How To Eat Like Granma

I’m getting more like my grandmother every day.  She hated eating out, and made an enormous fuss when brought into restaurants by my mother.  She’d say that there was nothing for her to eat, sulk when mom ordered for her, move stuff around the plate with a fork as if the food was contaminated, and basically eat next to nothing, which infuriated my mother who then had to put what was on the plate into a paper napkin.  This was in the days when styrofoam containers for uneaten food were hard to find in restaurants.

Granma, if you asked her, complained about specific things having to do with food and the dining experience.

She found the food too salty, didn’t like eating in a room full of strangers, questioned the quality of the ingredients, and wasn’t too sure about the value.

I only recall one dish I had in her Brooklyn apartment, and it was very good, and this isn’t nostalgia talking: A pan seared, bone-in veal chop smothered in tomato sauce and sliced onions and garlic.  The veal was tender, but well textured, with just the right amount of fat, and perfectly salted.

The thing is: Granma didn’t have margins.

Ask any chef about margins, and if he or she tells you that doesn’t matter then they have deep pockets; investors who don’t care for some reason about percentages in profitability; will be out of business soon; or, are being disingenuous.

Among the biggest costs to a restaurant are rent, labor, and ingredients.  Hey, granma was paying rent whether she cooked or not.  Labor?  Many restaurants cut back on front-of-house, and expect more of that with an increase in the minimum wage, which will result in a different service model, to say the least.  Ingredients: Granma didn’t reuse oil for meal after meal, didn’t buy cheap meat, didn’t use lots of salt and sugar as enhancements.  And she didn’t serve what passes for dining out these days: The biggest margins are on pizza, burgers, and fried food.

Changes in the Food Supply

An article in today’s NYT Business section  has it that Campbell Soup is producing soups that are healthier–lower in sodium, no corn syrup–and also contain ingredients that can be found in households rather than laboratories.  It’s a good sign, of course, and it may be that the impact of medical information is changing consumer habits to a degree that companies of significance are making products to match the change.

Starbucks is having a more difficult time in the P.R. world: Some Christian evangelists–number unknown or unspecified–are protesting the company’s decision to remove explicit Christmas greetings on their cups.  Faith based latte has always been a preoccupation among the devout, and the point here is evident and requires no comment.

On the higher end of beverages: In the past year, the global demand among deep pocket whisky drinkers for vintage, single malt whiskies from Japan has led to a worldwide shortage, including within Japan.  As a result, the top Japanese companies are pushing nonvintage whiskies at roughly the same price as the stuff that frankly tastes ten times better.  What to do, what to do?  Answer: Drink single-malt, vintage whiskies from Scotland.  Plenty of them, priced the same or less than the nonvintage Japanese stuff.  And wait: About ten years from now, the Japanese will have aged whiskies again.


The Monday Report

It’s Monday morning on the East Coast of the United States, and we all know what that means: Terrible traffic, grumpy faces, hurried walks, lots of adjectives in written and spoken language.  The level of preoccupation is staggering.

Over here, courtside, it’s a heady mix of menu planning: Pan seared tuna, slow cooked and spicy tomato sauce with penne, scallops, fondue, turkey meatloaf.  You’d never guess we’re in Tartus.  And isn’t that the point?  Food and all the thinking that goes with it as a healthy substitute for any reckoning.  Houellebecq notes this in his unbelievably sad, provocative, and ironic new novel, “Submission.”  More time on duck necks than on the murders at the gas station on the way.

Still, it’s possible and even quite easy to hold two thoughts, even disparate ones, simultaneously.  For example: The Stone House olive oil–with six bottles of a new press!–arrive this week while at the same time the opposition looks to a big win in Myanmar.

And that’s just today.


Current and Future Restaurant News

Gabriel Kreuther, the eponymously named restaurant in midtown, across from Bryant Park, got a nice write-up in the current New Yorker by Adam Gopnik.  I was in a few weeks ago, and what he wrote is consistent with my experience.  Although not much of a neighborhood for dining, the food is worth the trip and on weeknights locals outnumber hotel guests.

