rumination 13: if you build it…

One of the first things that people ask me is: Why Kansas City?

No offense to the hard-working and wonderful chefs here – a few of whom I’ve befriended – it ain’t for the restaurant scene.  That’s for sure.

I was born and raised here. My family is here. I enjoy the easy living.

But why aren’t restaurants in the Midwest better?

Overrun by chain restaurants and corporate outfits, in many ways, the Midwest deserves its pejorative label, “Fly-Over Country.” (Yes, Cleveland, this includes you, too.)  Other than a certain style of barbecue, there’s not much here that you can’t find abundantly, and done better, elsewhere.

There are a few exceptions, of course.

Chicago is a growing restaurant empire, soon to be home to Michelin-starred restaurants. It has been our region’s beacon of culture and hope.

And Minneapolis has quite a bumpin’ food culture too. Theirs may not be the sexiest restaurant scene, but it’s solid, healthy, and vibrant.

The rest of the Midwest, however, is sparsely dotted with a small handful of nationally noteworthy restaurants, few, if any of which would be considered a “destination restaurant.”

I can probably count them on two hands. Okay, maybe one.

Before all of you Midwesterners abandon me totally, know that I’m on your side. I live here. I eat here. I want nothing more than the best for my home and my people. So bear with me.

Over the past few years, I’ve received an increasing number of emails from readers (some chefs, some not) asking me why I think the restaurant scene in the Midwest isn’t more exciting.

It’s really not rocket science.

Here’s the problem: parochialism (not in the ecumenical sense).

Midwesterners are terribly narrow-minded. While it’s part of our charm, it’s also our downfall.

The Bottom Line

For more than a century, the Midwest has been dominated by the agricultural industry. The farming community – comprised of simple folk of humble means with simple taste – stuck to what was available: livestock, bread, and root vegetables.

Given the limitations back then, that sort of culinary myopia was understandable. But given our resources and opportunities today, it is, in my opinion, no longer excusable.

The bottom line will always be the bottom line. But the bottom line in the Midwest has steadily risen over the past couple of decades. As corporate America and entrepreneurs have taken root here over the years, an injection of capital has, and I hope, will foster the growth of the regional food movement. Wealthy investors have begun to identify and support the local culinary talent and businesses in the Midwest. This sort of local, financial vote of confidence is the only way to grow an industry whose viability depends on community support.

A Captive Audience

But given all the money in the world, you still need a captive audience in order to make a restaurant culture viable.

Currently, most of the Midwest is captivated by chain and corporate-run restaurants. That market is viable and thriving.

Why?

Because chain restaurants have identified the lowest common denominators and mass-marketed accordingly. They offer colorful, eye-catching menus, fun “themes,” uniformed servers, gentle prices, generous (if not shocking) portion sizes, and predictably tasty foods calibrated to to the full-fat, full-flavor diet. They’re also pitched for the fast-paced modern family, a convenient in-and-out detour between soccer practice and the 10 o’clock news.

But, for the most part, this isn’t thoughtful or educated eating. It’s not terribly healthful either. It’s convenient eating.

And this is where the Midwest lags behind other regions.

The average eater here isn’t likely to be as concerned as the average eater in other regions of the U.S. about where their food comes from or how it is produced. Midwesterners are primarily concerned with whether their food (a) is identifiable and familiar, (b) tastes good, and (c) is perceived to be a value. Chain and corporate-run restaurants have succeeded on delivering all three of those points.

Locally owned, chef- and ingredient-driven restaurants that are more concerned with sustainability, seasonality, and creativity, struggle with meeting two of these three critical criteria for satisfying locals.

While these independent chefs are capable of cooking delicious food, convincing their customers to order unfamiliar foods can be difficult. And next to the volume-selling outfits, the locally owned restaurants can’t compete on pricing, especially if they choose to use sustainably sourced ingredients instead of commodity meats and produce.

So, what is the small guy to do? Clip their creativity and compromise their product in order to earn a living? Or take the martyred path of the culinary conscientious objector?

Despite the recently increased affluence in the Midwest and explosion of the national food movement, the Midwestern palate has remained largely – and sadly – retarded. Unfounded fears and a general apathy for adventure plagues our palates.

The Midwest is landlocked. So seafood has always been suspect here – perhaps rightfully so. What is troubling, however, is that despite the advent of overnight delivery, the fear of seafood remains a culinary form of xenophobia from which we have yet to recover.

