Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Celebrity Chef Restaurants: The Rise Of The Emperor-Chefs

by Joe Satran

In September 1991, chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Todd English looked unstoppable. English had just been named the James Beard Rising Chef of the Year after leading his restaurant Olives in Charleston, Mass., to two years of wide acclaim. Jean-Georges had just opened his first solo restaurant, JoJo, a bistro on New York's Upper East Side, after over four years as the chef of Lafayette, where he'd earned a rave four-star review from the New York Times at the age of 31.  JoJo, meanwhile, was quickly becoming a smash hit. Times restaurant critic Bryan Miller said that the dining room was so packed that it often evoked "Epcot Center during spring break," and declared the food, light on cream and butter, "cooking for the '90s." They were young, good-looking, prodigiously talented chefs cooking in a country that was just starting to grow taste buds -- why would anyone even want to stop them?

Twenty years later, they have become household names, received further accolades and thickened their wallets considerably. Jean-Georges now owns 27 restaurants, and English owns 20. Dishes they've invented -- Jean-Georges's molten chocolate cake and foie gras crème brûlée, English's fig-prosciutto pizza -- have become industry staples. They've made inroads to becoming a part of the mainstream, each releasing guides to home cooking this fall, and being featured in People magazine. They are celebrities and restaurateurs, rich and famous -- but are they still chefs?

That's the question that has haunted English, Vongerichten and the whole coterie of "emperor-chefs" since their ascension. (By "emperor-chef," we mean to exclude celebrity chefs, like Giada de Laurentiis and Ina Garten, who are more TV personalities than restaurateurs.) Pretty much everyone knows that, if you go into one of the 23 restaurants owned by Gordon Ramsay or the 13 owned by Bobby Flay, your chances of eating a meal actually cooked by the chef are slim to none. So the question of what the job of "emperor-chef" entails -- beyond appearing on TV, writing memoirs and cashing a fat check at the end of every month -- is a salient one.

It's a question that has been known to raise tempers. Alan Richman, the restaurant critic for GQ, is an especially harsh critic of empire-building by talented chefs. "Cooking is one of the most individual enterprises in the world," he told the Huffington Post. "There's nothing that lends itself less well to franchising than cooking."

Richman argues that the emergence of the emperor-chef -- a phenomenon he traces back to Wolfgang Puck, now the owner of 92 restaurants -- is a product of cooks' material aspirations. "For most of history, nobody got rich being a chef. Then they figured out a way to get rich -- it was TV and franchising," he said.

English and Vongerichten rose in parallel for most of the '90s. English won his second Beard Award when named Best Chef in the Northeast in 1994. He opened branches of Olives in Washington, Las Vegas and Aspen. He wrote cookbooks and launched other restaurant concepts: Figs, a more casual version of Olives, in Boston and La Guardia Airport; Kingfish Hall, a seafood eatery in Faneuil Hall; an Italian restaurant, Tuscany, in Connecticut's Mohegan Sun casino.

Meanwhile, Jean-Georges used JoJo as a platform for other ventures. He opened an NYC Asian-Fusion restaurant called Vong in 1993, then another in London in 1995. He waited until 1997 to return to haute gastronomy, with the eponymous Jean Georges restaurant in the Trump International Hotel. It is, to this day, his flagship, and one of the most highly-acclaimed restaurants in America. It won both four stars from the new York Times and the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant just months after opening. In 1998, Jean-Georges also received the Beard Award for Most Outstanding Chef in the Country.

It could be argued, though, that the two chefs' success in the '90s bred a kind of gastronomic hubris. There have been missteps.

Jean-Georges may have started to expand too quickly, as he began opening restaurants and building his empire both inside and outside New York. A few restaurants he'd opened such as Vong's Thai Kitchen in Chicago and New York's 66 and Matsugen closed after just a few years. More stingingly for a chef of such wide acclaim, Frank Bruni stripped stars from Spice Market, Vong and Mercer Kitchen in a blistering series of reviews in the Times.

"You couldn't see his name and say, 'Yep, that'll definitely be a great restaurant,'" Bruni said in an email to The Huffington Post. "You had to be a more informed, discerning diner than that, and to know that some Jean-Georges was 100 percent reliable, some not. ABC Kitchen, one of his newest, can be terrific. But that doesn't mean all of his new restaurants will be."

Read the complete story here.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Department Store Fine Dining Lives On

by Michael Martin

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (MainStreet) -- The Broadway, Lord & Taylor, Macy's and more prospered and grew into 19th century shopping empires and centers of fashion commerce in cities such as Los Angeles, New York and London. Many of these grand department stores remained social epicenters through much of the early 20th century with legendary restaurants frequented by the creme de la creme of society. But through business consolidation and urban change, many of these restaurants are gone.

