Thursday, December 14, 2006

Expensive Restaurants

This morning on the way to work, I was listening to my favorite station, and the morning team people were talking about expensive restaurants. They mentioned something that I think about a lot. A lot of people seem to have the misconception that price is directly related to quality. If a restaurant is expensive, then obviously it must be good. And the pricier it is, the higher the quality. Sadly, all too often the restaurant staff takes this to an extreme, mistakenly believing that there is a minimum requirement for the quality of customer that should be allowed into their high-quality restaurant.

A good example of this was mentioned in Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. A particular restaurant had been continously voted the most romantic place to eat in New York City by a variety of publications, including the world-famous Zagat guide. How this place managed to receive any such ranking is beyond me. It had a fixed-price menu, meaning you paid the same no matter what you ordered. In this case, the price was $86/person. Some people would save for months to go there for a romantic meal, and when it was served, they deluded themselves into believing that the food and the service were fabulous, even though both would easily be surpassed by Micky's on a bad day. Why would they do this? Well, would you want to tell your friends the next day (or even yourself) that you had just paid close to $200 for a meal for two people that was complete and utter crap? Perhaps Tim and Nina Zagat were too embarassed to let it be known that they had bothered with a place so awful, so instead they named it "Most Romantic". Unfortunately, price did not equal quality.

price > quality

As you know from my own restaurant reviews, I don't like to pull my punches. If I believe a place did poorly, I will say so. If I believe a restaurant did a good job, I don't mind telling you that either, even if it's contrary to my expectations. Some say I've become a food snob. Would such a snob have eaten a microwave Aussie Pie for breakfast this morning? I think not. They would have been shocked at the very notion, while in contrast, I'm hoping CostCo gets more in stock soon. Them's some good pie.

What I am snobbish about is quality. Having spent a good deal of time with chefs, I know good quality food when I see, and taste it. Having spent time both as a member of the wait staff and a customer being waited on, I tend to pick up a lot about good service too. And as a computer geek with obsessive compulsive tendencies, I have high expectations. I remember reading in a book about Charlie Trotter, how a member of his wait staff got a job else where, tried to apply the same type of quality to their service there that there were used to from Trotter's, and was told something to the effect of, "we can't all be Charlie Trotter."

Why can't we? Sure, Trotter is an amazing chef. The man is world famous, and from what I've heard and read, for good reason. He has high expectations of not only himself, but everyone who works with him. His goal in life seems to be to make his guests feel, if only for a few short hours, as if they were royalty. I can see him in my mind's eye, analyzing a perfect dish, trying to figure out how to make it just that much better. This is easier to imagine when in the vision, he is a young chef, trying to make his way in the culinary world. When I imagine him as he is now, I can he him putting together a dish that makes the other one look like a tofu burger, with the ease of a man with years of experience, and the accuracy of a jeweler.

He didn't get to be the most respected chef in Chicago by deciding when things were good enough. He got there by figuring out how to make things better, including himself. His restaurant charges well over $100 for a meal, and a meal for two including wine, tax and tip can leave a couple close to $500 poorer at the end of the night, but with no regret as to the meal. Yes, his restaurant is expensive. And the quality is high. In this case, price did equal quality.

price == quality

Of course, what I've been hinting at here is that price does not have to equal quality in order for you to have a good meal. I remember dining at the Mesa Grill in Las Vegas. To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from good old Bobby. I expected a decent meal, but not much more than I could just make myself at home. By this point I was so jaded with Vegas, that I expected to (just barely) be able to afford an appetizer or two for my wife and I, and be served it by some clown who couldn't care less about us. What I ended up getting was a fabulous meal that left me in awe, served by a staff who was excited both to be working for Bobby, and to be serving me. The prices were only slightly higher than, say, Chile's, but the quality of the food was above and beyond anything that Chile's could ever imagine. Bobby wasn't basing his dishes on the latest trend, like lime chicken with under-ripe tomato concassé. His dishes were based on what he liked, on what he knew was good, and what he knew his guests would like. His servers were excited to be working with him, and even though I was just some schmo wandering through the casino at lunchtime, wearing jeans and a t-shirt from Oingo Boingo's farewell tour 12 years ago, he was excited to be serving me. In this instance, the quality far surpassed the price.