Kreuther offers a prix-fixe menu of four courses with odd “bread” courses between plates, and everything is very tiny and refined, with deep, deep flavors and few and fine ingredients.

This all takes skill and focus, and it’s French, real French, Alsatian to be precise, and when served in a lively room, it’s perfect for the times.  No hodgepodge, and, ironically, it’s all about the food and not the chef.

Future news?  Some chefs may try this sort of thing, but it’s ill-advised.  Kreuther spent years and years–not months and months–honing his craft and learning and listening and repeating in French restaurants at home and stateside.

A better bet would be to learn to cook vegetables.  That’s where the money is.  No kidding.  The chef who figures out a way to open a number of places with delicious, well-priced veg food?  That person will have the Mickey D’s of the 21st century.


How To Sell Food

It’s no different from most trades: Buy low, sell high.  In a certain city, this has led chefs to open bars and call them restaurants–the money comes from the 400% mark-up on cocktails and the 300% mark-up on beer and wine.  Bonus: Cheap cuts of meat and farmed fish that add to the kitty.

Eating every part of the animal wasn’t inspired by philosophical considerations or a desire to sustain resources.  It was a recognition  that chefs and wait staff are in the business.  The business of selling.  And you make more selling heads, feet, organs, and other parts of creatures that cost the restaurant less money.

Me?  I’m not eating that stuff routinely.  Secret revealed: Most chefs aren’t much either.  Go to their homes or dine out with them and they enjoy vegetables, salads, high end protein, and, sure, a bit of beasts that they are curious about.

Any business needs a plan.  A good future plan for a chef wanting to open a restaurant would be to cook the food he or she enjoys eating.  More specifically, the best item on the buy-low-sell-high spectrum?


Cooking with vegetables emerged at L’Arpege.  It’s happening with Ducasse and Vongerichten.  Bittman just put his money where his mouth is by joining up with a terrific vegetarian company.  And more places are opening that use vegetables–far cheaper than meat, poultry, and fish–as their focus.

The challenge though is that vegetables require cooking skills you do not need when serving animal fat.

U.S. Restaurants from A Foreign Perspective

The chief difficulty with U.S. cuisine is the economic divide: The better restaurants are better than most in Europe, but cost, on average, $125-150 per couple for dinner.  That’s not something most of us have to spend; and why should we?  Dining should be fun, and not a financial burden.

Many so-called “ethnic” restaurants have limited capital to invest, staggering  monthly costs, little to tide then over when business is slow mid-week or during bad weather, and cannot readily afford to serve the protein many people eat in their homes.  Fish here is often tilapia; beef is choice and not prime; pork and chicken come from large, commercial farms where animals are penned in and fed antibiotics; etc.  It’s the rare small place, too, that can compete with the marketing, deep pockets, and P.R. of the chains.  

Like most everything in U.S., restaurants have become monetized. It’s a shame, really, but on the other hand it means that people perhaps will cook more at home in healthy ways; and, that new business models are emerging for dining which emphasize vegetarian approaches.  Nothing is static here.

Dining Gnus

It was back to MOOO on Friday, the third visit in a week, and that’s because no place in Boston has a better vibe: Grown up’s in a room with subdued lighting, a hint of jazz, well poured drinks and good wine well-priced, and delicious food: Raw oysters, Caesar salad, a edge of iceberg lettuce and a wedge of Maytag blue, risotto with black trumpets, prime sirloin, veal schnitzel, club sandwiches.

Hey, chefs, nothing wrong with the classics.

It’s the kind of restaurant that is well managed: Meaning that the margins on the protein are low, meaning that the quality of the meat, oysters, chicken, and vegetables is high.  The money comes from the sides, the cocktails, and the wine mark-up.  That’s the way to do it.

Who wouldn’t want top drawer ingredients rather than parts of beasts and soil that cost restaurants little?  Sure, buy low and sell high, but not what’s on the plate.  That worthy principle should apply to what’s on the side or in the glass.