Others lived on to become fashionable -- and delicious -- reminders of shopping's gilded age.

Founded in 1907, Neiman Marcus has been a fixture in downtown Dallas for more than a century. On the renaissance-revival structure's sixth floor is The Zodiac, the store's flagship restaurant -- a gathering point for dapper businessmen and ladies who lunch. The design mixes terrazzo concrete floors with a modern design aesthetic of pale blue walls adorned with whimsical white plaster-framed mirrors with art nouveau detailing.

Today at The Zodiac, a lunch-only service begins with convenient half-bottles of Krug Grand Cuvee or a San Francisco bloody mary followed by fresh-baked popovers with butter. Texas-sized portions of salads follow -- Asian ahi tuna or steak, with heaping filet mignon and crumbled blue cheese. Executive Chef David Crow also serves a classic croque madame with truffle fries, or a heartier braised pot roast that's a dining room classic.

In New York, there's no shortage of showy department store eateries, including David Burke at Bloomingdale's and the epic BG Restaurant at Bergdorf Goodman. But Fred's at Barneys New York manages to remain a New York City standout. Named after the son of company founder Barney Pressman, the company's Madison Avenue flagship ninth-floor restaurant offers lunch and dinner. The space offers a more relaxed style than other upscale department store eateries; its walls are festooned in black-and-white photography and the crowds always includes some of New York's most eccentric fashionistas.

Divided equally among those that came to be seen and those looking to eat over business, this popular power lunch spot offers top-notch tuna tartare on mixed greens, lobster bisque and Neapolitan-style pizzas, including a signature "Wise Guy" with hot and sweet sausage. The Italian theme continues with pappardelle pasta in a beef ragu and carrot tortellini with ricotta cheese. The entrees offer a more American theme, including a lobster club, sauteed filet of sole and Angus sliced steak. The menu gets regional substitutions at Fred's locations at select Barneys New York stores in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Chicago.

One of the most famous department store dining rooms in the country is now known as the Walnut Room of Macy's State Street, once Chicago's famous Marshall Field's department store. Opened in 1907, the famous eatery is a downtown tourist stop for those looking to dine in a fabled setting preserved to feel like another time. The grand dining room occupies a showcase spot under a dramatic ceiling, and there's an elaborate marble fountain, opulent display of Austrian crystal chandelier and white-clothed tables, all ensconced in vintage walnut paneling. 

Newer elements of the Walnut Room include a wine bar with communal table, opened in the store's centennial year. Open for lunch and pre-theater supper, the restaurant offers a menu mixing old-time classic such as a peach nest salad with chicken in a nest of shoestring potatoes with peaches, grapes and strawberries or Mrs. Hering's chicken potpie. Newer dishes have been dreamed up by Macy's own Culinary Council, a group of chefs consulted from around the country and resulting in such dishes as Tim Scott's farmers market chop salad and Tom Douglas' crabcake BLT.

In California it's been a tough history lesson for fabled dining rooms at legendary department stores such as I. Magnin & Co. in San Francisco, Los Angeles' Bullock's Wilshire -- now the attic of a law library -- and Robinson's, whose shuttered Beverly Hills location may be demolished. While dining rooms still exist at top departments stores, finding one here with the buzz of yesteryear is a tough prospect. One exception is Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale's South Coast Plaza, which since 2008 has occupied a starry dining room that wouldn't look out of place on New York's Upper West Side, even if it is in one of California's poshest shopping malls.

Read the complete story here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Chef Curren: Cooking Basics Don't Change

I grew up fascinated with food and cooking. This seems strange now, looking back; no one in my family worked in the industry. My father did a short stint as a dishwasher and short-order cook at Howard Johnson’s while he was in graduate school, but as far as careers in the culinary world were concerned, I was oblivious.

Despite this, I found myself as a youngster concocting God-knows-what anytime I was allowed near the stove. I thought my creations turned out well, but I doubt I would feel the same now. I’ve always been a creative person, and for whatever reason cooking became my medium of choice.

I can remember watching shows like “The French Chef” with Julia Child, “Yan Can Cook,” “The Galloping Gourmet” and “Great Chefs of the World.” This was back before the Food Network and the phenomenon of celebrity chefdom. These people had raw talent and an incredible knowledge of the basic principles of cooking.

I was enthralled and would write down recipes that I saw on the shows so that I could try and re-create them. The 10- and 11-year-old version of me could never quite manage to get them right, but still, I tried.

Today we all follow the media frenzy that was created by the Food Network, and the TMZ-esque nature of the current culinary scene. Not many of us realize the hard work, dedication and understanding of centuries-old techniques that go into actually being a chef today. I promise you it is not at all a glamorous lifestyle. 

