The average diner probably only thinks about a head chef's whereabouts when he or she swings by the table to shake hands, but a significant number of food lovers refuse to patronize a restaurant when the chef's away. In this edition of Tabletop Wrestling, Jay Friedman and Hanna Raskin debate whether it's worth keeping tabs on chefs' schedules.
Jay Friedman times his restaurant visits to coincide with chefs' appearances.
With all due respect to the rest of the team, I prefer to eat at a restaurant when the lead chef is in the kitchen.
I think about my own work as a sex educator. On the lecture circuit, my standard speech includes personal stories about what led me to my profession. I could easily give other speakers the script to my speech, but they couldn't speak truth to my stories and convey the same passion behind those stories.
I believe the same is true for a chef. If I visit a restaurant just one time and the chef is absent, I'll wonder if I'm experiencing the exact entrée that he or she initially envisioned. The same flourishes. The same finesse. The same flavor. After all, they won't be the same fingers making my food. As my sister used to say when I asked why my mother's meatballs were so delicious, "Those fingers make it taste better."
Without naming names, I've been to several "mini-chains" in Seattle and beyond where the food was best at the particular restaurant where I would see the executive chef on site. At the other parts of the chain, the quality would be a little lacking.
Reflecting on the many single-ingredient and even single-dish restaurants in Japan, I recall ramen chefs who would taste the broth, disapprove, and demonstratively assert, "We're not opening today, as I can't stand behind this quality." I believe that a head chef is more likely to make that call.
Without doubt, part of the duty of a head chef is to train the helpers to execute consistent, high quality--ultimately sending notable new chefs out into the restaurant world. Yoshikazu, the apprenticing eldest son of one of the most famous sushi chefs in the world, may one day reach a level of greatness. But if I'm in Tokyo and I dream of sushi, I'd want Jiro and his fingers to be behind the counter.
And Hanna Raskin doesn't much care who's in the kitchen.
When food writers get together for professional meetings, an inordinate amount of time is spent plotting evening eating excursions. Since it's impossible to fully experience a city over the span of two or three nights, restaurants are typically gauged according to menu, location, story potential and whether or not the award-winning chef about whom we've all heard so much will be in the kitchen.
I never completely understood why that last criterion mattered. If the chef was a personal friend, or if we were unethical food bloggers looking to mooch a free meal, it would surely make a difference whether the chef was away on a fishing trip. But I trust chefs who set national standards for their craft to ensure quality doesn't dip in their absence. If a restaurant's open -- and there are plenty of small restaurants which wisely shut down when the top toque's on holiday -- I think it's fair to assume the chef associated with it has complete faith in the sous left in charge. I allow a head chef to decide exactly how long to cook my salmon and how much lemon to add to its sauce: Shouldn't I also defer to his or her staffing decisions?
Writer Lolis Eric Elie last month took up the topic of the chef's presence during a Southern Foodways Alliance symposium session devoted to big questions about barbecue, including whether a pit's reliable brilliance can outlive its pitmaster. Elie quoted legendary French chef Paul Bocuse on the topic. When asked who cooked the food when he wasn't at his restaurant, Bocuse reportedly said, "The same person who cooks the food when I am here."
Elie concluded, "If a chef has to be there for the food to be good, he may be a great cook, but he's not a great chef."