Wednesday, February 23, 2011

More Songs About Buildings and Food

Everyone seems to think they know about music from 1978.  Ignoring the simultaneous exploding genres of disco, country and western and metal, there were bands making music that didn't fit any mold, and as such, they were largely missed by Americans.  Kraftwerk,  O.M.D. and Talking Heads arguably did their best and most unique work in the late 70s.  

More Songs About Buildings and Food is the second album from TH.  Its jangly, bouncy guitar riffs and hyper drum beats career through funk and reggae with pschobilly reverberation echoed by David Byrne's stranger-than-life voice and lyrics.  To say the album was ahead of its time is a huge understatement.  But then, so was the band.  No performance captures the genius of Talking Heads more for me than this clip of "Found a Job" from the More Songs... album.  It's from the 1984 film Stop Making Sense directed by Johnathan Demme.  It's 3 and half minutes of the four members doing what they do best. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Chef Quote of the Week: Thomas Keller

"When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about."

Friday, February 18, 2011


Sometimes I miss Facebook.  Sometimes.  I ditched it last year in the Spring after an epiphany.  The epiphany was more like the blunt realization that I was wasting huge amounts of time.  But, I enjoyed writing posts that weren't necessarily part of a thesis or blog topic, per se.  Random, opinionated observations.  And so, here are some recent ones.

Upon launching the newly revamped website for, the first bolded, marquee headline of our illustrious local news source read, "Was Lyndsay Lohan's Dress Appropriate for Court"? This, of course, during the historic tumult in the Middle East. "Well," I thought, "at least we're rid of that annoying-as-shit Horizon Heating and Plumbing ad that scrolls up and down like a yo-yo every single time you move your cursor, much less move it over the ad."  In comparison, that ad seemed harmless compared now to the one Horizon has graduated to:  the full-on, top of the page, gradual unfolding ad banner that even folds back up slowly when you hit "close".  Like one Facebooker said of Delaware Online website:  they have more pop-ups than a porn site.

Current favorite random t-shirt

Today, it was a marvelous high of 70 degrees in Wilmington!  We've had a nice little run, actually, of warm days this week.  But, it was today's weather that actually helped the City of Wilmington regain what has to be about 20% of it's parking.  Granted, there are still some major icebergs, but mostly in major parking lots where there is, well- major parking.  But, Trolley Square was starting to resemble a Third World country with streets more suited for tram cars.  What is it about snow that turns normal, college-educated people into complete and total idiots?  

I'm really digging the new show on the Independent Film Channel, Portlandia. Most people I've talked to have heard of it.  I read a little blurb about it last month and decided to give it a shot.  Having never been to Portland, I have spent more than a fair-share of latte time hanging out with people who lived there.  Let's just say, it's dead on.  Created by and starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, it's a half-hour of random characters and situations that poke fun at the infinitely pokable Portlandites.  (Is it me, or is President Obama actually starting to look more like Fred Armisen?"  Anyone who nails a restaurant meme like they did, I'm gonna watch more.

One of the episodes has a cameo by singer Aimee Mann, who plays herself as Fred and Carrie's housekeeper.  Now, I love me some Aimee Mann, but the timing was uncanny, as this week, the refurbished Queen Theatre in Wilmington along with WXPN World Cafe Live announced Mann will play in April!  What could possibly not be any cooler is that the other day while in the car with my 4 year old daughter, I was playing Til Tuesday's "Rip in Heaven"; she sat quietly and listened to it in its entirety, and then asked if I would play it again.  Now we listen to it every day.  She has a great ear, that one. ( BTW, for a great laugh, click on the link above to watch Dave Letterman introduce TT in the late 80s on his show.  Aimee?  HOT.  Dave?  Not so much.)

Speaking of hot blonds from the 80s:  Debbie Harry and Blondie have a new album coming out this year, Panic of Girls. They've announced tour dates for Europe, as well. 

In Lambertville, New Jersey sits a little restaurant that has to be one of my favorite places, Hamilton's Grill Room.  I'm not going to tell you stories about the food, atmosphere or times I've eaten there.  Go there yourself and try it.  But, what I do want to talk about is a local artist who captures one of my favorite genres in painting, en plein airRobert Beck of Buck's County, PA exquisitely captures the feel of an open restaurant kitchen, crowded terrace or dining room, including those of Hamilton's.  His is the kind of painting that makes you want to climb in, order a drink and let the buzz of a place build. It's like a snapshot of a time you wish you had spent.  Please visit his site, but more than that, go visit his gallery and say, "hello".  And stop at The Boathouse for a drink, while you're at it.
No. 9 Kitchen  by Robert Beck

Phillies fever is really starting to take hold for me, now.  It's so nice to be able to pick and choose articles about the players readying for the 2011 season while ignoring the elephant in the room, if you choose to.  For those sports writers outside of Philadelphia, there is nothing else to talk about other than the Phils' boning their season despite the once-in-a-lifetime pitching rotation.  I"m not even going to speculate.  But, I'll say this:  I like their chances.  

This was fun.  Let's do it again, soon...

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...

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Us and Them

Hello, and welcome back!  That is to say, thanks for coming back.  I generally have taken a little hiatus after a big holiday to regroup and kick around some concepts for discussion.  I always feel a little more rejuvenated, too.  My first real topic of 2011 has to do with a subject I am very passionate about:  the independent restaurant vs. chain restaurants.

Chain restaurants are all over every highway and byway of America, and they are now bleeding out over the borders to commonly traveled destinations by Americans.   I define a chain restaurant as any dining place that shares a flag (as we call it in hospitality) of the same name, and you can get the same exact meal at any of their destinations worldwide.  They are the anti-restaurant, eating places without a soul.  Think "homogenized".  

I saw two related pieces in the news recently.  One was about Bon Apetit trying to re-brand themselves as being "more about inviting friends over for dinner" as they try to reinvigorate their ever-changing demographic. The other was a short video put together by the National Council of Chain Restaurants citing why people choose chain over "gourmet" restaurants.  Night and day.

Consumer insights provided by

There are all kinds of arguments for why someone would choose a chain restaurant over an independently owned and operated one.  But, the one not discussed in the video above is supply and demand.  In other words, there are more of them because the demand is high for them.  Yes, convenience, consistency- all that stuff is important, but it's also important to independet operators, too.  Corporate America knows we are lazy.  And, they are cashing in on us.

Before the advent of the chain restaurant (almost interchangeable with "fast food") some 60 years ago, the local, mom-and-pop place reigned.  Service was folksy but sincere, the owner typically was in the kitchen or running the floor, and it almost always was characterized by a local specialty.  They were as diverse as their geography was vast.  

But, when convenience began to trump originality, the demand became greater for establishments that could snag the best locations.  That is the number one commonly misunderstood fact about chain restaurants: their business is not restaurants, but real estate.  We all know the major axiom in business is about location.  And, the reason they repeat it three times is because people seem to forget it, especially in restaurants.  Finding the best blue chip locations to put a restaurant ensures a healthy life (if the concept is sound).

Meanwhile, Bon Apetit, arguably the reigning elitist food magazine in the US is trying to re-brand themselves as more "food" than "foodie".  More fun dining than fine dining.  Tatoos and lattes.  Crockpots and cupcakes.  

What would we do if suddenly there was an independently owned coffee shop, bistro, steak house, pizza joint or sub shop on every corner of Mainstreet, USA?  For one, we'd have truly local food.  We'd also have truly regional food, with every nuance just a subtle difference to ensure competition and originality.  I don't deny the convenience of a chain, but has food sold its soul for convenience?

I want to hear what you have to say.


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