If it has legs or wings, overly cautious Midwesterners tend to cook (or smoke) the meat until it is unquestionably dead. Someone needs to make a public service announcement: We are not on the Oregon Trail anymore. Sadly, many chefs, tired of having dishes sent back for more cooking, purposely cook meats more well-done. Unless I know the chef’s cooking, I always specify – often stress – to the server how I would like my meat cooked.

Another problem is that Midwesterners equate quantity, not quality with value. Encouraged by corporate and chain restaurants, Midwesterners prescribe to a “more is more” belief. So, instead of buying better steaks and potatoes, Midwestern expense accounts are investing in bigger steaks and potatoes. This is an utterly defeatist use of the rising bottom line. It poses a challenge to both the waistline and our world’s sustainability.

Fine dining establishments in the Midwest also have the added challenge of overcoming the indigenous fear of “fancy.”

“Fancy” is for the coasters, not for the God-fearing, ascetic Midwesterner. Here, where the bread basket overlaps the Bible belt, humility is next to holiness. While this disciplined mentality is admirable, some are so blinded by this homey, humble attitude that all sense of value flies out the window. I know many (many) people who would rather – in fact, happily – spend $60 eating at a mediocre, national chain restaurant than spend the exact same amount for a much higher-caliber dinner made from high-quality, local produce at a locally owned restaurant. Even though the prices are practically the same, they perceive and/or assume the one with tablecloths and chinaware is stuffy, unapproachable, and more expensive.

To be fair, Midwesterners are slowly changing their dining habits.

People from the Midwest are traveling more than ever before, and they’re becoming exposed to food outside this region.  They’re coming back with higher expectations and more well-informed demands.  This is a good thing.

The rash of food and chef celebrity over the past few years has also boosted interest in food and the restaurant industry among Midwesterners.  While it has legitimately increased awareness of important issues, such as sustainability, it has also cultivated a growing and enthusiastic but poorly informed army of self-proclaimed “foodies” and chef groupies. In my experience, the vast majority of these nouveau-gourmands are less discriminate and thoughtful and more Pavlovian in their approach to their new-found hobby, programmed to yelp at anything offalized, trufflized, or ethnicized, regardless of whether the food is actually any good. This is more harmful than helpful, as it only feeds a false-sense of confidence among local chefs, who, encouraged by the attention, begin producing more, but not higher-quality food. The quantity over quality mill continues to churn.

Brave New World

Diners aren’t the only ones who are narrow-minded. Chefs here are equally complicit in retarding the Midwestern palate.

I don’t own a restaurant. And I can only imagine the demands that it makes of hard-working chefs and entrepreneurs. But I firmly believe that Shoeless Joe was right when he said, “If you build it, he will come.”

I’m not asking for an overnight revolution.  I don’t expect the next French Laundry to land in Dubuque, Iowa.  But chefs in the Midwest need to push the culinary envelope farther and faster. With the exception of one or two restaurants in Kansas City, the food is largely the same: unimaginative and mediocre, if not sloppy.

This might be understandable if chefs here were incompetent. But they’re not.  There are some very talented chefs in the Midwest who, sadly, choose to do just enough to stay slightly ahead of the curve.

Over-pricing can also be a problem in the Midwest. Some of it is to compensate for the low-turn over rate, and some of it is just highway robbery. (A common example is wet-aged steaks, which are sold as “aged steaks” at near-dry-aged prices.)  I could name at least a dozen poor-to-mediocre restaurants in Kansas City that are charging comparable prices to excellent restaurants in bigger cities elsewhere.

Our chefs can do better.  I know they can.  And for the prices that some of them are charging, they need to do better.

Ignorance Is Not Charming

Unexciting but well-executed food is forgivable. Poor service is not.

Even in our best restaurants, servers in the Midwest seem to rely more on whatever the-person-next-door charm they can muster instead of professionalism and knowledge to get them through service.

This is unacceptable.

Unlike innovative cooking, providing good service and hospitality doesn’t require much creativity. I’m not expecting the (literally) choreographed staffs of restaurants like Charlie Trotters or Eleven Madison Park (though that would be awesome). Let’s just start with basics.

Service in the Midwest is perfunctory at best. Good service is more than simply taking orders, shuttling food and plates, and dropping the bill. Good service includes being observant and listening and responding to guests.

Far too many servers don’t know what or how to pronounce what they’re serving. This is one area where chain restaurants excel – servers in corporate-run restaurants are tested rigorously and often about the menu.

