Free Food?

Oh, sure, free parking, too.  Not likely, I don’t think so.  But certainly bars and restaurants offer up snacks and low priced items to have you take a seat when things are slow and the business plan they created ain’t doing it.  But be aware: That $1 oyster or “free” whatever-it-is, some delicious and salty item, comes with beer that runs $9 a pint or cocktails that run between $12-15.

On a more rarified level: The reviews and comments about restaurants written by many observers are comped: The establishment buys the food and drinks and hopes to hear good things subsequently.

As Drew Nieporent, the great restaurateur, told me: “The food always tastes better when it’s free.”


Hey, Good Looking, What’ve You Got Cooking?

In Harvard Square the choices for a good burger aren’t unlimited, but close.  You have Flat Patties, Mr. Bartley’s, Shake Shake, and Tastee Burger.  My goodness, with all the talk of farm to table, sustainability, and a diet balanced by fruits and vegetables, with a focus on seasonality, it’s here that we find good, ground American beef to satisfy desires that are well outside that spectrum.  It’s food you just don’t have to think about.

Alongside the delicious burgers, we find pizza: Otto, Just Crust, Pinocchio, and Oggi.  Talk about a food that knows no season, and has an immediacy of flavor that is a cheer up for the senses!

Elsewhere we find fried rabbit, sausages, noodles in salted broth, and a wide variety of deep fried food with spices meant to make one think of Korea, China, Singapore, Malaysia, Mexico, and poverty stricken communities of the USA.

And say you want to eschew all of that: Soft shell crabs, Atlantic halibut, yellow fin tuna, and an array of spring vegetables all available at Russo’s.

Get cooking!

More on Eating Out

It starts with the food, it has to be good, of course, but after that so many other more important factors determine if a restaurant is worth your time and money.

Service is key.  Ken Aretsky, owner of Patroon–a delightful restaurant with a hidden bar–told me for a piece I was writing: “A restaurant can get get away with bad food, but not bad service.”

So what is good service?  Chiefly, it’s the ability of the staff to anticipate the wants of customers and make them feel welcome and uniquely understood.  David Mamet, I was told by a chef, told the restaurant where he was a regular that he never wanted to be asked how he liked the food.

But more broadly, I’ve been wondering why I like certain restaurants more than others.  My pantheon of the top ten are casual, high end, and ingredient driven, whether it’s alle testiere, Bukhara, Zuni, Fore Street, Esca, or il Buco.

But back in the day, I just liked eating out.  The noise, the excitement, the variety.  And I also loved serious dining far more than I do these days.  Years dating I sought out cuisines I could afford, early family days I looked for affordability and a friendly atmosphere, early adulthood it was fancy.

These days it’s all about a cuisine that creates immediacy.  A yakitori place that has a spool of Beatles hits spanning the entire career of the band.  A pizza and pasta joint with a huge red brick oven.  A room of well-heeled people laughing over fresh fish.


More Dining Updates

A chef in Boston told me many years ago her secret for dining out in NYC : Book for lunch.  She explained that a lunch at Le Bernadin, for example, was about half the cost of dining in her restaurant and others like it in Boston for dinner.  That changed my perspective on eating out, and after enjoying lunches at high end places in Manhattan, the context for appreciating food here changed.

People often defend Boston’s dining scene, saying that it’s a smaller city than NYC, and cannot be compared to what’s available there.  But that’s nonsense.  The size of a city doesn’t matter when it comes to dining out.  The country’s most influential restaurant–Chez Panisse–is in tiny Berkeley.  The rich regionality of America’s best food comes from New Orleans, Maine, Michigan, Seattle, and pockets in California.

It’s rather a matter of priorities.  This is a town where people willingly drop $14 for three ounces of gin poured over ice and mixed with fruit juice, but balk at paying for simple, ingredient driven food.  People will pay more for pork than a fresh mushroom.

It’s not just that Boston doesn’t have the restaurants of larger cities, but that it doesn’t have one–not one–Japanese, French, Spanish, or new American restaurant worth the price of admission.  Italian is slowly emerging as a cuisine that has found a home here, what with Pastoral and Giulia, and one hopes to see more.


Food Policies

I’m not naming names, but have a look at the chefs weighing in on farm policies, GMOs, and what-not.  Not a peep on raising the minimum wage.  Look, no one’s saying that increasing yield in a sustainable way isn’t important (it is)–whatever sustainability means in a broad, agreed upon sense–but without living wages for the producers and servers of food it’s all moot.

I mean: Say we label GMOs.  And end subsidies on crops that are over-produced.  And create an infrastructure of an ongoing network between the agricultural base–not just the farms–and the consumer.

So what?

Without parity in income that enables the producers and food servers to participate in the overall process of consumption, it’s a show for those who can afford the price of getting in.

Seriously: Read the business sections of newspapers and online sources.  That’s where the stories are, not in the colossal distractions of marketing terms.  The entities that profit most from food production are thrilled down to their toes to hear and see the debates regarding GMOs, farm to table changes, etc.  Just don’t bring up money.

