What? no memo!

Suffice it to say nobody called to let me know that the whole restaurant world was turning upside down when it began a few years ago. It’s a cycle, every 20 years or so an evolution must take place. It’s what makes the world go round. It also evidently is what lifted us as a species out of the slime and mud we once inhabited. So I get it okay, nobody needs to chime in with some bullshit about me getting old and set in my ways. I already know that I am getting old and set in my ways. Save your typing fingers for now.

 That being said, lets move forward and get to the meat of the matter. This current evolution has taken a wrong turn and figuratively jumped the shark, as it were, and it’s gone far enough for my taste. I’m not going to go into great detail about specific cuisines and styles, at lease not in this entry. What I am going to do is ring the “Wake your ass up bell” for all of those young hot-shot Chef wannabes out there that are hell bent on teaching ME and my fellow aging compadres how to cook and how to run a restaurant. The time has come my friends to get your collective culinary heads out of your asses and pay attention. It was said to me 22 years ago by Chefs I respected and tried to one-up and they had it said to them 20 years before that by the older guard and so the process goes….

The difference today is the instant access to information at all times on all subjects be it true or simply made up bullshit. This feeling of “the power of knowledge” in the absence of actual skill and ability to run a business, is, in a word, tragic. Please allow me to explain. I was having a conversation with a Chef friend who happens to be held in very high esteem in the Chicago culinary scene a few days ago. By the end of the conversation we were both ready to round-up all of our collective interns and entry-level cooks and beat them with bunches of leeks! (The leeks would be bound beautifully with lovely, long strands of blanched carrot of course, I mean we are not savages!) After giving the conversation a bit more thought and deciding we did not want to be sued by the local arm of Citizens Against Cruelty to Idiot Cooks, We redirected our energy. My energy landed here. My Chef friend, while not suffering from the same addictive demons as I, (at least that he will admit to) landed at the local watering hole. From which another, much more colorful and demented conversation was born. (This will also be fodder for a future entry).

What I need to shed light on is the fact that along with the information superhighway and advent of social media we also have reality TV Super-Chefdom to combat. While there are a handful of really talented Chefs on TV (Gordon Ramsey, Mario Batali……..well I guess that’s it. Sorry) few of them are willing to admit to the fact that it took as much luck as anything to land them where they are on the tube. Even hard work was less of a factor than actual luck. I work hard, you work hard, anyone that supports their family with a shit paying job and no benefits works hard. We don’t all have fucking TV programs to use as a proverbial soap box do we? No. So, that being said, the dream of getting famous simply by virtue of hard work is a lovely pasture rife with horse shit.  Agreed? Okay, moving on.

The students being pumped out of the greedy culinary school machine are the main source of my angst. It’s really not the student’s fault. It’s the schools and their inept ability to both raise and lower industry standards in tandem in order to increase their profits and graduation rate. First off, we need to hit the subject of current food trends.

When I say hit, it is not a euphemism, I want to beat the“lightly truffled  foam” out of them! I’m quite certain of the fact that each generation of Chefs has had a proponent wave this familiar flag of resistance. What’s different this time around is the combination of the constant stream of information, the greed driven culinary school assholes and our narcissistic Chef-like lust for fame. A more volatile recipe for a disaster in an industry is not often seen. What we are fast approaching is just that, a disaster. I am not being overly dramatic here I promise you. It won’t be the end of the world, just the end of all this bullshit that allows soon to be Chefs to believe that being famous and being talented is six of one, half a dozen of the other. Allow me to sound like my old Pappy for a minute here as I say, when I was coming up 25 years ago, I actually had to learn how to cook before I opened a fucking’ restaurant! I know this seems like a stretch for many of you young culinarians out there but it’s true. I spent 12 years actually learning under talented, driven, egomaniacal, fucked up, addicted, short-tempered, long in the tooth Chefs. (All of whom I am very much like myself in many ways, I’m proud to admit) I would not trade that time in my life for any amount of money or fame. I actually learned to ply my trade before embarking upon trying to become a    Chef-whore for the media. These folks coming out of culinary schools now are being so pumped up with “you’re a Chef, you’re a Chef  rah, rah, rah! Go get ’em tiger. Show em what your made of.” bullshit, that they are destined to fail. And, if they don’t fail, by some miracle fluke of nature, they remain in my way and the way of my fellow TRAINED Chefs. By in the way I mean just that. They’re road blocks. They lure unsuspecting guests into the restaurants. Restaurants that they proceed to pollute with their untrained, method and technique-void silliness with flashy marketing and deep pocketed family investors. Upon doing so, these neophyte “Chefs” shit on the poor taste buds of the unsuspecting public and in the process, leave me with the responsibility of apologizing to these very same guests that they pissed off before coming to dine with us!

This behavior is offensive in every way not only to the dining public but to me. Some of these practicing, future bankruptcy cases actually have the audacity to charge up to 30% more than I charge for a meal that is not even in the same ballpark. Hell, it’s not even the same sport. When you spend $49 on a three course menu with me, you walk out knowing damn well where that money was spent. On top of it, I send out Grand Marnier Chocolate truffles before you leave and warm Gougeres when you arrive Gratis. When you go to see one of the new up and coming superstars you should feel honored that they had the inclination to even pick up the phone to take your reservation. If, that is, they feel you are important enough to be allowed to dine on their delicate genius derived menu items. Welllllll….. NO WAY! NOT ME! I’m not falling for this shit anymore! These young Chefs need to be told that practicing on MY CUSTOMERS is unacceptable. These very same people of whom I speak, even have the balls to give themselves the same title that I hold within a year or two of graduating from the greedy asshole culinary schools. Sorry folks, not gonna happen. I will not allow the proud title of Chef to be degraded any longer by this disrespectful behavior. Consider this a verbal spanking and stern warning, if you cross my path, I will invite you to cook in my kitchen with me for an afternoon and send you off with a look on your face that will tell all that see you that you have just been schooled!

