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Reflections on the NY Times’ demolition of Per Se

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Pete Wells’ scathing review of Per Se in the New York Times is a schadenfreud-eque joy to read. Twitter lit up with #PerSe hooting and laughing—one tweet calls Wells “my hero,” another accurately notes that “Harsh restaurant reviews are so much more fun to read than glowing ones,” while another comes right out and says what not so long ago was unsayable: Thomas Keller “is no longer the quintessential American chef.” The website amnewyork, in a fabulous gesture of lese majesté, advised Per Se to “emulate Señor Frog’s,” a moderately-placed Times Square Mexican joint Wells recently liked. Our own Inside Scoop at the San Francisco Chronicle trumpeted “Pete Wells’ Takedown” and quoted that old Shirelle’s song: “Mama said there’d be days like this.” Eater—always joyously malicious—ran “The 17 Best Reactions to Per Se’s 2-Star Takedown,” of which my favorite is “$3,000 for 4 persons? And people wonder why Bernie Sanders is surging in the polls,” although this tweet is a close second: “An hour in [to the State of the Union address] and @POTUS hasn’t mentioned that Per Se review.”

What rankled Wells, unlike his predecessor at the Times, Sam Sifton, who gave Per Se 4 stars in 2011 when he selected it for his last Times review ever and called it “the best restaurant in New York City,” was—well, pretty much everything: servors engaged in “oblivious sleepwalking” and cuisine that was “disappointingly flat-footed”: “gluey, oily” bacon-wrapped quail; mushroom pot pie that was “a swampy mess,” “limp, dispiriting yam dumplings,” a bouillon “as murky and appealing as bong water,” cheese that was “rubbery and flavorless.” (Wells’ review was so horrible that some people wondered how he could even give Per Se two stars. Mimi Sheraton, the famous food critic, tweeted, “Pete Wells in NYT review convincingly reports awful food&service&value at Per Se. Why then 2 stars meaning ‘Very good’? Why not none?”

Having myself never eaten at Per Se, I couldn’t possibly weigh in on the food quality/service issue. Maybe Wells was just having a bad hair day, and hankered to write some snark. I have on the other hand eaten at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, on three occasions, and quite honestly my reaction was expressed perfectly by a gentleman who tweeted on the #PerSe string, “I dined at French Laundry between Christmas and New Years, and my partner and I had great expectations but were disappointed. Given the outsized reputation of French Laundry, we thought we were just rubes who didn’t understand and appreciate our experience. Our experience there was a mirror image of Mr. Wells’.”

Following my first experience at French Laundry, around a dozen years ago, I left feeling the same way: disappointed, a little confused, and fearful that I simply lacked the palate to appreciate this hautest of haute cuisine—that I was, well, a rube. It took additional disappointments, not just at French Laundry but at other gastronomic palaces, for me to finally figure out that the problem wasn’t me. Granted, dining at a place like French Laundry raises one’s expectations to levels that are probably unreasonable, and incapable of being satisfied entirely—at least, to someone like me, who has a core of skepticism about most things. I never wanted to be one of those people who eats at a place like French Laundry and finds it “unbelievable,” the “experience of a lifetime,” “breathtaking,” simply because they think they’re supposed to, and so they find what they expect.

This concept—of the skeptic versus the gullible believer—is a profound one, of course; who is better off in the long run, me with my skepticism and disappointment, or the gullible believer with his joy? I cannot answer that, because it’s an existential question that has no answer. And besides, we are who we are.

But I am also the type of person who looks for the moral of the story: and I think that the moral of Pete Wells’ review of Per Se is this: A younger generation simply isn’t as gullible as an older one. They’ve been raised in the midst of the most alarming hype the world has ever known: the media hypes everything, the news hypes everything, advertising hypes everything, your investment advisors hype everything, drug companies hype everything, everything is hustled and on steroids. Young people have reached the point where hype is not the exception but the rule. They expect hype—to be manipulated, controlled, commandeered by people who want their patronage, i.e. their money. So they react just as any psychologically healthy person would: with suspicion. This is why they have a hard time understanding why Petrus costs thousands of dollars when, really, it’s just another bottle of wine. They may realize that it’s a very special wine, that it’s famous and coveted; they may believe that it takes a certain expertise to appreciate it. But they have no problem at all conceding that they don’t have that expertise, don’t wish to have that expertise anyway, and have better things to do with their money. They do not worship expensive things the way their parents and grandparents did.

