Margins of Error in the Restaurant Business

Dave Chang, the great chef who changed the way people eat and think about food, had a really interesting interview this week somewhere on the web in which he noted that margins of profit in restaurants are slim.  He’s right, of course, and that’s why the industry is increasingly vulnerable to economic forces that know how to create profit.

Great chefs and restauranteurs are teaming up with hedge funds and private capital–NOMA, Shake Shack, the Vetri Group, etc.–so that the survival and growth of their restaurants might be assured.  Prices go up, more is spent on marketing, a huge number of P.R. people are hired, and memorabilia–cups, plates, hats, clothing–is sold to make up for losses.  Food items are also pushed that cost less: Offal, pork, etc.  Anything fried sells.  You’ll see more pizza: Nothing is more profitable.  And a huge push on beverages.

Then, too, even for folks who promote more humane changes in animal husbandry, sustainability, and the environmental impact of agriculture–When you eat in restaurants that sell poultry, fish, and meat that are commercially produced, there is a disconnect between wanting to make things better and what you’re eating.  This is especially true at inexpensive restaurants: The stuff is cheap because it is cheap.

It’s going to be interesting to see how the challenges of running a restaurant with thin margins are met in this increasingly monetized economy.  More than likely, you’ll see more places closing and those that survive either teaming up with the money guys or serving cheap food.

The Cruelest Month Awaits

Monday morning, new week, overcast and rain on the way, as a few days away it’s April.  I’ve never felt April was cruel at all, let alone most cruel, I think that has more to do with Eliot than the season, but that’s just me.

Morels I ordered which arrived on Friday are half gone.  They’ve appeared in broths, on toast, with white asparagus, with poussin, and with rice.  Nothing tastes better.

Meanwhile my work on Japanese whiskies appeared on Friday in KarryOn, which is out of Australia, and edits are made on my book about India, which is out in May.  OK, it’s not fungus, but so what?

Otherwise, it’s Donald Keene, Soseki, and Tanizaki.  And I’d better hurry, up, too: The 5th volume of Knausgaard arrives in mid-April.  Not cruel.  Not cruel at all.

Spring Revisited

It’s the first full day of spring and wouldn’t you know it?  Snow.  Branches weighted down, a thin layer on sidewalks and in streets.  The birds, boisterous the past ten days?  Not a peep.

Returning from Japan weighted down from the requirement to not just taste but to eat three big meals a day–a job’s a job–has meant a return to a cuisine here that makes Michel Guerard’s Cuisine Minceur appear to be lavish.  We’re talking small portions of terrific fish–thick cuts of flounder, red snapper, Scottish salmon, all from New Deal–and lots of steamed or raw vegetables tossed with mirin and soy.

Fortunately, outside of bakeries there is literally no temptation to eat out.  Well, there are pizza and burgers and offal, but seriously?  How is that food?

Staying at home also means getting work done.  We got a forward from a prominent U.S. Congressman for my new book, out in May, and I’m all caught up with articles.

The shovel awaits at the top of the stairs.

Restaurant News, Spring, 2016

New BBQ and pizzerias are popping up like daffodils, and two new Greek restaurants are headed our way, too.  The pizzerias will also serve salads and sandwiches, and the BBQ joints are smoking meats up the wa-zoo.  As soon as I get out of class, you can bet I’m heading over to chow down with some brews and watch the game on the big flat screen above the bar.

For grown-up’s the choices are standard operating procedure: Went to Mooo on Wednesday just before going to the Garden to see KD clobber the Celtics.  Really delicious and straightforward food, in big portions, served in a cool, well-lighted room.  Caesar salad, veal schnitzel, swordfish, you get the picture.  Sides with entrees are extra so bring a thick wallet.

On this side of the river, you can’t beat half a loaf of the Australian francese at Iggy’s for two dollars.  This is a crustier, darker grain version of their U.S. francese, and, folks, it’s perfect for sandwiches.

And as Easter gets closer and closer, we’re rummaging through Nonna’s tried and true recipes.  Her coconut flake crusted bunny with jelly beans for eyes is a crowd pleaser.  The pink ham on the bone served with candied sweet potatoes?  The best.  She never could give up the rigatoni in a thick tomato sauce, buttery and garlic-y, with homemade pork sausages that had a nice bite from fennel seeds.  Those will be on call, in the kitchen, so that the snoots don’t find the more traditional table crowded with Sicilian ethnicity.


Forging Ahead to Spring

Clocks forward Sunday, green shoots up, crocuses, birds calling, rain, and more light, lots of light.

And today: The shipment of chickens arrives from D’Artagnan.  These are from Pennsylvania and by far beat anything sold in town for taste and texture.  Cost about the same, a little less, and are so good that simply roasting them with butter, salt, and pepper is enough.

