Recent news that Gordon Ramsay sold his eponymous New York restaurant to The London hotel (owned by the Blackstone Group) and his restaurant in Los Angeles, got me thinking. If he hadn’t opened so many restaurants to begin with, and stuck with the one that had earned him some respect, maybe he wouldn’t have to be selling or closing any of these restaurants today. And who knows, maybe his home office might actually still be a very exciting place to eat. It wasn’t when I ate there nearly a year ago.
Chefs are laying down Levittables. Tract restaurants, if you will. Cookie cutter eateries. McRobuchons.
Call me old-fashioned. Call me close-minded. Tell me my that stubborness is causing me to miss out on many good meals. And you just might be making a very good point. But I simply lose interest in a chef and his/her restaurants when they start replicating them.
Isn’t it enough for a restaurant to offer really good food? Why does it matter where you’re eating Mario Batali’s pasta – New York, Las Vegas, or Los Angeles – or Thomas Keller’s steak frites – Yountville, Beverly Hills, or Las Vegas – if it’s good? El jefe is unlikely to be cooking at any of them anyway.
I’ll present this to you another way: why go to Paris, or Tokyo, or Cape Town and eat at McDonalds?
Predictability is one thing. A narrow, velvet-lined rut is quite another.
Now, some of my friends have pointed out: some people don’t have the luxury of traveling. They can’t fly to Paris to eat at l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. So, for Joel Robuchon to bring his cuisine to Tokyo, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, New York, and London is a boon to those who live in those parts of the world who wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience Robuchon’s food. Good point.
But for me, once I learn that a chef starts Xeroxing his menus, I lose interest altogether, regardless of how accessible or inaccessible the food is.
What I value the most is a unique dining experience.
Sounds elitist? It’s actually quite the opposite.
It’s not about exclusivity. It’s not about high-end. It’s not about cachet. It’s about soul. It’s about the proximity of the diner to the food’s creator. The less there is between the two, the more intimate the experience – unique. That explains why many of my best meals are ones that I cook with my family and friends.
And when you’re eating at the nth iteration of Chef X’s restaurant Y, where Chef X never cooks any more, how much farther could you get from Chef X? There’s a reason why l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon has earned the title “McRobuchon.”
And my limited personal experience seems to confirm my uneasiness about eating at what I call Levittables.
Neither of my meals at l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon have been anything to write home about. And my meal at Joel Robuchon at The Mansion was expensive blather. The Multi-Nippled one, as I call him, is just a name to me.
I know people who refuse to eat at Pierre Gagnaire’s restaurants unless the man is in the kitchen. The recent farrago I met at his restaurant in Hong Kong has made me adopt such a policy. Given the highly unlikely chance that I’ll “bump into him” at one of his restaurants around the world, I doubt I’ll ever eat one of his restaurants again.
A recent dinner at Bar Charlie – Charlie Trotter’s gawkishly Japanese outpost in Las Vegas – was a queer, if not overpriced exercise.
The list goes on for a quite some length. But I won’t bore you with a recounting of my many phoned-in meals. Suffice it to say, I gather there’s a reason why I haven’t yet been to Craft (in any city), Nobu (on any continent), or any one of the Olives around the country. I’ve never sat down for a full meal in any of Alain Ducasse’s properties. And the thought has never even entered my mind to bother with Wolfgang Puck, be it at an airport or shopping mall.
I’d rather be eating at the restaurant where I know the chef is going to be plying his/her trade, doing what, hopefully, s/he loves doing the most. Those are places where I invariably have the best dining experiences.
It’s no coincidence that my best meals are at restaurants where I see the named chef peeking into the dining room during service to survey their flock, to make sure all is well. The Eric Riperts (le Bernardin), David Kinches (Manresa), Colby Garreltses (bluestem), Daniel Humms (Eleven Madison Park), Debbie Golds (The American Restaurant), Jean Georges Vongericthens (Jean Georges), Marc Vetris (Vetri Ristorante), Paul Virant (vie), Johnny Iuzzinis (Jean Georges), Jeremy Foxes (ubuntu), and my neighbors Joe and Suzanne of the world are the chefs I admire. Having a solid chef de cuisine is invaluable, surely. But having a passion for being in the kitchen, putting your best foot forward night after night for your patrons is the key to pleasing diners like me.
Again, it’s not about the bragging rights. I don’t really give two cents about telling someone that I saw Chef X at his restaurant like some celebrity sighting. Rather, it’s about sincerity. I appreciate that above all else. And that is what sets great food and a great dining experience apart from the rest.