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Why Amanda Cohen Sees a Brighter Future for NYC’s Restaurant Industry

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As she prepares to open the new location of her restaurant, the Dirt Candy chef takes a look at the lay of the NYC restaurant land and sees some promising changes ahead.

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Ryan Blomberg

There are so many terrifying things in the world today — ISIS, ebola, Mountain Dew-flavored Doritos — that I wanted to take a minute to focus on the direction the restaurant industry is headed because, believe it or not, that direction is great. Running a restaurant (and building a restaurant, which is what I'm in the middle of doing) is all about dealing with a hundred different tiny problems every day, so it's easy to miss the big picture. But when you step back, it actually looks pretty good.

Tipping

The new Dirt Candy won't have tipping.

Questioning tipping practices has previously been reserved for weirdos, Europeans, or Thomas Keller. But now there is a serious conversation starting about how fair wages, rather than an out-of-date system based on peer pressure, might be a better way to pay service industry workers. The new Dirt Candy won't have tipping, and over the next five to ten years, I think more and more restaurants are going to throw this archaic remnant from of the class system in the trash where it belongs.

Wages

Asking good back-of-house staff to work for low wages is one of the biggest problems in restaurants. And it's only getting harder to find BOH talent willing to do it. With a rising minimum wage across the country, and with more and more people going to cooking school and coming into their first restaurant jobs carrying student loan debt they need to pay off, restaurants are going to have to start paying higher wages for line cooks.

On top of that, it looks like there's finally some kind of immigration reform on the horizon (hopefully), giving immigrants working in the restaurant industry mobility that they never had before. A guy with a fake social security number can probably slide by in the restaurant business, or in construction, or any kind of day labor, but he can't move too far outside those fields. With a legal work permit, dishwashers who are tired of the grind can suddenly apply to Kinko's, Duane Reade, or any number of jobs that are less physically demanding, higher-paying, and maybe even provide benefits. Restaurants will suddenly have to compete.

Benefits

"My artisanal grass-fed burger is going to cost $3 extra so these lazy chefs don't lose their jobs when they have a baby!!"

New York City's passage of paid sick leave had a lot of loopholes in it, and I wish New York City officials had talked to restaurant owners more before passing that law, but at least it's a step in the right direction. With the Affordable Care Act changes coming, it's only a matter of time before paid maternity leave and paid vacation become part of the equation in the restaurant business. That can only be a good thing. And for those who foresee nothing but doom and gloom ("Oh no, my artisanal grass-fed burger is going to cost $3 extra so these lazy chefs don't lose their jobs when they have a baby!!") I can reassure you very easily: Canada.

Rents

This one's a double-edged sword. Commercial rents in New York City are going to keep going up, and that's inarguably a problem, but there is a silver lining. Higher rents force restaurateurs to open businesses in neighborhoods they can afford, and that means moving further out into the five boroughs. 15 years ago it would have been inconceivable for a high end, globally-ranked restaurant to open in Queens because Manhattan was the only place big-time chefs wanted to be. Now, there are four Michelin-ranked restaurants in Queens, and ten in Brooklyn. Better restaurants in more neighborhoods is a good thing, even if the cause (high rents) isn't so sweet.

Note: Creating a future where Manhattan is not just an endless wasteland of bank branches and Duane Reades is still a huge, looming crisis.

Women

Something has definitely changed.

After being marginalized and ignored by the press in the late 1990's and 2000's, women are finally getting recognized for their work in this field again. It took a lot of noise-making, and the fight isn't over yet, but no longer can a food conference or a best restaurant list be considered complete if it excludes female chefs. When Food & Wine — a publication deep in denial about its role in the problem decides to dedicate an entire issue to women, then something has definitely changed.

Chefs of Color

There are lots of chefs of color running great restaurants in North America but, funnily enough, they're not getting the same coverage as white chefs. One of the great things about the food world right now is that there are so many press outlets covering it. They're so hungry for content that, like Pac-Man, they chomp through issue after issue. Eventually, one of them is going to realize this discrepancy. Witness Christopher Nuttall-Smith's article in Canada's Globe and Mail for an example of how to deliver a spanking to a food conference that decides to exclude everyone except white chefs. Given the ravenous appetite for content among the food sites, it's only a matter of time before one of them latches onto this very real problem like a tick.

Department of Health

Few organizations are less qualified to regulate the industry they're tasked with overseeing than New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Out-of-touch with current food preparation techniques, their biggest sin is that they inconsistently enforce (or don't) rules according to the daily mood of their individual inspectors.

The newish letter grade system has allowed everyone to see just how inconsistent this enforcement is, and it's really ticking chefs off. An example from Dirt Candy: After three years in business, we received a $300 fine and several points off for not having a valve on a dishwasher. None of the previous four DOH inspectors had thought to mention this valve issue, including the one who conducted the supposedly thorough inspection I had to pass in order to open.

Fortunately, NBAT (New Business Acceleration Team) has started organizing pre-opening walk-throughs for new restaurants where someone from the health department will show up and rather than just handing out fines they'll talk you through problem areas that aren't outlined in the regulations. It's a small (tiny) step, but it is at least a step in the right direction. Hopefully this signals that the city is moving towards making the Department of Health an actual, standardized organization that enforces its rules consistently.

Food Television

The message used to be: cooking is for nerds.

It's easy to be cynical about Food Network, but nothing has done more to create a generation of diners who are comfortable with, and expect more from, their food. When I was growing up, cooking shows were the province of PBS and the message was: cooking is for nerds. Then came Food Network, Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, and Bravo's Top Chef, and a hundred million more shows. Today, for better or for worse, cooking is exciting, and dramatic, and the elitism is gone.

Internet

It used to be that people knew what restaurants to eat at because the New York Times or Zagat told them so. These days, there are a million sites searching out everything from the best slice of pizza to the best Druse cookery, and it's nationwide. This comes with its own issues of snobbery and appropriation, but it's also pretty fucking awesome. Some of the most influential meals I've had in New York are because I wound up at some tiny place out in Flushing that I only knew about through Chowhound or Robert Sietsema.

Good News

When I started out as a chef almost 15 years ago, the internet wasn't a thing, there were no letter grades in New York, Food Network was a specialty channel, women were expected to sit down and shut up, when you talked about chefs of color you were only talking about Marcus Samuelsson, restaurant jobs were trials by fire that paid low wages, and if you asked about benefits you were laughed out of the kitchen. Change is going to break some eggs, and I hope Dirt Candy isn't one of them, but I can't help but look around at New York City's dining scene and feeling like we're all walking into a better future together.

Dirt Candy

86 Allen Street, Manhattan, NY 10002 (212) 228-7732 Visit Website

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