Ignorant and inattentive service undermines the legitimacy of the chef and the restaurant. Local chefs and restaurateurs need to train their servers better.

*    *    *    *    *

This post may make me sound elitist.

I know I’m tremendously blessed to have traveled the world and to have eaten as well and widely as I have. Most Midwesterners don’t have these same opportunities.

I don’t take it for granted.

But I also don’t settle for less than the best either. And neither should diners in the Midwest, who are paying good money to eat out. That is why I’m so honest – often brutally, to a fault – on this blog.

Far be it from me to be an apologist on the matter. You won’t find me sitting on a corner and complaining.

There’s a lot that we can do to advance our region’s culinary clout.

Ultimately, the bottom line is the bottom line: vote with your pocket book. Support your local chefs, especially those who cook quality food and support local farmers and food producers.  I do, almost to the exclusion of chain restaurants. I don’t think that chain restaurants are evil.  They fill a very important role in society. But given how much support they already get, they’re not missing my money. I’d rather give my hard-earned dollars to those who are exploring and exposing the exciting side to the culinary world in the Midwest.  I encourage you to do the same.

Also, give honest, constructive feedback.  The worst thing you can do is walk away from a meal disappointed and silent. Encourage chefs and restaurateurs when they do things right and let them know when they don’t.  Restaurants that listen to and intelligently sift through their clients’ feedback succeed.  Those that don’t, shutter.

Remember, you are the paying customer. You can make your world a better place to eat.

If you want to know where I like to eat in Kansas City, CLICK HERE.

~ by ulterior epicure on August 23, 2010.

22 Responses to “rumination 13: if you build it…”

  1. Very nicely written, from one midwesterner to another I can say I agree with nearly all of the above.

    From the standpoint of someone who treats the medical ailments of the midwest I see the local dining situation as not only a culinary call to arms, but a quintessential aspect of the declining health and increased obesity index in the central states. The focus on cheap, refined, and large portions is evident all around us and only getting worse with each new Cheesecake Factory or Applebees.

    Like you (though not to the same extent) I’m blessed with my ability to travel and to afford great food, but given the bounty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains in the heartland I think your comments speak to the greater need of both local diners and chefs to embrace what the earth provides.

  2. Great post, UE. You need to do more of these ruminations.

    I think I’m now in the same situation as you (albeit having traveled and eaten far less). Since moving down to central NC for school just a week ago, I’ve already had to settle for 2 fast food meals (my first two in months), not to mention pretty tasteless cafeteria food.

    I’m not sure how central NC compares to the midwest but I do wish there were less fast food places, although I know I’m more fortunate than many living in the area.

  3. I think it is time you made your way to Madison, Wisconsin. An amazing city with a tremendous food scene. Check out the things Tory Miller is doing at L’Etoile restaurant.

  4. I was thinking about this on the drive in this morning when I saw a McDonald’s advert captioned “easeburger”. Now, isn’t part of the same stubborn Midwestern ethic a theory akin to ‘anything worth doing is difficult’? Why, then, have we been taken in by the promise of ease when it comes to food? People know better, they must, but advertising is a powerful thing. Read some Max Barry, it’s scary stuff.

  5. I am probably guilty of many of the sins you mention. I don’t eat fast food and hardly ever at chain restaurants but I just don’t feel like dropping $50+ on a dinner. So I find something in the middle that fits my price range and my idea of what and how much I should be getting. I have to say I liked your description of foodies. I wish this trend was over with so its obnoxious devotees could go back to whatever they were wasting their time on before.

  6. Thanks, everyone, for the feedback and comments.

    @meesha.v: Eating within your budget is never a sin.

    @KD: Like I said, it’s convenient eating that plagues us.

  7. @Bryan: I have wanted to visit Madison for quite some time. I hope to get there one day.

  8. Totally true. When we arrived in Kansas City from New York three years ago we asked about the best restaurants in town. A lot of people said Blue Stem so we went. One of the worst restaurant experiences of my life. Mediocre, over-fussed food. I think he was trying to be Jean-George Vongerichten, with foams and essences. Unfortunately, Blue Stem’s are flavorless and uninteresting. The service was awful. We waited more than half an hour between courses. Meaning from the time one was carried away to the time the next one arrived. And the servers, who seemed to know little about food, could not answer questions and yet treated us with condescension, as though everyone who comes to their restaurant are country hicks who must be thrilled and intimidated by snottiness. What a weird, ignorant, overweening place. Oh, and it cost about as much as Jean-Georges too!