price < quality

What have I been basing quality on? In this article, there were only two factors: food and service. I suppose there are other areas that would factor into the quality equation for restaurants, such as cleanliness and environment. In truth, even if I knew the man in the kitchen was Paul Bocuse himself, if there was dust on the floor and a cockroach skittering by, we would be out of there like a bat out of Texas. Fortunately, Bocuse has higher standards than that, and so should you. I don't care how much the place costs. If either the food or the service is substandard, it's probably not worth sticking around, and it's definitely not worth coming back.

I remember back in cooking school, when I was hired to wash dishes for a popular chain of steakhouses. I never ate in the front of the house, but we were entitled to one free meal per shift, plus we were allowed to drink as much as we wanted from the soda fountain. The line cooks knew who the food was for, and they knew we wouldn't be writing up a New York Times review anytime soon. Nevertheless, the food was excellent. You could also tell the good waiters from the bad ones, largely because the good ones (which did comprise the majority of the wait staff) always had smiles on their faces, and were always willing to do what needed to be done. One in particular even volunteered to help in the dish room one night after closing, because he could see that we were overloaded.

One of my fellow dishwashers had just enrolled at the same school as me. I thought he was pretty cool, because he looked like Richard Attenborough's character in The Great Escape. I soon developed a dislike for him, and not just because he turned out to be a stoner. He liked to cut corners, but he wasn't very good at it. His apathy caused us to send dishes through the dish machine up to three or four times in a row, because he thought that rinsing them first (as we were instructed to by the chef) wasted time. He never realized that when I was the one loading the machine (and therefore rinsing the dishes), we tended to spend most of our time waiting for the waiters to drop off dishes, while when he was the one loading the maching (and therefore not rinsing the dishes), we were always at least a half hour behind.

When I first started that job, I had applied to be a line cook. I was told that they had no current need for inexperienced line cooks, but that they always needed dish washers. I was also told that they may use me from time to time as a cook, if I was needed. I expressed so much enthusiasm when they had me do prep work, and complained so little when I was in the dish room, that I ended up spending about 2/3 of my time there as a prep cook. One day I asked my Attenborough-like coworker why he didn't ask the chef to let him do prep work too, since he was in cooking school and could use the experience.

I remember him telling me that when he graduated, he planned to work in high-end restaurants like the French Laundry, not crappy chain restaurants such as the steak chain we were currently at. He spent a good couple of minutes explaining this to me. I told him that that was perfectly reasonably, and he should want to work in high-end restaurants. But, I asked him, would he rather appy for his job at the French Laundry with a year experience as a prep cook at a crappy chain restaurant, or with a year of experience as a dish washer at a crappy chain restaurant? He seemed dubious, so I asked him if he'd rather spend his part-time job arm-deep in dish water, or chopping vegetables in a relaxed area of the kitchen. Half an hour later, I saw him talking to the head cook, expressing interest in doing some prep work if the opportunity ever arose.

I'd be surprised if he ever got hired at the French Laundry. I'd almost be surprised to see him hired at any place more respected than Chile's. If I was managing Micky's, I wouldn't hire him. He wasn't willing to think ahead, to try and figure out what the most effective plan of action was. It was all about him. To him, a job was a job, not a learning experience. Quality was not important to him. His paycheck, and how much dope he could buy with it, were important to him. Being able to tell his friends that he worked at a nice place was more important to him than making the play he was already at nice.

Quality is important. I would have no problem eating at that restaurant, because I knew that most of the staff were good, I knew that the food was well-made, and I knew that the prices were decent. To me, this is quality. The talking tree at the entrance was a gimmick. It didn't make one bit of difference to me whether or not there was an animatronic owl hovering over our table (did I mention this place was filled with faux-Canadian animatronics?). The prices were reasonably, and more importantly, the quality was good.

1 comment:

  1. You and Nat are really gonna dig The Met. let me know when yall are available and I'll call Jed so he can hook us up!



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