During the past year, it became harder to have a thoroughly enjoyable dinner in a New Orleans restaurant.
That’s not the same thing as saying our restaurants have dwindled or become terrible. Ours is still the the best native culinary culture in America. We still have hundreds of good-to-great restaurants.
But on the whole they are giving us less gustatory pleasure than they did a year ago at this time.
That thought that came to me often during 2013. Every time it did, I thought a long time about why this is happening. And I think I have an answer. And a suggestion as to how to reverse this potentially disastrous direction in the restaurant business.
But first the good news about dining in 2013, of which there was much. The restaurant population continued its long trend of increasing. We started the year with 1323 real (not fast-food, take-out, etc.) restaurants that cook and serve on the premises. We ended with 1383. (Pre-Katrina: 809.)
The most interesting part of the growth was in the French Quarter. More major new restaurants opened there than in decades, and perhaps ever. The biggest were Dickie Brennan’s Tableau, Kingfish, Marti’s, Galatoire’s 33 Bar & Steak, Criollo, and Doris Metropolitan Steakhouse.
On top of those, two historic French Quarter restaurants underwent major changes in ownership, menu, and dining environment. Tujague’s performed its most extensive renovation in 50 years, as the death of its longtime owner passed the baton to his son. Who not only fended off a possible sale of its 157-year-old building, but greatly refreshed the dining room and th emenu. Broussard’s new owners spent a million dollars redoing the entrance and bar, and brought in a French chef to reshape its kitchen.
Keeping right up with the French Quarter, but with smaller restaurants, is the fascinating community of eateries on Magazine Street. From one end to the other, there are 69 restaurants on the Street Of Dreams, a 17-percent increase over last year.
Also generating a lot of interest were the openings of the Blue Crab and Brisbi’s, the first two new restaurants at West End since the hurricane. Predictably, they have been mobbed with customers who miss eating seafood while looking out into the lake.
This was a good year for special-event eat-outs. They ranged from one-night, one-location wine dinners to events involving dozens of restaurants and hundreds of thousands of eaters. Their increase added further texture to the eating possibilities.
Activities on the charitable side of the restaurant business reached a crescendo this year. I don’t have any figures, but I tout these events nearly every day on NOMenu. Hardly a day went by when there wasn’t a fundraiser with a strong culinary aspect, with chefs and restaurants working for free.
On the recipient side, the greatest beneficiaries were the new vocational programs in the hospitality field. Hundreds of young people who might have found themselves engaged in far less salubrious activities are now culinary professionals. Café Reconcile’s impressive new facility was supported almost entirely by restaurateurs–Emeril and John Besh in particular. Other such institutions have opened.
That’s the good news. The negative reports were led far and away by the astonishing, unexpected (except by those who knew what’s been going on there for years) meltdown of Brennan’s on Royal Street. As chilling as its demise seemed, it was an anomaly. More about bad business decisions than any general current of evil.
There is, however, a malaise in the restaurant industry. And it’s the cause of the decline in the gut-level enjoyment of dining out I mentioned at the beginning of this article.
The best way I can explain what is going on it is first to ask you to consider and accept as true the basic give-and-take of a restaurant. Its customers are there 1) to go out to an interesting place where they will 2) be served with 3) food different and better than what they would have eaten at home.
From the perspective of restaurateurs, there is one more essence of the industry: 4) to make money. I write from the perspective of the diner, however, and leave the question of profitability to the restaurant owners. (It doesn’t affect my thesis, anyway.)
It seems ever more obvious to me that the three central desires of restaurant customers are not being addressed as assiduously as they once were–and should still be–by the restaurants. That’s happening because the restaurants are diverting more of their attention to their sideshows.
That trend has been underway for almost twenty-five years. Unlike most trends, this one continues to grow.
Around 1990, there was a shift in influence from the front of the house (waiters, bartenders, and managers) to the back of the house (chefs and cooks). Even when the management was clearly in the driver’s seat, it began to allow chefs to become the faces and voices of the restaurant. It was the cool thing to do.
At first, it was also a good thing. In the 1980s and before, chefs were not very influential in their restaurants, even when they were very good. They tended to be under-educated and underpaid for their hard and important work.
All that changed in the 1980s, when an entire generation of excellent young chefs decided that cheffing could be a career with many possibilities. Leaders like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril encouraged this, and we entered a golden age of great dining. Everything was in balance.
What followed was unexpected, but it may have been inevitable. too. As the skills and talents of chefs expanded, they became artistes, with greatly-improved ingredients as their media. And then they started going on television. A few chefs always did get on the tube, but not many could talk. The new generation could, and did.
Next time you hear a chef talking, listen to what he or she says. They bring up their ingredients. How fresh they are and where they come from. That takes up most of their time. There’s a little about cooking technique. But that’s about the end of the presentation. What you hear more seldom all the time is how good the dish tastes. It’s assumed that if the ingredients have a long enough pedigree, then the job is done.
That is a mistake. The stories behind the raw foodstuffs have small importance to paying customers than the 1, 2, and 3 I mentioned above. They’re just stories. Entertaining, but not as much as something that’s mind-blowingly delicious to eat is entertaining.
And so we have a lot of articulate, good-looking chefs who don’t really understand what their customers like best. And if you don’t believe this, I will ask that you survey the restaurants owned not by chefs, but by people who started out as waiters. That’s because the front-of-the-house guys dealt with the diners face to face.
The real problems began when chefs became celebrities and wanna-be celebrities. People follow what celebrities say and do, even when it veers away from their own personal pleasures. Celebrity grows on itself, and the next thing we knew the chefs were known not for the goodness of their cooking (because they weren’t cooking much anymore), but by how many restaurants they controlled, cookbooks they wrote, and television cooking competitions they won.
And–although I’d be the last to suggest there is anything wrong with this–how many charity functions they participated in.
To pick on the best example of how this affects the food in a restaurant, think about how many times you’ve seen the word “house-made” on a menu. For some reason, chefs think this is a very cool thing to do, so they do a great deal of it. Some of this is laudable. A restaurant that bakes its own bread or makes sausages can be congratulated for their enterprise.
But how often, really, does “house-made” mean “tastes better”? I’ve had enough such items to know that the answer is “not always.” Seems to me about half the time, at best. In a worst case, the house-made items might well be something you’d never even think of eating. But it’s the chef d’oeuvre, so it must be good. Right?
If so, why am I not wowed by the food that most makers-from-scratch put forth? When was the last time you had a dish in a ingredient-centered place made you think it would become a classic dish? More likely, that you will never see that dish again. Especially if its ingredients go out of style. (See “Pork Belly.”)
All the above takes time away from addressing the 1-2-3 diner motivations. And it has brought down the goodness of what restaurants serve in recent years.
The attitude behind the made-in-house movement shows up in other ways. The most disturbing is the dismissal of comfort as important. On my radio show, complaints about noise levels in restaurants have gone to number one among reasons for dissatisfaction. And where did tablecloths go? And bread, and water? All these were part of the bargain, but now they’re not.
A famously cynical business adage says, “If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your bullshit.” I’m getting far too much of the latter from chefs who have other aims than giving their customers those three things that people dine out to enjoy.