I remember one time, after eating at French Laundry ($2,400 for four people, before the tip), telling a friend I’d rather eat at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant any day of the week. Less pretension and self-consciousness; no fear of making a mistake (which fork do I use, what do I do with the napkin when I go to the restroom?), and no fear of being disappointed, because I’m never disappointed by imperial rolls, pho, cellophane noodles with shrimp. I could eat that stuff for the rest of my life. I don’t want to be a reverse-snob and say that cheap things are better. They’re not, necessarily. But good is good, and very good is very good, and great is great, and one thing I learned from being a wine critic is, You don’t have to pay a lot of money for great wine. So I guess you don’t for great food, either.

Have a lovely weekend!


Too many chefs? A culinary academy closure raises questions

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It’s a real shockeroo that the Culinary Academy in San Francisco is closing. Its graduates include Ron Siegel, now of Michael Mina but I remember dining at the old Charles Nob Hill restaurant, which he eventually left to go to Masa’s. Talk about a resumé!

There are two outposts of the culinary arts in the food-obsessed Bay Area: The Culinary Academy [also known as Le Cordon Blue] and the Culinary Institute of America, in Saint Helena. To have one of them shut down in the midst of one of the greatest restaurant booms in memory is amazing. The official reason for the Culinary Academy’s closure is high food and facility costs,” but a major financial problem was “a $40 million settlement in 2011 of a class-action lawsuit by students who claimed the school inflated graduation and job placement rates.”

According to that settlement, 8,500 students who attended the Academy between 2003 and 2008 were eligible for tuition rebates, based on the notion that “they were told a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu would allow them to become chefs, but that many students who graduate are unable to obtain that position.”

One hardly knows where to start in the commentary. During the first 15 years of this new century, being a chef was one of the hottest careers in America—at least, the America of the coasts, and in the urban and rapidly urbanizing centers of the country, where despite the Great Recession people had good jobs and were developing the discretionary-income behaviors of upping their food game and looking for great local restaurants in which to dine. I’m sure that many applicants to the Culinary Academy dreamt of being the next Ron Siegel, and why not? It’s a good dream.

The “chefs are hot” movement was rivaled, in our food-and-wine world, only by the “somms are hot movement,” which itself was exceeded by the “mixologists are hot” movement. Still, there seems to be enough room in our hedonistic culture for chefs, somms and mixologists to co-exist, with plenty of jobs for all.

What, then, are we to make of the Culinary Academy’s closure? I will not weigh in on the merits of the 2011 lawsuit, but clearly, even graduates of an esteemed cooking school in San Francisco found it hard to obtain the sort of work they were expecting; some of them faced “in excess of $100,000” in student loans, hardly an amount a young line chef, even if she could get a job, would be able to repay for many, many years.

I remember when I moved to San Francisco, everybody wanted to be an M.B.A. That was the hot job of the first Reagan administration. Of course, all those newly-minted MBAs didn’t get rich. That degree, too, was over-hyped and over-sold. I frequently have the same feeling about sommeliers today. There are so many ways to get certified, whatever that means, that I sometimes think, pace Warhol, that in the future, everybody will be a sommelier for 15 minutes.

But an oversupply of chefs? What else are we to make of the Culinary Academy’s closure? Clearly there are two things going on: (1) the media’s obsession with these sexy careers, and (2) the corresponding reality that there are not enough jobs for all the graduates of the nation’s cooking schools.

I believe in dreams. I made my career as a wine writer based on my dream. But that was then; this is now, and I don’t know that the dream of being a chef is based on reality. There comes a time when a career gets so popular that too many people pursue it; being a wine writer is in a similar plight today. I am second to no one in the esteem in which I hold chefs. They have been instrumental in our evolution as a culture. If I had a kid who dreamed of being a chef and asked for my advice, I’d be torn. Follow your dream? Or forget about it because the competition is so intense and the chance of success is diminishing. I honestly don’t know what advice I would give.


