Tom Corbett

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Pilot Light: Happy New Year, by the Numbers

Ariane Batterberry - December 2013

It’s that time of year again. Banqueting departments are booked, and festive meals are beyond the planning stages. And it’s the time of year to look back and see how our industry has done. At this point, our recovery from the miseries of 2008 is fairly complete. According to the National Restaurant Association, full-service restaurants are up a projected 2.9 percent over a healthy 2012. Moreover, hotel restaurant business is up a whopping projected 4.9 percent, with “social caterers” up 5.6 percent.

All this means more travel, more weddings, more business entertainment, and notably more restaurant openings than I have seen in years. The NRA has also provided us with some affirmative facts: The restaurant industry has been generating $1.8 billion in sales a day, for a projected total of $660.5 billion for the year, which is 4 percent of our gross domestic product. Our industry growth has outpaced the growth of the overall economy for every year in this century.

We also have some hard numbers for what statisticians refer to these days as a “happiness index.” Apparently 93 percent of all adults say they enjoy going to restaurants, and they are an essential part of the lifestyle of 45 percent of our fellow citizens. Not surprisingly, 79 percent of adults would rather go to a restaurant than cook at home and clean up, and most of these love restaurants because they can taste things they couldn’t prepare at home. Moreover, the NRA has garnered some tips for restaurateurs: 66 percent of the public really like customer loyalty reward programs, 79 percent like to receive restaurant gift cards, and 71 percent like locally produced ingredients. Seventy-nine percent would love to see lower prices at off-peak times. But enough of looking back. At this time of year, I also like to look ahead, and to see what the very young chefs are up to. I have recently visited two tiny establishments on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which might be called romantic “holes in the wall.”

Sembrado is a mezcaleria and taqueria, where chef Danny Mena from Mexico City pours precise creations using any one of two dozen mezcals accompanied by delicate tacos of the finest Berkshire pork, or perhaps “soupy canary beans with epazote,” and then an in-house salt-cured steak, followed by homemade ice creams drenched in hot Mexican chocolate with candied pecans and meltingly luscious candied orange peel. A highly spiced brownie is served piping hot. At another tiny Lower East Side spot, Ducks Eatery, chef Will Horowitz processes his own meats. And sure enough, he serves up “pipi kuala,” aged short ribs that manage to be deeply juicy and also salaciously crispy, with black soy and sweet vinegar, as well as hickory smoked chicken wings with lime; smoked lamb breast with chile, cumin, cilantro, and coconut rice; smoked duck with black rice, currants, apple, and black garlic; and on and on. Mind you, these would be enjoyed after downing fistfuls of addictive “Deez Nuts”—cashews with Benton’s bacon, Cocoa Krispies, and dried Bing cherries. Nothing pleases me more than to see young chefs starting small, but with their flavor compasses pointing in the right direction.