Big Night Out!

I’m not naming names, but I will say that finding a good, simple place to eat dinner before hearing jazz in some cities is a challenge.  The venue is Scullers.  So, say, one wants to walk there and eat along the way.

You’ve got dozens of slices, stacks of burgers, tails, hooves, bellies, and anything fried.  And you can forget about Indian, Japanese, Chinese, or Thai.

What I’m looking for is a good restaurant that serves small plates of pasta, appetizers of lovely vegetables, and a few pieces of fish.

Home cooking!

National Restaurant Association to Workers: Drop Dead!

Two of the lead stories in today’s NY Times Business section say it all.

C.E.O. pay for the two bosses of Chipotle, the fast food Mexican chain, were $25.1 million in cash and stock (Steve Ellis) and $24.4 million (Montgomery F. Moran).  That’s a lot of burritos.

Just below this article is: “Fast Food Protests Spread Overseas.”  This piece notes that global strikes at fast food restaurants around the world are being organized in order to try to get a $15 minimum wage. The article quotes Eddie Foreman, a 40 year old worker at McDonald’s, who makes $7.75 a hour and “takes home about $200 a week.”  That’s not a lot of big Macs.

The National Restaurant Association (NRA), via Scott DeFife, an executive VP, weighs in: “These are made-for-TV moments–that’s pretty much it.”  Mr. DeFife, still quoted in the Fast Food piece, “warned of harmful repercussions if wages climbed to $15 an hour.”  He is quoted as staying: “It would have consequences on hiring patterns for Main Street businesses across the country.”

Here are the consequences: If workers made more, they would pay more tax.  Schools would benefit as would the general infrastructure.  Workers cannot defer or hide income through capital gains or foreign profit deferrals.

When a table is drawn showing CEO salaries of fast food restaurants and the salaries of the employees, it will be clear what’s happening here.  The NRA is more interested in Happy Meals than Happy Workers.

On a related note: The issue of minimum wage extends to workers in all restaurants, not just those labeled as fast food.  The last thing the NRA wants to see is any diminished profit for owners.

This Week in The World of Food

Today’s top story: Page 3, NY Times, great piece on Flowers Foods, the company that makes Wonder Bread, Tastykakes, and “Nature’s Own.”  The piece notes that “more than 99% of its political contributions since 1979 have gone to Republicans.”  That’s the company’s prerogative, of course, but think about what you buy and where the money is going.

Speaking of money: The Guardian reports today that a hike to $15 as a minimum wage in Seattle is opposed by Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz.  The Seattle-based company wants the money to expand its businesses.  Schultz’s net worth is reported in the piece to be $1.6 billion.  Let them drink latte.

On a more mundane level, the NY Times reported yesterday on the spectacular things being done to vegetables at L’Arpege, a three *** Michelin restaurant, in Paris.  I agree completely, and said so 11 years when reporting on exactly the same topic in Robb Report.  I noted Chef Passard then as way ahead of the curve on his treatment of vegetables.

Even more pragmatically: Mesquite smoked tortellini, burgers, plates piled high, and pizza!  That’s what it’s like in a certain city at a certain time.  Where’s the fish?

Back to money, right?  It’s easier to make money selling burgers and offal and “creative” cuts of cheap meat then it is to coax flavors from ingredients that cost the kitchen more.

Get that chef a business plan.

Back of the House!

Back of the House,” my book about who in their right mind would work in a restaurant, was a romp through a good number of kitchens.  Most of the time was spent at one place with one chef in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and readers were also shown the goings on in NYC with Drew Nieporent, Daniel Boulud, David Pasternack, Daniel Humm, Andrew Carmellini, and Thomas Keller.

I took to the road with the book: The Institute of Culinary Education, The National Restaurant Association, Johnson & Wales, Harvard Bookstore, The Coop, and so on.

The book sells at AMAZON and elsewhere, and now that it’s out and about I’m busy on a raw work about family and food.

It’s convenient to find a local subject to write about: Commuting to NYC for a book was something I did when I helped Silvano Marchetto write his cookbook, and while that had its many, many pleasures, the back and forth wasn’t easy.

In retrospect, nonetheless, there is something to be said for patience, and had I chosen to work with a NY chef on the psychology of running a restaurant it’s likely that conviviality would have emerged as a theme.

On the Menu, Off the Menu

The big news here is my publication yesterday of a piece about the history and current status of Asian cuisines in the United States:

There is such a lengthy pattern of separation of gastronomies based on artificiality: As if cuisines are hard facts, features of nature, measurable, rather than artifacts of nationality, class, and race.

I mean, face it: What makes a good chicken is a good chicken, and if ingredients, like peppers, are thought to make a dish from India, thank the Portuguese instead for introducing peppers to India.  Likewise tomato sauce in Italian food, by way of the Americas, or burgers, by way of Germany.  Etc.

The division of food comes about chiefly through styles of preparation and ways that it served, but this being 2014, it seems likely that the layers of perception can be stripped away to reveal the simplicity and importance of what’s on the plate.