Why should no-tipping work in NYC when it didn’t in SF?

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New York restaurateur Danny Meyer certainly made headlines yesterday when he announced that he’s eliminating tipping at all 13 of his Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants.

The move caught the restaurant world by storm. Eater said it “would forever change how diners dine.” Slate blogger Jordan Weissman cracked that it “could be a tipping point.” Tim Zagat, of the Guide, quoted in the Daily News, said, “It means a lot…Danny Meyer knows what he’s doing [and] you better take him seriously.”

Well, of course, if someone in New York does something, it must be groundbreaking, right? New York is after all The Big Apple and as the Big Apple goes, so goes the nation.

Except…California did it first. Chez Panisse and The French Laundry have long included the tip in the price of the meal, but you could argue that those are exceptions because they’re not normal “restaurants,” they’re dining Disneylands. But earlier this year a flurry of other Bay Area restaurants followed suit: Trou Normand (love their charcuterie), Toast and Camino (both here in Oakland), the celebrated Atelier Crenn, Homestead and Bar Agricole, in the red-hot Mission District, and others.

But guess what? As I write these words, Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, broke the news that Thad Vogler, owner of both Bar Agricole and Trou Normand, “is ending his experiment and returning to the conventional model” of tipping.

Vogler’s reasons? “Staff retention.” He had assumed that other restaurants in San Francisco would follow his lead, but they didn’t. That meant his servers could make more money working elsewhere, so they quit. “[O]ur staff wasn’t happy,” Vogler said, adding, “[I]t felt like we were forcing an ideological decision” down their throats.

(I asked a friend of mine who works at Bar Agricole along with her husband, neither of whom is currently wait staff, how they felt about it, and she said they’re both in favor of ending the no-tipping policy.)

How do I feel about it? Well, last February, when the no-tipping trend really started getting reported about in the Bay Area, I blogged that “I’m in favor.” I had been getting most of my 9-1-1 on the topic from Bauer’s writings, and Bauer had eagerly embraced no tipping: Increasingly, it’s becoming apparent that it’s time for tips to make a graceful exit,” he wrote. But in retrospect, I didn’t really think things through carefully enough. And neither, apparently, did Bauer: in his post today, Bauer seems to be moving slightly away from his earlier embrace, remarking that “Not everybody is ready” to go to a no-tipping policy: restaurateurs, employees or consumers.

I can see that the move away from tipping is an attempt at modernizing a very old, and perhaps anachronistic, tradition that dates to at least the early 18th century. But I do wonder why the no-tipping policy should work for Danny Meyer in New York when it didn’t for Thad Vogler in San Francisco. Good servers, of the sort who work at Bar Agricole or Meyer’s Union Square Café, are at least as hard to find, and retain, in New York as they are in San Francisco. I wonder if, a year from now or less, we’ll hear Danny Meyer confess that, like Thad Vogler, he’s ending his noble experiment, and for the same reason.


On Taco Bell selling wine

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If more proof were needed that wine has become as mainstream in America as fast food, it was just supplied with Taco Bell’s announcement that the chain will begin serving wine at its stores, beginning in Chicago and San Francisco.

The Irvine CA-based company put out a press release on Sept. 15 stating its intention “to create a new experience as the brand expands into urban markets,” and part of that “new experience” is the creation of a concept they’re calling Taco Bell Cantina (TBC). The press release explains the reason: “Today’s consumers are living in more urban settings and our new restaurants cater to their lifestyle in adapting our traditional restaurant concept to fit their modern needs.”

Well, that sounds like Millennials, doesn’t it? They’re moving to cities like San Francisco in droves, and they are different from their parents and from their more rural cousins. Their “modern needs” include a desire to “live, work and play” in urban settings, where they don’t have to drive a zillion miles to get to and from work. Taco Bell Cantina also will feature “the local architecture of the neighborhoods each restaurant serves,” although so far, there’s no mention of sourcing locally-provisioned ingredients. Maybe that’s the next step.

