Our Food, Ourselves
Jody Eddy / September 2012
Even as they fracture decorative norms and stretch decorum guidelines beyond recognition, young chefs still pursue the holy grail of the fine dining restaurant, only now with the food—their food—at the center as a show of self-expression. Jody Eddy delves into this search for finely calibrated and unwavering personal authenticity.
The tasting menu at Frej rivals many of those at esteemed restaurants throughout the country. The meticulously sourced ingredients, nearly impossible to secure reservations, and four-star restaurant pedigrees of its chefs, Fredrik Berselius and Richard Kuo, further justify Frej’s status as a newly minted addition to America’s roster of fine dining establishments. But there are no white linen tablecloths on Frej’s tables, the servers frequently fill in as dishwashers, the guests sometimes wear hoodies, and on the four days a week that it’s not open, the restaurant disappears completely.
Frej takes space in a contemporary art gallery called Kinfolk Studios in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Berselius, 33, and Kuo, 31, rent it from Kinfolk’s owners in order to transform it for 72 sublime hours each week into a restaurant that’s garnering an impressive string of accolades even though it’s not really a restaurant at all. Or is it? In this new theater of fine dining, once reserved exclusively for chefs who diligently studied a script written for heavily bankrolled restaurants where starched white linen and maître d’s in tuxedos were the currency, a growing cadre of young chefs are finding their own paradigms for shifting gastronomic boundaries, design motifs, service modalities, and the twin emotions that guide diners through the door—desire and expectation—as they abandon the comforts of farm-to-table cooking for more elevated forms of expression.
As popular as his restaurant has become, Berselius explains that this nonconformist model was not the original blueprint for Frej. The chefs lost most of their funding after their investor pulled out and they “had already invested so much research into this project and hired our staff, it felt as though there was no turning back.” Forced to quickly conceptualize a new vision for their restaurant, they “asked [Kinfolk] if they would be interested in us setting up a program in their space, operating independently from each other.” Beef medallions eased to tenderness over beds of smoldering hay, earthy braised mutton heart offset by roasted baby beets, and airy fish skin puffs emerge from a kitchen as fleeting as the bitterness of the freshly foraged chickweed served alongside smoked brook trout. “We bring almost everything that we use into the space each week, including the plates, glassware, and silverware. We hire our own staff and can basically pick everything up and go somewhere else at any time.”
Restaurants around the country are adopting Frej’s unconventional model of providing guests with extraordinary cuisine while eschewing the traditional framework of fine dining. “It’s time for us to tear down those walls,” says Brad McDonald, who, along with Tamer Hamawi, Elise Rosenberg, and Emelie Kihlstrom—his partners at the Brooklyn restaurants Colonie and Gran Electrica—opened Governor in the borough’s DUMBO neighborhood in early July. In-house churned butter slathered over bread McDonald bakes himself make amenable companions to unusual ingredients such as roasted sea robin, fried blowfish tails, and elderflower-infused vinegar. Familiar components such as popovers served with beef tongue are transformed by the addition of bone marrow puree. Romaine leaves and green grapes are charred on a plancha before being drizzled with ajo blanco and sprinkled with pickled green tomatoes. McDonald, 32, insists that even though his refined dishes would be at home in a traditional fine dining restaurant, with its white linen bells and crystal whistles, he doesn’t want to burden his guests with “irrelevant” demands. “I don’t think that we should be trying to say that a jacket-required place is something we shouldn’t have in restaurants anymore, but you don’t necessarily need to be wearing a suit to eat good food.”
Chip Roman, 33, of Mica in Philadelphia, agrees. “Our guests can wear whatever they want. I want them and the restaurant to feel relaxed. It’s more about the food than it is about pomp and circumstance. We want to have great service, but we’re not coddling people. We still use all of the expensive ingredients. It’s not less expensive. It’s about the vibe we send out. Our tables are set bare. It’s an earthy, inviting feel.” Roman’s menu reflects his dining room’s lack of superfluous details, relying instead upon thoughtful combinations with the occasional flourish such as a foie gras terrine with a sour cherry puree center, toasted brioche, and pistachios.
