Tuesday, February 8, 2011

And a Bald Man Shall Lead Them...

I frequently blog about dining trends.  I try never to talk about something I don't know, and I try to keep my opinions grounded in reason.  I have never hidden my disdain for chain restaurants, the Food Network and the decline of fine dining.  I read Michael Pollan, but I don't preach him.  I'm a purist, but a realist and above all, imperfect.  But, I am a man of convictions.  I hold integrity in the highest regard. 

At the end of last year, I started to wax prophetic, wondering what was coming down the pike for food-loving friends, family and the industry as a whole.  The most common predictions could easily be seen coming, like the proliferation of food trucks and a smack-down of the darling cupcake by the humble, er- pie. The question for me wasn't if there would be a return to fine dining, but when.  I was just waiting for things to bottom out.  I wanted to see how low it could go before it corrected itself.  So, when foie gras is being served on french fries with gravy or as a slider- it can't be far behind.

But, I felt it in my bones that 2011 would be the year the restaurant industry would finally turn the corner on its malaise and go straight for the jugular.   A full-fledged fight for the slow, but steady return of fine dining. Yesterday was, I believe, the tipping point for that premonition to come true. 

Philadelphia Chef Marc Vetri and partner Jeff Benjamin of VETRI announced they would abandon their a la carte menu at their 36 seat, flagship restaurant to serve only a 12-course chef's tasting experience at $135 per person while losing six seats in the process.  The decision didn't phase me.  Vetri has been awarded just about every accolade you can hope for (all well-earned) while maintaining the integrity of his restaurants, cuisine, and- as some people will point out- brand.  Much chatter is on about a "gamble" and "risk", while people who have never been to his restaurants poo-poo the news as wasteful and exorbitant.  There was a time when elite meant something positive: "the choice or best of anything considered collectively, as of a group or class of persons", so says Webster.  If Marc Vetri and his eponymous restaurant do not epitomize that definition, then I'm Martha Stewart.

The most elite chefs have always lead the world in finest cuisine and highest culinary standards.  If by "risk" and "gamble" people mean "balls"- then, yes- it takes courage, vision, commitment and balls to see your vision to fruition.  So called elite restaurants with similar formats have survived the pummeling the industry took since 2008.  And, it's certainly not an issue of Vetri not being in the same class as Per Se, Alinea, or Charlie Trotter's.  That's why this reads to me as more a savvy, calculated business move with potential for huge success based on a proven track record and a little moxie than a big gamble.

So how does that translate into a swinging of the culinary pendulum?  Well, you needn't be a restaurant insider to read between the lines of Philly Inquirer Craig LaBan's article to see there's a whole cadre of chefs young and old with "pent-up desire" who want to show their chops off, but are beholden to an owner with the jitters or banks with no confidence.  Imagine the restaurant progeny from Vetri alone.  Now imagine the confidence and encouragement a move like this provides them.  Don't think the entire Philly restaurant scene isn't watching and waiting to see what happens.  

Another example: Georges Perrier's Le Bec Fin.  Last fall he announced he would close and cited new projects with down-scaled concepts he would pursue instead.  Well, don't write off LBF just yet; Georges is not closing, and he's not selling the business.  In fact, the same article quotes, "I think I panicked too early and made changes I should never have done," as he reports his table d'hote menus ranging from $45 to $185 are now back up to 80% of his sales. 

The other part of this equation that is critical is the narrowing of seats and focus on filling them.  It becomes a more unique "experience", and for that, I believe people will pay.  Chef's all over America dream about customers walking into their place, sitting down and saying, "Feed me whatever you want.  I trust you."  They want people to let go and submit to their culinary artistry.  You can't do that in a 100-seat restaurant and you can't do it without a proven track record.

No, this revolution won't be with fanfare or fireworks, and it won't be on a Top 10 list in December.  Chef Vetri says, "We are allowing evolution to happen."  This evolution revolution will start by winning small battles in tiny, cozy storefronts like Vetri in food-centric cities, like Philly.  And, a bald man shall lead them...


Velva said...

The food industry is very much a pendulum. I look forward to enjoying the art of eating. I can cook local at home-when I go out, I want to experience something different.

Happy New Year to you!


R said...

Velva- agreed. I love cooking at home, but when I want to further my horizons, I look to the future, which is happening now. When I consider what people pay to see Madonna and Lady GaGa for three hours, it's a no-brainer for me!


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