Other than that, it’s back to Soseki and miso soup from scratch with kombu from Hokkaido, and gobo.  In Japan gobo–burdock root–was served in so many dishes I had there this past winter.  It’s a root vegetable: Peel, slice thin, fry in oil or put in soup, and deep flavors emerge.  We’re talking one ingredient, not hodgepodge.

And with the change in seasons, there might be more clarity.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  My new book (on immigration) is out in May with a Foreword by a U.S. Senator, articles are showing up in all sorts of national publications, and light, lots of light in crannies.

Ode to Boston

The day started in Hakone and ended in Cambridge, Massachusetts after a stop in Minneapolis.  Chaos reigned at the immigration area in the Minneapolis airport as one machine after another broke down and passports could not be scanned.  Once through immigration, it was a short jaunt from one terminal to another until reaching the gate that had the plane to take us to Boston.

The day started with a Japanese breakfast of grilled fish, dry seaweed, a small and delicious omelet, soft tofu, rice, and many, little, tasty things to put in the rice, mostly vegetables.  The person who presented the breakfast took her job very seriously and as the snow fell outside she put down and took away dishes in silence.

At the Tokyo train station: lots of yakitori for the plane ride home.

At home: Armando’s pizza.  Their delivery guy is MIA, but a short drive over yielded Boston’s finest dining experience: a small freshly baked pizza, fresh mozzarella squares, half anchovy and half sausage.  The owner, Armando’s grandson, looked grumpy, and when I asked him, “What’s up?,” he said, truthfully, “I’m tired.  I can’t wait to get out of here.  Another hour and a half and I’m going home.”  Now that’s Boston in a nutshell.

Hakone, Narita, See You Later, Japan

After three hours and four changes of local trains from Shuzenji, we arrived near the top of a low mountain in the Hakone region to spend a night at the famed Gora Kadan.  It is a 39-room ryokan; until 1950 next to it was a summer villa of the imperial family, and then someone bought that and then land and added this large annex.

Snow fell last night, it’s still falling, and some rooms when it is not snowing have views of Mount Fuji.

Later this morning it will be a train ride to Tokyo, a brief meeting, and then a train ride to Narita for a flight to Boston via Minneapolis.

It has been a little over ten days in Japan, with one night in Korea, and it was busy and informative as usual.

Time to sit still.

Shuzenji, Izu Peninzula

I’d been here several years ago, eating soba in one of the small shops lining the one street, taking in the sight of an ancient temple and a stream that cuts through the center of the village.

This time, after along train and trolley ride from Tokyo, via Mishima, I am here to stay the one night, regrettably one night, at Asaba.  The property is arguably Japan’s most famous ryokan, and after 520 years, under the 10th generation of the Asaba family, no place is more refined.

The indoor baths are fine.  The outdoor bath in view of a pond is extraordinary.

Shamo nabe was the final course last night and it was deeply satisfying.

Later today: A short ride to Hakone and a final night before a long day of travel to Boston tomorrow.

This region is where the notorious black ships landed in 1853: Shimoda.  Nowadays that town is filled with cute shops and restaurants, offering little clue as to its history which transformed not just Japan, but the world.


Torn from Bettei Senjuan ryokan and brought to Utsunomiya, about an hour north of Tokyo, it was time to experience the French-Japanese cuisine of Otawa.  The town itself is gritty and has depth that museum cities, like Kyoto or Venice or Luzern, miss–tough looking streets.  It was on 7/12/45 that the city was destroyed by U.S. bombings, and rebuilt now it hosts Canon optical and a number of light manufacturing companies.  Sister city in U.S.: Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Utsunomiya is also known as “the gyoza capital of Japan,” but we didn’t learn this until after lunch.  Lunch was very good: Simple bowls of kitsune udon.  For $4.50 each, we ate very well.

In the evening, it was upscale.  After interviews with the chefs, beautiful local ingredients, including gobo and Tochigi Prefecture beef.

Soon, through rain, a brief stop in Tokyo for lunch and then on to Asaba.

Japan: Gunma Prefecture

Deep in mountains, only about 75 minutes NW of Tokyo, between the capital and Niigata, is an 18-room ryokan overlooking a raging river and surrounded by forests and cultivated fields.  Huge, polished stones beside the river attest to the force of the water.  In the ryokan, tatami rooms are large, even spacious, with floor to ceiling windows and private, outdoor onsen.

Arriving here yesterday in very early afternoon, it was time to interview the proprietor and then take the first of three baths, preceded initially by kama soba: Duck soup with perhaps the best, certainly the freshest, soba I have ever enjoyed.

In a private room, much later, after naps and reading and research on the property, time for a long kaiseki-style, with rustic touches, dinner.

Reading Soseki’s Bildungsroman here: Sanshiro, which seems about right.