The lackluster economy remains an easy culprit to blame for the transformation of conventional fine dining restaurants into places that “encourage their guests to kick back and relax, put their elbows on the table, and enjoy the party we try to throw for them every night,” as Thomas McNaughton, of casual Italian Flour + Water and the more gastronomically ambitious Central Kitchen, each within a block of each other in San Francisco’s decidedly gritty Mission neighborhood, puts it (see Missionaries from the ’Hood, Food Arts, April 2012). Certainly a lack of cash flow is one of the reasons why “big deal restaurants like Gotham Bar and Grill,” as Matt Accarrino of SPQR in San Francisco describes them, are a rarity for recent restaurant openings. “You don’t see places like that opening up anymore because they’re so costly and the stakes are so high,” he says. But a more casual atmosphere doesn’t negate the technical prowess required to execute the dishes at both Flour + Water and SPQR. McNaughton, 29, who spent months honing his cooking skills in Italy, installed a dough room at Flour + Water, where the nuanced art of pasta making is on full display. The nightly theater helps tell a comforting story laced with surprise in dishes such as a fava tortelli enlivened with nasturtium pesto and toasted pine nuts. Accarrino, 34, also relies on the hard-earned technical prowess he garnered in some of America’s most celebrated kitchens to narrate dishes that still retain their approachability. Immersion circulators and iSi whippers bolster recipes such as a sous-vide partridge galantina with apricots, chicory, and Sicilian pistachios much to the delight of guests who have come to expect Accarrino’s adeptness at seamlessly merging approachability and surprise.
McDonald affirms that investors are no longer willing to gamble on a multimillion dollar establishment that has the potential to close overnight in a pressure-cooker market like New York City or San Francisco: “The titans of great cuisine, like the Troisgros brothers, lived in a time when the way money was raised to open a restaurant was very different. But today, it’s not a great margin business to be in. As chef/owners, we’re largely responsible for the return that investors get, and I think that we have to be respectful of that. This might be a reason why so many chefs with impressive pedigrees choose to go down the comfort-food road. If you want to get to the point where your investors trust you enough to do a more finite project, you have to prove to them that you know how to make money.”
Not only are many chefs beholden to their investors, they’re also compelled to conform and play it safe to satisfy critics who “have the power to make or break a restaurant,” says McDonald. David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, California, agrees. “A lot of the pressure to succumb to trends or play it safe is about the food media. Members of the food media latch on. They always want to know what the next new thing is, who the next hot new chef is. I understand that. It’s a great part of our business that there’s always something exciting and new popping up, but being in the restaurant as a long-term game is hard to do.”
Kinch knows something about longevity, as he celebrated Manresa’s 10th anniversary this summer. Keeping afloat a restaurant that has weathered the vicissitudes of the economy, demands of investors, and dictates of critics is the result of one thing, notes Kinch: “The worst thing you can do is close yourself off. You can be aware of what’s going on around you. You just choose what you want to process. You look at trends and say, ‘I don’t want to follow these,’ but you have to be aware of them. You have to know what you’re rejecting as well as what you’re accepting and bringing into the fold. It’s being true to yourself—that’s really what it comes down to.” Kinch has all of Manresa’s produce grown at Love Apple Farms (see “Whatever Crops Up,” Food Arts, September 2011, page 68), but this doesn’t mean that his recipes tumble into the mundane farm-to-table rut. He adds a “jarring element” such as an unexpected texture or temperature to coax dishes like a poached oyster served with nori flakes and ocean water gelée from the innate place inside himself that he has stayed true to over the years.
Striving for that kind of authenticity of self is a perilous undertaking in a restaurant world hopped up on the quest for novelty, showboating displays of ego, and unabashed dashes for money. In spite of the odds, more and more chefs are choosing to explore the genuine nature of themselves and their cooking in idiosyncratic ways that free them from the shackles of pandering and conformity. At Saison’s chef’s counter in San Francisco, the 33 year old Joshua Skenes offers a $498 22-course tasting menu to four people each night. Elements such as a 21-day aged wild duck boldly paired with persimmon, pomegranates, and olives reflects Skenes’ desire to give guests a spontaneous experience. “The chef’s counter is a really genuine expression of Saison.” It not only reflects what Skenes is cooking on any given night but also its unorthodox beginning. “When Saison started,” he says, “we were doing things on the spur of the moment. Initially, we were open only one day a week, and it evolved from there. It’s always been what we want it to be and not what we thought would be cool or trendy or any of that. It’s just an expression of who we are.”
