Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Starting From Scratch–A Working Evaluation Process


I’ve been introduced to something old that for me is very shockingly new.  I thought about using the word “reintroduced” in that previous sentence, but I’m not quite sure I’ve ever considered this idea before.  For the first time in many years, I am enjoying the treasure of time to simply sit back and do nothing but evaluate everything I’ve done past and everything I am planning for the future.

This all-encompassing subject is basically what people decide to do in a hazy post collegiate period – when you can’t reconcile the end of one significant event with the proper methodology into establishing the next.  It is what some of our parents have affectionately called “being a bum” or “being lost” or best of all “aimlessly moping at home.” 

Fortunately, that’s not how my days go right now (call it a working vacation), but the fact that I’ve stepped slightly to the right of the picture has lent me time to evaluate some of the ideas and personal direction I was seemingly set on – a course that has begun to alter and form slowly.

I’ve found more time and opportunity to talk to friends, family and random people this year – an event that leads to many questions.  Specifically, questions about the restaurant I am planning and dreaming to open in the near distant future (vague, huh?).  The structure, the concept, the seating, and the food sits in my head almost like Ellen Page’s introduction to dream building in Inception.  It’s set and there, but I realize that I can shift worlds with one simple altered tool or thought.

What kind of restaurant do you want to open?

This is the question that has been cancerous to the synapses, tissues and neural channels that connect my mind and my mouth for the last 10 months – primarily because this thought continues to evolve in and out of the semantics of the restaurant format that I desire versus the format that people inevitably will evoke in their minds. 

On some days, I don’t know if I can intellectually betray myself to say fine dining.  The expectations of fine dining and tasting menus have increasingly become a disconnect for me.  I have written about the issues I specifically have with the service structure, the timing, the heat, the politics, and the hypocrisy of the message versus the result.  If you have not read Pete Wells’ piece today from the NYTimes regarding tasting menus, then you must do so here.  He put on paper a lot of the increasing angst I’ve felt about the words “tasting menu” and “fine dining” into very methodical analysis.

The one thing that Pete Wells only hinted but suspiciously didn’t point out (maybe a different story for a different day) is the game played by the abuse of the “tasting menu” – one that many have felt is the only way to ascertain or maintain the status and attention of the Illuminati-esque organizations that bestow some of the most notable crowns in the restaurant industry. 

If you don’t think that chefs and restauranteurs don’t possess a blueprint to Michelin stars, then you are kidding yourself.  The blueprint is there, but unfortunately it requires acts of genius, blind ambition, luck and pure insanity.   

I think there are a lot of moments during a tasting menu dinner where I feel the chef’s primary focus isn’t the apparition of 1,2, or 3 stars, but rather, the instinctive use of a tasting menu to cultivate the proper experience (most recently my dinner at Manresa, as well as others noted in the NYTimes article).  I think a lot of the issues I have (and possibly Pete Wells has), is that the thought of the experience and its intimacy, namely its story, is steadily being lost in the sea of tasting menus.  Worst of all, there is no direction for the ship.

I’ve come to realize a compelling idea that is equally effective when reverse engineered.  If the intention is to provide that style of service and dining, then what would be the end goal of trying to build a copycat?  If I’m not trying to set out and develop a coherently original or an emotionally connected concept, then wouldn’t it serve my cause better if I just devoted the years to working through those restaurants?  The education in those kitchens are vast and limitless in know-how and resource – and, I am deeply impressed and envious of some of the people that get to call those kitchens their own every night.  But I wonder if entrenching yourself in a specific style of kitchen and direction is going to net a result of discovering a voice or adapting one?

More so than ever, I feel I am more aware of the absorbing effect of the cuisine that is currently considered great, artistic or trend-blazing.  It’s hard to try to negate the influence of people who are doing great things and its even harder to try to grow contrary or untested ideas into something that might one day be considered on par.  Trying to build something different to standout is a daunting task and requires a good deal of confidence (or convenient denial).  Trying to understand and evaluate the process with constant criticism requires a good deal of humility.  Both things, confidence and humility, continue to be my best asset and my worst enemy at one moment and another.