelin as a point of reference for a level of quality. 

Ultimately I just don’t see the same culture in the restaurant scene around here as I did in starred/fine dining kitchens in Chicago. The entire mentality, mood and overall discipline is just absent. A comment from your post on FLB sums up what I mean pretty well…and I will leave it at that.

December 22, 2014 3:51 pm
I worked for years as a line cook and sous chef at a number of Manhattan restaurants, mostly in New York Times two- and three-star kitchens, and including one that’s held a Michelin star for five years now. I moved to Albany two years ago to go back to school, but continued cooking to pay the bills, so I’ve spent time in the kitchens of some of the real darlings of the Capital Region restaurant scene, either as an employee or a one-day interview/”stage”. I was and remain appalled by what I’ve seen. I haven’t seen one kitchen, either as a cook or as a diner that approaches the level of skill, attention, discipline, and organization required to cook at that level. I’ve worked with cooks in Albany who can’t even be bothered to clean up a spill in the walk-in, let alone get an acceptable sear on an order of scallops, or to sharpen their knives – that is, if they even own and take care of their own. These are highly-regarded restaurants, too. The disingenuous owners aren’t any better, passing off Sysco-purveyed cut-rate institutional products and bulk frozen goods as “artisanal” or “local” in their menu descriptions (just pay attention to the delivery trucks rolling behind your favorite local gastropub). No one cares, at all – this is the norm around here. Perhaps, as Mr. Colose suggests, it is because the customers expect so little, beyond quantity over quality and a hefty doggie bag to go home with.
I have nothing personal against the restaurant business in Albany, and I really wish it wasn’t as disappointing as it is, especially now that I’m retired as a cook and would like to enjoy a meal as a customer from time to time.

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