Phillip Foss, 42, is also going his own way at EL Ideas in Chicago, where, he notes, “the focus is in our industrial commissary kitchen. We have 16 seats, and anybody who wants to come into our kitchen to talk with the chefs or take pictures is invited. Sometimes we’ll even do a course in the kitchen. We’re trying to break down the barriers that most restaurants have between the kitchen and the dining room. It has all the intimacy of a dinner party with all the luxuries of a great restaurant.” The chef serves some of his meticulously constructed dishes such as foie gras and chestnut puree with five-spice/chestnut granola and apple/Calvados foam without utensils to encourage his guests to feel at home and have fun interacting with their food. Foss, who gathers herbs and weeds from along the train tracks running in front of the restaurant, has worked in traditional fine dining restaurants and has operated a food truck. He says what he’s doing at EL Ideas makes him “feel completely uninhibited. I think the food I’m doing now is the most exciting I’ve ever done. When you’re in an enormous brigade-style restaurant, you lose some of the ownership of it. Here, I have the liberty to change it because I’m completely involved. And because we have such a laid-back setting, it allows me to feel like I’m not working within constraints dictated by a formal setting.”
Forging intimacy between the kitchen and dining room is something that’s not only being embraced by postage-sized restaurants like EL Ideas. At the 58 seat Flour + Water, McNaughton also strives for transparency between the restaurant staff and clients. “What’s most important to us is the idea of being who we are. There’s nothing worse to me than a waiter bullshitting the guest by trying to answer something he doesn’t know. Here, it’s all right for him to say, ‘Let me check with my chef real quick,’ and then come back with the right answer. Having a staff that’s engaging and honest is the most important thing. People want this right now. They don’t want a cookie-cutter experience. At Flour + Water the lights are a little too low, the music is a little too loud, there are candles everywhere. It’s a very small dining room and it’s boisterous. You come in here, and if you’re not a part of the party, you’re an odd man out. It has an open kitchen, there’s a wood-fired oven going, we’re playing Led Zeppelin in the background. It’s a lively atmosphere, and it’s engaging for the guest.”
Even celebrated veterans of restaurant kitchens agree that the conventional notions of a fine dining restaurant are changing. “In the old days, chefs spent a lot of time in the kitchen,” says the pioneering chef Michel Richard of Citronelle in Washington, D.C. “Now you need to go into the dining room and talk to your guests and explain the food. It’s what people expect.”
Richard believes one of the reasons for these present developments in fine dining can be attributed to the confidence American chefs have in their own style, rather than taking their cues from classical European dining traditions. “In France, it’s still about formal service; in America, it’s about friendly service. Here, guests want staff to guide them, but not to instruct them. They want to feel welcome and invited. This most excites me about the restaurant industry, this breaking down of the walls between the server, the chef, and the guest. We sit down with them, we talk to each other, we become friends.”
Accarrino seconds Richard’s assessment that the more casual vibe is a result of American chefs finally coming into their own. “It used to be that to secure an amazing level of training meant you had to go overseas, but now we have incredible fine dining restaurants in our own country. It’s not uncommon to find well-trained chefs in the United States anymore. How many people have gone through Thomas Keller’s kitchens? The answer is a lot. What does this mean for dining? It means you have these expertly trained cooks in America and not every single one of them is going to be able to open up a traditional fine dining restaurant that serves a meal that’s $200 a head and is rooted in a classical definition of fine dining. You have this trickle-down effect of all this cooking expertise that’s out there.”
At SPQR, Accarrino still relies on many of the hallmarks of his training, most notably at Keller’s Per Se in New York City—“My kitchen runs very cleanly and efficiently. It’s very orderly. My pots and pans are spotless.”—without all the extras that sometimes trigger unease in guests. “I’m able to chart my own path, strip away the accoutrements of fine dining, and add back over time what elements I want to add back. We have a great wine list, we have highly professional service, which are all fine dining elements, but all of the pretentiousness has been stripped away.”
At The Catbird Seat in Nashville, Erik Anderson, 39, and Josh Habiger, 32, invite 32 people to gather around their kitchen each evening at a U-shaped bar, where the middleman between the chef and the guest has been completely eliminated. This intimate exchange instills in its chefs a deep sense of responsibility to the people they cook for, since there is no kitchen divider to hide behind or server to absorb disappointment. Dishes that might confuse or intimidate a guest, such as smoked pheasant with black garlic or grilled cattails with oysters and lovage, are more approachable when the chef is able to show the guest how each element is prepared. “You’re interacting with us here,” says Anderson. “If you stick around long enough, we’ll pour you a shot of Fernet. You don’t need to impress us. We’re here to impress you with our food. We don’t have waiter captains, food runners. It’s us cooking and serving you food and explaining what it is. If you have questions, we’re here to answer them. If you don’t like something, we have to answer to that, too.”
