Welcome to Hot Topics, in which chefs chime in on a recent issue in food.
The place that inspired the article that inspired the debate [Photo: Gary Soup]
It wouldn't be a bold move to say that the food story of this week has been the controversy over Alan Richman's review of New York City's M. Wells. In the piece, the veteran journalist declares, "Here in New York, with our restaurants tumbling into informality, a guest can easily become a casualty of incompetence. We've entered the post-service era, where fewer and fewer restaurateurs still stand watch."
Though the review focuses on a restaurant in New York, the question it tackles is a national one, relevant in Chang's East Village, Dotolo and Shook's L.A., and everywhere in between. Therefore, we've asked five chefs to share their thoughts on the issue. Here, now, David Kinch (Manresa, Los Gatos), Paul Kahan (Multiple restaurants, Chicago), Shuna Lydon (Peels, NYC), Manuel Trevino (Marble Lane, NYC), and David Burke (Multiple restaurants, Chicago and the Northeast) take on the question.
David KinchRestaurant: Manresa, Los Gatos, CA
In a very general sense, I would agree that that is taking place. It was bound to happen, and it's part of the larger argument about fine dining being dead — either because of the recession or a change in what people expect from restaurants, or a combination of both. It seems the trend has gone too far.
What do you do about it? I choose not to go to restaurants that have poor service. I'm as much a "food above all else" chef as the next guy, but a lot of times, when the service is not only unprofessional but perhaps aggressive and makes people uncomfortable, why go? There are plenty of other restaurants that have professional staff, train properly, and show an emphasis for hospitality. And that's not the sole domain of restaurants with higher price points.
I'm over the really loud music and the uncomfortable chairs. The media has placed so much emphasis on the casual — everyone talks about pizza, about hamburgers, and about more casual spots, and this is the logical result. The cheaper things get, it's usually the case that the service and professionalism will suffer. At one point Richman wrote, "Too cool to care," and I think there's something there.
Shuna LydonRestaurant: Peels, New York, NY
Casual isn't synonymous with bad service, but I do see the article's point and agree with much of what Richman has to say. We have to first consider the economic aspect: I was in California during the dot com bust and 9/11 and saw first-hand how restaurants had to lay people off and make menu changes; no more foie gras, no more lobster, and in most cases, no more top-notch service: the inherent relationship between the check average and the service someone gets is paramount. Really good waiters have little reason to work at a casual restaurant, where their check averages, and thus tips, will be significantly lower.
Add to that three other linked considerations: the average diner does not go out to eat for the food. They go out to eat for service, the way they are treated. It's cheerleader, service-y pablum, but it's true, and unfortunately, there are not enough restaurants encouraging and teaching fantastic service. There aren't enough front and back of house people that have ownership for the way the service operates somewhere. Take Laura Cunningham, who created the service model and philosophy at The French Laundry. Sure, it's very high-end fine dining, but anyone can learn from seeing waiters speaking clearly and standing up straight. Finally, in the United States of America, many tend to think the person who is providing the service is an idiot. We view that person as a minimum wage making, no-good, uneducated employee — yet we expect them to think for us. Many chefs don't respect waiters, and many waiters don't respect themselves as professionals. I have asked many waiters who have been working for 10 plus years whether they consider themselves professional waiters and they all have said "No."
I think the lackadaisical, poor brand of hipster service is the mark of too many restaurants being around. These days, it seems like anyone who has a pan and watches the Food Network thinks they can be a chef. The places that are like that don't stick around for very long. But there is much room for informal, non-fine dining places that offer excellent service.
Paul KahanRestaurants: Various, in Chicago
The statement is a bit of an exaggeration. The too-cool restaurants have always been around. They don't tend to deliver an amazing product, and because of that they're usually a flash in the pan.
I think the era that we're in, more than anything else, is the one where people might not necessarily want to commit to a four hour meal; their time is precious. But they want attentive service and to be engaged and to enjoy well-prepared food.
Speaking from the perspective of our restaurants, which are pretty much all casual, informal, and you might even say "cool," our servers are super interactive, super attentive, and not stuffy at all. I don't think people want any type of attitude. They do want someone that can guide their experience in a fun and knowledgeable way. You can be casual, but the service has to be on-point — and many great restaurants today understand that.
David BurkeRestaurant: Various, in Chicago and the Northeast
I have noticed the decline in service quality, and I'm not sure what the cause is. One thing's for sure: if the lack of rigor starts at the back of the house, it'll spread through every part of the restaurant. Something to look at is that four or five years ago, when the economy was booming, waiters were making a lot of money and managers were being promoted left and right. Now thing's have gotten a little tighter, so you have to work harder and smarter. Not everyone does, so you get a lot of rude and/or uninformed service.
And it's important to emphasize that when the economy is bad and people are out spending, service is vital, whether at a hog dog cart, a diner, or a four-star restaurant. It's a deciding factor for me: I frequent three or four restaurants, and a major part of what keeps me coming back is the service.
Manuel TrevinoRestaurant: Marble Lane, NYC
There is a new trend of restaurants compromising service for a cool, laid-back vibe. It's important to make dining an experience, something that is different than what we can get at home. And service is crucial to this. Three things are key in the hospitality business: providing great product and great service and creating a fun and inviting atmosphere. Any great restaurant, no matter the concept, does not fall short on any of these points. Service is the tie that binds the other two together.
Casual, fun environments need to consider that service can never be too casual or too formal. The approach may be different, but the basics of good service need to exist to meet and exceed guest expectation. That is primarily why people patronize a restaurant: they like to be taken care of. It’s the human element of hospitality. And repeat business, especially in a city with thousands of restaurants to choose from, is what makes or breaks a business in today's unstable economy.
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