  Nope, I don’t intend to fade away and be put out to pasture that easily and without a fight. There was and IS great value and importance in respecting the places from which we came and showing respect to those that forged the trail. I realize that this point is lost on the youth and energy of the new guard, much like it was lost on me when I was just starting out. I remember being ten feet tall and bullet proof for the first ten years of my culinary adventure as well. I am now  a mere 6’1 and riddled with simulated bullet holes fired upon my kitchen weary body by a constant barrage of opinions both informed and uninformed targeting my every dish and business decision.

Without the push and energy of the upcoming class of future Chefs there would be no progress, no evolution in the industry. All I’m asking for is that it be done with a bit more tact and respect for those of us that continue the fight with swollen joints, weak knees and checkered, restaurant tattered financial boo-boo’s reflecting on our credit. (See ladies, don’t I sound like a fine catch?) It’s actually critical to the fiscal health of the small restaurant operator such as myself.  I actually read an article written about a local “Hot New” restaurant a couple of years ago that quoted the Chef/owner as saying “it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t have to be concerned with money and the finances of the restaurant”. WHAT?! Allow me a moment to do a Chester Cheeto head shake so I can process that bullshit statement once again. That, my friends, is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a restaurateur talking. That is a kid, whose Dad found a space and decided to pay the rent for his fuck up son so he wouldn’t OD on his drug of choice. That’s a fact. It is nothing more than culinary masturbation. The problem with this scenario is that this Chef, who I cannot name, sadly, is throwing the balance off for the rest of us by way of what he is charging VS. what he delivers and the way in which he delivers it.

A single, perfectly cooked lamb rack chop, sprinkled with red Hawaiian sea salt and paired with spiced root beer is not a culinary adventure. It is actually critic bait and it’s bullshit. I promise you, I can tell anybody anything I want about the food I am serving and I can make a believable case for what I’m saying. Think about it. The Chef walks out of the kitchen in his or her pressed white Chef coat with wisps of steam and smoke behind them as they strut into the dining area, backlit and glowing as if all-knowing and all-seeing. They approach your table and utter a few well-chosen, cryptic words and glide on to the next table.  You’re left with a heady feeling like the cheerleader that just got a big smooch from the quarterback after he throws the game winning touchdown. It’s the Jedi mind trick! “I didn’t care for this dish Chef”  “yes you did!” “Oh, okay, maybe I did…….” I’m trying to warn you folks, don’t buy it. There are some really talented young cooks out there today, just now getting their chops. Poised to take the reins, which, after the proper training, they will be deserving of.

 These are the young cooks that are doing it right. They are training under Chefs that will not only impart hard lessons but will inspire them to carry on tradition while still advancing the art and the craft of the industry in a more modern form. We are fortunate enough to derive our livelihood from the act of making others happy. I have one of these guys in my kitchen right now. I won’t mention his name, he knows who I’m talking about and he’s likely reading this now. So I will say to him the following…..Don’t get cocky smart ass! There’s a lot to learn on this path you’ve chosen. If you walk to quickly, you will miss the nuance of what it has to offer. Those nuances are the reason we get into this bullshit, beating of a business to begin with. We get the pleasure of instant feedback from those that we are fortunate enough to have dine on our creations. We get to wear fucking pajamas while we do it and we get to yell and swear at each other all day and night and still be considered artists of some kind. Yikes! I mean after all, how much luck can can a person have?

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7 thoughts on “What? no memo!

  1. There is much to be said about “experience”. When I was a new nurse, just graduating from college, I thought I knew everything and didn’t know that I knew NOTHING!! It wasn’t until I got some experience, in the real world, that I learned what I didn’t know and it was humbling. Surviving to get to learn what you didn’t know is the luck part!

  2. Keep it up, Michael. Love every word. It just needs to happen more often. Think about it. All you have to do is take a day off to add to this. Soon, you’ll have enough for a book, but then you’ll have to be out of the kitchen AND hire an editor. BUT, you know what those guys will do to your writing style! Better forget that! Just keep it as it is, edit it yourself and find a publisher when you’re ready.

  3. Enjoy your blog, yet miss your lobster bisque — it’s far and away Chicago’s best. Will it ever become a menu staple?? We were deeply disappointed when it disappeared from the menu — both for ourselves and friends for whom we said it was worth the trip from distant locales.

  4. You are the only restaurant I like outside of Chicago. A Chef owned restaurant like in France. Everything else is sub-par in the suburbs. But I have to say that the restaurant scene even in Chicago proper is very disappointing compared to the East Coast and the West Coast, and that the “restaurateurs” are not entirely responsible for this situation. Mid western customers are responsible for it. If not, Spago which I loved and was very busy when it opened up would still be in business, and a few more. Now I stick only to RL on Chicago Ave. The place is packed lunch and dinner. It is not **** cooking but it is as well. It is social club food, rather un expensive if you don’t take the sole. It is clubbish and I love it. I eat in a restaurant almost everyday like in Paris. I am not looking for entertainment like people are in this country. I am looking for well prepared simple food. I am divorced and except at clubbish RL I feel myself either unwelcomed or out of place eating alone in some restaurants in Chicago. I like to finish my meal with a good desert instead of drinking some more and it is even harder to find restaurants that offer good deserts in Chicago.

  5. More ~ I would like you to stay where you are and open up for lunch. The City has more density and more potential customers but why would you want to fight with the Letuces and Levy’s “chains”? It is very hard down there for the Chef- 100% owner restaurants.
    It is crowded, too.

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