The food at The Catbird Seat is nuanced and refined, but Anderson doesn’t think technique-driven food is limited to a certain style of cooking. “Technique is technique. There’s technique involved in every single thing you do. When you use the words comfort food or rustic, people consider it a term for being lazy. I think simple delicious food is sometimes harder to make than intricate food because you have less to hide behind. I would argue that it’s more difficult to execute simple food. Your technique has to be spot-on with this type of food.” Anderson echoes the philosophy that is a benchmark of many restaurants at the forefront of this new style of fine dining: Dishes don’t have to include foams, hydrocolloids, or other sleights of hand to comprise a sophisticated, technique-driven menu.
The shift away from the avant-garde restaurants of Spain like el Bulli to Nordic restaurants embracing a more naturalistic way of cooking like Noma in Copenhagen reflects both the chefs’ and consumers’ desire for more authenticity in their cooking. Says McDonald: “By saying fine dining, I’m not saying that we’re going to be doing foams and gels. I think that when you say fine dining these days, people think you’re going molecular. That’s the complete opposite of what we’re trying to do here. I want to focus on the ingredient and express its flavor in the rawest sense of the word.”
McDonald’s new restaurant might not embrace the tenets of avant-garde cuisine that ran rampant throughout restaurant kitchens in recent years, but it doesn’t mean he discounts it, either. “I think what people saw in these restaurants is that they were truly great and unique, and instead of looking at this as the core truth of them, they looked at what they were cooking as opposed to trying to create an authentic experience, which fundamentally is what really made them incredible. Chefs are now going down that road, trying to really look inside themselves to create something extraordinary by striving to be themselves.”
This quest for authenticity has inspired many in this new guard to embrace a style that for many years was misconstrued as easy, even apathetic. “Rustic got a bad rap because so many people took rustic and used it as an excuse not to execute food as cleanly as it could be,” says Accarrino. “But rustic can be interpreted in a clean, contemporary way, yet still retain a soulful, heartfelt quality.” This attitude has enabled Accarrino to amalgamate the two primary factors that define who he is as a chef. “I’ve worked with all of these great American fine dining chefs, and now I see in myself an affinity toward my Italian heritage as something that’s a part of me and speaks to who I am. But I also have a component to my cooking that centers around being in that second generation of chefs behind the trailblazers of American cooking. I don’t want to constrain myself to some model of dining that I was trained under, yet I don’t want to abandon the traditional components of fine dining or cuisine.”
McNaughton embraces Accarrino’s assertion that cooking in a simpler style doesn’t mean a chef is taking the easy way out. “I always saw myself going into a more classical, refined role and running a more traditional fine dining restaurant, but after opening Flour + Water, I couldn’t see myself doing anything but getting down to the basics of things. This can be the most complicated and challenging thing you can do.”
Skenes infuses each of his dishes at Saison with the same principles. “The beauty about what we’re doing now is just within ourselves. You can’t help but observe what’s around you, but you have to listen to yourself. Sometimes the most basic things are the best. Everything we do touches the fire. We are constantly evolving. The approach we take for a vegetable is the same we take for our own evolution. Every single day has to be better than the last, and if it’s not, we’ve failed. The measurement of this is right in front of your eyes and there’s nowhere to hide. You have to completely devote yourself to your process and your work to perfect it. We have created all of these innovative techniques, but these are not about impressing our guests with tricks. They’re about trying to dive into the depths of flavor. Transparency is very important to us. It’s not what, it’s how.”
Skenes’s clean refined style is illuminated by a foundational element integral to this generation’s repertoire. “It all comes down to the quality of the product,” he says, echoing a chorus of his contemporaries. “The ultimate question we always ask when we pick something up is, ‘Is this the very best version of this product that I’ve ever put in my mouth?’ If the answer is no, then we have to start over and continue to try to find the best.”
For Kinch, this quest for unsurpassed products has always been the benchmark of high-end cooking. “Fine dining restaurants realize that to be on top of their game and for people to have a great experience, they have to have great product, and great product is simply not cheap. You can’t run around it. There’s no denying it, and that’s where the cost comes into fine dining. It’s not for everybody. Some people understand this and appreciate the ideas that are trying to be conveyed, and some people don’t. That’s why fine dining restaurants feed 40 people a night. They’re not factories.”