  9. @Grace: That’s totally sad for me to hear, as I do like bluestem. I’m assuming you haven’t been back since. I would urge you to go back and given them another chance.

  10. Oh, I wanted to get angry at this post, to call you elitist, but I think you’re right. However, I do have optimism. Even in the most entrenched blue-collar, won’t-try-anything-new Midwest, there’s hope. I live in one of those places–there is literally no restaurant in my town at which I actually ENJOY eating. However, just a few minutes away, in the small city of Sheboygan, WI, Stefano Viglietti and his family are doing amazing things. They now have 4 restaurants, each with its own personality, and all committed to fresh ingredients that are locally sourced whenever possible. What gives me the most hope is that every time we’ve been to one of those places–even at 5 pm on a Wednesday–the places have been packed.

    Sadly, though, progress comes slow to the Midwest. Stefano gives me hope, but I’m still waiting for the effects to trickle out of Sheboygan to the rest of the area.

  11. Don’t you think this post is extremely essentializing? Attempting to distill or extract the dining character of such a broad and diverse region in a few generalization seems fallacious to me. Similarly, one might say “all Southern cooking is unhealthy, all New York restaurants serve cheesecake, and all California restaurants either pander to granola munching locavores or entertainment execs.”

  12. very interesting and thoughtful read about the scene in the Midwest. I still remember Old Country Buffet fondly. haha

  13. You know i don’t know why there isn’t a solid French brasserie (think Pastis, Balthazar) type of place in every mid-large size city in the country. The menu can be somewhat diverse and interesting but still contain familiar(ish) staple dishes, as well. Additionally, the atmosphere is conducive to a lively bar scene, thus allowing the restauranteur to supplement his profit potential with booze/wine sales. Solid food could make it successful, without crazy high prices (hangar steaks for $15 rather than filets for $35). Maybe only slightly relevant to your post (and way more narrow), but it is something that has bugged me for awhile (grew up in KS, lived in NYC for 10 years, now live in Houston).

  14. I question whether the midwestern palate is really as narrow and fearful as you think. Last year I moved from Chicago to Philadelphia and on the way to Philadelphia, my brother and I pulled over to get some gas and food not far from New Castle (a very rural area). To our surprise and delight a gas station off of the interstate had an attached Indian restaurant (which was actually decent).

    I’ve seen significant changes in my hometown of Lafayette, IN as well. There is a much wider variety of ethnic restaurants now then when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s. Perhaps that is because many of these ethnic restaurants can at least provide good values (large portions for little cash) if not familiar food

  15. As a native Midwestern and Midwestern chef and food enthusiast I like to believe in the “if you build it they will come” philosophy. But what we can’t expect to lead a horse to water every time. There are so many angles to your argument that I think we could sit for a few hours and talk about all of them. One of things I think about is the division between urban and not urban. Doesn’t matter if we’re in the MW or Manhattan, once you leave the city you’re in Naperville or Jersey. No offense to both of those of those places, it’s a generalization. But so too is the claim that Midwesterners all have parochial tastes. I’m embarrased to admit this but I will come clean and say that I’ve seen a portion of Bravo’s House Wives–probably a portion of all of all of them (I’m married). These are shows about the “upper crust” of society and so far none of them have taken place in the Midwest. But if you watch where they go out to eat, all the places have cutesy names and drinks in fishbowls. If you didn’t know where these shows were taking place you could assume they were in Naperville or KC or St. Louis. Point being, most of the population is narrow-minded when it comes to food, not just the Midwest. But if we are to hone-in on what we might call the heavy hitting restaurant markets like NYC, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, SF, Portland, Seattle and the Canadian cities which are probably in a whole ass-kicking league of their own, we have fields that are on the same level but in different ways. Bouley built it and he closed it. In Chicago, Melman built one for every one that he closed. The power dining spots of the 90’s and aughts have been built and many have crumbled. I like to think as far as KC goes that it does have a pretty diverse “real” food scene. I say that because I have read all of your reviews of these places. I’ve also been to your City Market which rivals anything that we currently have in Chicago. I’d like to think that the foundation for introducing Midwestern palates to good food has already been laid in KC and can be built upon. I’ve heard lots of stories about some of the wealthy suburbs surrounding Chicago like Geneva, St. Charles and Naperville attracting big city chefs to open creative concepts with real food. At the same time, I’ve also read story after story about high-end real food restaurants in these suburbs closing because people didn’t see a return on their investment, if you will. I guess we could say that Midwesterners are more conservative with their money, therefore gravitate towards chains but aren’t most middle class people, no matter where they live conservative with their money? I don’t know the answers but I am on the same page as you are–I’d love to see the state of Midwestern dining elevated–that goes for KC, Chicago and everywhere in between.