Everything we do in professional kitchens can be linked back to Auguste Escoffier. He revolutionized cooking. He introduced the brigade system (the basis for how modern kitchens work today) and honed cooking techniques for pretty much every ingredient imaginable. He truly is the father of modern cooking.

What drives me is the idea that cooking is a craft to be learned and perfected, though true perfection is almost unattainable. Today we all use technology to make our lives easier. We have tools like blenders, vacuum sealers, immersion circulators, ISI foamers — the list goes on and on. We use these at Blue 13, but I always strive to remember the basic principles that make a great meal.

What creates flavor? Acid, salt, heat. There is a need for texture in a dish. There are flavors that work together. All of these principles were set up by Escoffier. We can put all the “magic” we want into a dish, but at the end of the day, it just doesn’t work without the basic techniques executed well.

There is something to be said for a perfectly cooked piece of fish, which is not an easy task. I am sure many TV personalities would have a hard time doing that. We run around following those we read about or see on TV, those with the newest, craziest restaurant opening this month. But what really matters are those who have talent and ability, and are working hard to perfect their passion. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course. There are many talented chefs who are well-known and who are very much a part of the media craze.

Trends come and go, but the basics in cooking will always remain the same. Take away all the smoke and mirrors that restaurants use and at the end of the day, all modern cuisine is rooted in Escoffier’s principles. 

Read the rest of the story here.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

America Discovers the Sweet Potato

Bouncing down a dirt road, past emerald fields thick with sweet potato plants, farmer Robert Garcia hunched over the steering wheel of his pickup truck and grinned with glee.

It's the beginning of harvest season and, once again, his bounty of orange- and yellow-fleshed roots is looking promising.

"You used to see cotton fields and grapevines out here," said Garcia, 54, whose family grows and packs sweet potatoes out of their Central California farm operations.

"Now the talk is sweet potatoes, sweet potatoes, how can I get more sweet potatoes?"

Forget the marshmallows and the Thanksgiving buffet table. The sweet potato has become a year-round food.

Over the last decade, Americans have more than doubled their consumption of the thin-skinned vegetable, according to the United States Sweet Potato Council: U.S. consumers, per capita, now wolf down 6.2 pounds of sweet potatoes each year.

Diners overseas, too, have developed a fondness for it. U.S. farmers exported 200.3 million pounds of sweet potatoes in 2010, up from 38.5 million pounds in 2000, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service.

Here in the U.S., sweet potatoes are showing up at presidential state dinners and on White Castle's menu. They're cropping up in soup bowls, eating up shelf space in grocery store chip aisles, and piling up high in French fry baskets. At Umami Burger, a fast-growing Los Angeles chain, cooks can barely keep up with the demand for their sweet potato fries dusted with cinnamon and salt.

"It has a nice sweetness but is still savory," said Adam Fleischman, chief executive of Umami Restaurant Group. "That combination, the sweet-savory, is really popular right now."

Besides, Fleischman said, "they're familiar to people, but still something different to try."

Garcia, the central California farmer, sees nothing but potential for growth. Ten years ago, he and his family farmed 240 acres of sweet potatoes in Turlock and surrounding areas. Today, they've expanded that to 400 acres and opened a packing plant in Livingston.

Inside the facility, the air smells sweet and earthy as workers gently drop the potatoes into a washing station and hand-sort them as they move down a conveyor belt. Nearby, boxes of potatoes sit waiting for trucks to take them to Costco and other grocery retailers in the U.S.

"People love them, and farmers notice that," Garcia said.

That growth was driven in part by a shift in nutritional and culinary circles. Although traditional white potatoes still dominate the potato market, doctors and weight-loss groups touted the benefits of whole roasted sweet potatoes — which are higher in fiber and Vitamin A than traditional white potatoes, and lower on the glycemic index.

Yet it was cooks' slicing up sweet potatoes and dunking them into a deep fryer that fed the public demand.

The number of restaurants offering sweet potatoes has grown 14% in the last three years, according to a survey of 704 restaurant menus conducted by Chicago-based market research firm Technomic Inc. Much of that increase comes from restaurants featuring sweet potato fries.

Packaged-food giant ConAgra Foods, seeing a lucrative market, opened a new $156-million plant in Louisiana this year devoted to processing sweet potatoes into frozen fries and other products.

"If you're in the restaurant business, you know the country is changing to healthier selections, or selections seen as being healthier," said Harry Balzer of the NPD Group, a market research firm that has been tracking U.S. eating habits for more than three decades.

"So restaurants are looking for a new version of something the public already loves: the typical French fry.... If companies can set up the same infrastructure for processing sweet potatoes that they have for [white] potatoes for French fries, the market could be huge."

Read the rest of the story here.