Here in San Francisco, the new restaurant will be close to AT&T Park, arguably the city’s hottest neighborhood, and will “cater to [that] quick pace, tech savvy and vibrant community.” It also will be as green as fast food gets: “LED lighting, use of reclaimed elements where possible and recycling.”

Will coders cotton to Taco Bell Cantina? I’m sure they will. I never get the impression that the hoards of young developers you see all over San Francisco these days are particularly informed when it comes to food. They like big flavors, some hint of authenticity and inexpensive prices, which is what they’ll find at TBC. I haven’t been able to find a menu for TBC, but the San Francisco Chronicle reports the new foods will be free “of all artificial colors and flavors…by year’s end…Artificial dye Yellow No. 6 will be removed from the nacho cheese and Blue No. 1 will no longer be used in the avocado dip.” The press release says the foods will be “tapas-style…shared appetizers.” That’s very Millennial, too.

Sounds good to me!

I don’t know what the wines will be at the San Francisco location, or the beers, for that matter. It’s not open yet. The Chicago restaurant apparently had a soft opening recently that USA Today reported on. They said the menu included new appetizer items [such as] chicken tenders, rolled chicken tacos [and] mini quesadillas.” That also sounds good to me. I’m often running around looking for something healthful, tasty, fast and cheap. As for booze, USA Today reported that the Chicago location is selling something called Cantina Punch and Cantina Margarita, as well as Dos Equis and New Belgium beers and wines from two California brands I never heard of, Steelhead Vineyards and Stack Wines. Thanks to the miracle of the Google machine, I found out that Steelhead is a project “dedicated to creating a better world”

 

 

 

by supporting Trout Unlimited; the winemaker is an old pal, Hugh Chappelle, who was at Flowers and Lynmar and now works at Quivira. So I bet the wines are pretty good. As for Stack Wines, it seems to be easy-breezy, California-appellated wines-in-a-can made of glass-like plastic.

This is a nice step for Taco Bell to take. There’s a place for fast food in this country, and it’s cool that Taco Bell is lifting the experience up a little. I could see myself grabbing a quick bite next time I’m at a Giants game, which I will be for their final one of the year against the Dodgers, on Oct. 1.


Thoughts on those sommelier lunches

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Today I am speaker, or host, at a buyer’s lunch for Jackson Family Wines. The venue is Farmshop, a restaurant in the tony Marin County town of Larkspur. I’ve never eaten there, but if you’re a wine-and-food geek in the Bay Area, you’ve certainly heard of it. Farmshop earned a coveted spot on the 2015 Top 100 restaurant list compiled annually by the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Michael Bauer. Our lunch menu was specially created by Chef Jason Purcell to pair with seven JFW wines. Our guests—22 and counting—are important wine buyers in the Bay Area.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to expand the conversation to the topic of these buyer lunches and dinners. These are important ways for wineries to connect with people who might buy their wines, and not just any people: high-end on- and off-premise accounts that will showcase the winery’s wines the way they hope to be be portrayed.

Being present on the shelf of a good wine shop and, even more, on the wine list of a top restaurant is more vital than ever. The Holy Grail for wineries, of course, is direct-to-consumer, but that’s a long, hard road, and the thinking among the smart set is that being on a wine list represents a shortcut, or perhaps stimulant is a better word, to DTC. I’m not sure exactly if that’s true, the assumption, I suppose, being that if a customer buys your off the wine list and falls in love with you, he’ll seek you out in the future by joining your wine club or ordering your wine from your website. That is hopeful, but not proven. But if your production is small enough—and many of the wines I’ll be showing tomorrow are–you can afford to forgo DTC if enough retail accounts buy you.