  16. This article really hit home! I can’t speak for the rest of the Midwest, but as for Chicago, I feel that the food scene here is held back by some factors:

    (1) location: it is hard and expensive to get fresh seafood here, let alone sushi-grade fish. It is also harder to be “market-driven” when we have to import fresh produce from warmer states for many months of the year.

    (2) population: food is often defined by the people who live here. Food culture can be enriched by immigration. Cities with many adventurous, curious and knowledgeable foodies are often cities with many recent immigrants. As an Asian American, I feel it’s very difficult to get caliber East Asian food in Chicago. I even find it difficult to find quality French pastry and affordable New European cuisine. Many immigrants stay on the coasts and never make their ways here. So it is not surprising that among the various ethnic cuisines that Chicago does do well as compared to other American cities, are Mexican and Greek, and to a certain extent Indian and Polish.

    (3) fame: International tourists can generate buzz, market, and competition for great restaurants. Chicago lacks that as compared to New York and LA. When it comes to tourism in the US, many European and Asian tourists usually opt for Manhattan or Hollywood. Chicago is usually for people who have relatives here, or for business men who bring their families along. That’s why I really wanted the Olympics to come. But I guess the Michelin guide will do the trick for now!

  17. fervere bread 1702 summit st., justus drugstore outside KC. two places that i went to in KC that were mentionable. Arthur Bryants was terrible and the bbq place inside the gas station was alot better.

  18. @brian: I will agree that Fervere is mentionable. If you read my “guide” to Kansas City eating (CLICK), you’ll see both it and Oklahoma Joe’s (the gas station barbecue place you refer to) mentioned, along with Arthur Bryant’s (though only as an “institution”). I didn’t mention Justus, where I have dined a few times, because (a) the service and pacing can be so glacial as to scare me from returning, and (b) the food – though mostly good – can sometimes be a bit rough. That being said, I haven’t been in over a year, and I should go back soon to see how they’re coming along.

  19. To paraphrase Chris Rock-Ignorance is bliss and to know the difference is it’s own kind of hell.

  20. I have just been thinking and thinking about your article. And the thing I keep coming back around to is … Everyone is parochial. I would bet there are places in Bangalore where all you can get is Indian food. And they would have no more desire to seek out or eat a fresh boiled Maine lobster with drawn butter than the man in the moon. That makes them parochial, right? Even though to us, they are eating an “exotic” food.

    Maybe we’re just lucky we live in a country where there is so much food (yeah, sure, decry its quality or whatever, but we are soooo fortunate) that we can fuss about how “local” the produce is. And can turn our noses up at what the “masses” enjoy, because we are so lucky to have options (the money, the means, the access) available to us. Want some Alinea-style food? HELL, go there! You can! Most places in the world — IN THE WHOLE WORLD — regular folks don’t have that option. And it will be borscht and black bread once again for supper tonight, locally sourced because there is NOTHING ELSE to be had.

    We’re all parochial. And we have more options than anyone else in the world. Some of those options just happen to be a Chili’s.

  21. And to punctuate my point, scan today’s article in the New York Times, about a Chinese restaurateur who tried to make it in Berlin. link Were it not for a fortunate visit from a bigname chef, Berliners may never have accepted his style of fresh Chinese cooking. I guess the hamhocks and sauerkraut are just as hard to overcome as an American diner’s fare.

  22. @collegecritic: “Essentializing?” I mean, most of Southern cooking IS unhealthy, especially if you eat it in the quantity in which it is usually served. Now, as for the New York restaurants serving cheesecake analogy – that’s silly. Please note that I’m not saying that ALL Midwest restaurants are bad. I’m simply saying that most of them could do much, much better.

    I think that art and chel makes the keenest observation. It really isn’t about the Midwest. Rather, it’s really more about the proximity (or, rather, distance) to urban areas. I would add to that – promixity to the shoreline. And since the Midwest is, arguably, the largest expanse in the U.S. devoid of urban areas and shoreline, it’s an easy target.

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