Wineries have different personnel they can choose to represent them at such venues, which combine entertainment and serious eating with the educational analyses of the wines. Obviously, there’s the winery owner and/or winemaker, who often but not always is the same person. This is a winery’s best bet for putting forth a personality who can talk about the wines being presented, as well as using herself as a selling point; having a “face of the winery” is very important for branding, although not all winemakers and/or owners like being put in that position, and some refuse to do it. But it’s necessary these days, and not a bad place to be, since your audience arrives excited and expecting to like you. All you have to do is live up to their expectations. And who doesn’t like to be liked?

The winemaker or owner isn’t always available, of course. So who else does the winery send to represent them? Well, it’s often someone from sales, marketing or P.R. who is affiliated with the winery in some way, and can speak credibly about the wines. You need a credible presence, because buyers don’t want to feel jerked around by someone who doesn’t have credibility and is only trying to sell stuff–timeshares or Tupperware or whatever.

The hope on every winery’s part, at every trade or consumer event, is to have someone of unimpeachable credibility represent them. This isn’t exactly a new development—winetasting events at restaurants are as old as the hills. But it’s become more polished in recent years, especially with the advent of the “new sommeliers,” people with advanced knowledge of, not only wine, but culinary affairs. They don’t want to go to a lunch just anywhere, and indeed, if the restaurant doesn’t spark their interest, they’ll pass on by the event. Somms have become more pampered than they were in the past—not passing judgment on that, just saying—and so it takes more than it used to to coax them out and make them happy.


Moving away from “the wine list”

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Lucy Shaw’s interview with Christopher Cooper, reported in the drinks business, contains some wise and useful insights, especially Cooper’s contention that sommeliers “need to work harder, take more risks and open their eyes to the bigger world of drinks, taking in beer, cider, cocktails and spirits.” Declaring the traditional wine list “dead—boring…wine bibles [that] are crap,” he even charges that customers “are being forced into buying wine rather than other drinks in restaurants as it’s profitable.”

Wow, lots to break down here. It’s true that restaurants make a lot of money selling wine, although I don’t know if wine is more profitable than beer and cocktails—perhaps someone can enlighten me.

Since I’m a wine guy, representing wineries, I do wonder if this suggestion—that restaurants open their wine lists more or less equally to beer and spirits—will cut down on wine sales. This would be a serious impediment to wineries, especially in this day and age when on-premise is so important to them. But I don’t think so. Here’s why.

To begin with, the gigantic wine list—the size of the Manhattan telephone directory—has clearly had its fifteen minutes of fame. It won’t disappear overnight, but I assume and hope than eventually it will be seen for what it is: a bloated appeal to snobbery. Diners don’t even want such mammoth wine lists anymore; they want something with, maybe, 30 wines and an attractive by the glass selection, creatively chosen, moderately priced and—this is key—curated by someone who knows and loves wine, and doesn’t just throw the Big Names on there for the hell of it.

So restaurants shouldn’t just add beer and spirits to already-overweight wine lists, they should shorten their wine lists. Who gets to stay on such coveted real estate? Ahh, glad you asked. It’s the wineries that offer the most bang for the buck.

The real action these days isn’t in the critical scores or the latest magazine cover stories, it’s on the sales turf. Everybody—Bill Harlan to Fred Frenzia—is out there thinking of how to stay relevant. Nobody really understands the rules because frankly, my dears, there aren’t any, or very many, and such rules as there are tend to get broken quickly as the landscape undergoes constant mega-change. There’s a lot of bull out there that masquerades as expertise when in reality it’s just another service being pitched. The details differ at each price scale, but basically, the question for vintners is: Am I still going to be able to sell this stuff five, ten, twenty, a hundred years from now?

This is a worthy question for a vintner to ask—indeed, the only worthy one. I have a feeling that wineries that can prove to the world that they are in this for the long haul, will find themselves a leg up, because having a real long-range plan means they’re performing at the top of their game. Nobody wants overnight successes, built on some phony formula, that won’t exist tomorrow. We want to support wineries that have been doing a good job for a long time and haven’t gotten complacent.

And that gets us back to wine lists, which, according to the Cooper theory of reality, should actually be called “wine, beer and spirits lists.” It’s a good idea that will upset the wine industry temporarily, but in the long run will be good for consumers, and that’s what it’s all about.


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