Shape Shifting

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Orsa and Winston_tangbro1.blogspot.com

Photo courtesy of tangbro1.blogspot.com.

I was just catching up on my pre-holiday culinary news and came across an Eater post announcing that Chef Josef Centeno has flipped Orsa & Winston, the highest brow concept in his expanding lineup, into a casual yakitori shop called O&W Yakitori-Ya.

Devised partly as a way for him to sneak off for for some time in Japan, the temporary overhaul was also said to be a way to counteract the dearth of seasonal ingredients he needs for his prix-fixe only O&W menu.

Whatever the reason, I love seeing concepts nimbly reinventing themselves in ways that keep diners interested and engaged, rather than trying to execute pre-fab re-brands leaving diners confused and ambivalent.

Kudos to Chef Centeno.

Perhaps this is why he’s quickly becoming the King of Downtown.

What it Means to Mentor

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I talk a lot about the food industry–what chefs are doing, culinary events, trends, brands. But the topic I find myself most interested in talking about these days is “mentorship”.

Spell check doesn’t like that word, which is an interesting indicator of how far the concept has to go to become a legitimate part of US professional and educational ethos. We’re a bootstrapping, go-your-own-way culture that prides itself on instant, self-made successes; not the plodding, committed, life long trajectories our grandfathers and great-grandfathers would have called successes. We, as a country and as a culture, are so used to going it alone, that we’ve forgotten there is a whole constellation of people out there who are ready, willing and excited to teach us and help us on our way.

Australia and the UK have been rocking mentorship for decades through its young apprentice and trainee trade programs run mostly by state and national organizations as a way of creating skill sets and job opportunities among youth who might typically have gone straight from high school to unemployment. Back in the day before cooking was high profile, cooking was a trade. If you were a line cook, you were just as sexy as the plumber or electrician. Since its meteoric rise in popularity, these countries have capitalized on the chef phenomenon and put their culinary apprentice programs front-and-center for the world to see. And people want in.

The US, perhaps because of its tendency to eschew anything that smacks of old world thinking, has yet to emulate these successful programs, opting instead to have aspiring cooks choose between a long, grossly underpaid climb up the ladder and an exorbitantly priced culinary school education.

Until recently.

Over the past year or so there has been a quiet groundswell of interest in the concept of culinary apprenticeships here. “Why isn’t anyone doing this?” kind of conversations began. Even LA Weekly wrote an op-ed piece discussing the merits of staging versus formal culinary education.

When I left dineLA in 2011, I was a year in on a fleshing out a business model that formalized the chef stage experience. Business plan…check. Investors…check. Committed, noteworthy chefs willing to stand behind it…check. California Labor Laws were the hurdle we just couldn’t squeak our way around without playing fast and loose with state regulations on unpaid labor and what it means to apprentice.

I haven’t given up, and there are others who are creating their own interesting ways of supporting this necessary area of opportunity for the industry. Culintro has its Stage Program, which is essentially a pass-through, vetting applicants for chefs and large groups who host paid apprenticeships. Culinary Agents has created a series of “Get Inspired” mentoring events in partnership with some of New York’s biggest restaurant guns. And ment’or BKB, a non-profit created to foster culinary excellence in the US and, ultimately, developing the culinary prowess necessary to represent this country in the Bocuse d’Or.

Leave it to Daniel Boulud to finally walk the walk for us. If it works, his intensive high school apprenticeship program being created in partnership with the New York Department of Education would prove to be the first of its kind on our shores. Created out of necessity as a way of sourcing the skilled labor necessary to feed his restaurant empire, at its core is a solution to a much larger and more expansive need in the US.

I frequently receive emails from young people (ouch) wanting to get into culinary marketing who see me as an example of one way to do it–successfully I hope. I always take the time to respond to their emails, take their calls, offer guidance, suggestions and even introductions. This is how I mentor. Some day I may be able to hire one of these bright young things to help me run my stage program. For now I’ll keep taking their calls.


Photos are from the October 30th ment’or BKB Los Angeles Culinary Competition hosted by Bouchon Beverly Hills. Winner: Lyn Wells from Canyon Park Cafe, Orem, Utah.

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My “b-og”

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In all honesty, I started a blog for one reason: to gain access to a Top Chef casting call. I set it up overnight, pitched my Magical Elves contact and…viola. Le blog.

Let’s be clear. I am not a blogger. I call this an “industry blog” to try to make it sound even less like a blog. So, what is it then?

As a marketer riveted on the culinary realm, I want to experience as much as possible every single day. I digest a lot of content–trade publications, smutty industry news sites (you know who you are), private feeds. It takes me about an hour and a half to get through my inbox each morning. But I relish this and feel it’s important and informs how I approach clients and my interaction with the industry.

My “b-og” (bog is actually a great name for it) is a place for me to share what I find, share my occasionally pointed opinions, trumpet what wonderful or less savory folks are up to, and generally keep an industry focused conversation going.

TableOneMarketing.com and LinkedIn are two fairly one-dimensional aspects to who I am as a marketer and a professional. This forum helps to round that picture out and fill in the blanks a bit.

You needn’t be a prospective client to reach out. I enjoy connecting with people from all areas of the industry and all corners of the state. Say hello.

Time to Talk FOH

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I just finished reading coverage of the recent inaugural Welcome Conference in NYC courtesy of Grub Street. The conference, focused on the service end of the hospitality industry, covered such topics as “the humility of service, creating heart and soul inside a neighborhood restaurant, and using technology without losing sight of human interaction.”

It’s enticing to think that this kind of dedication and careful consideration might trickle west into the dining rooms of other great restaurant communities. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the service industry became just as important (and, perhaps sought after) as the culinary end?

Enjoy the coverage here.

Eating Tech

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I have no doubt that this is an argument I’m going to lose in the end.

Yes, technology is toeing its way into the restaurant world. Tableside credit card transactions. Awesome. iPad wine lists. Nifty. Reservations, loyalty programs and pre-arrival information. Goes without saying. The array of applications within a fairly clunky, old school industry are many (Nation’s Restaurant News created an interesting infographic around just that in 2012).

Ron Shaich, the Founder/Chairman/CEO of Panera Bread, points out in this recent article on the topic: “Improvements in technology have made real the ability for restaurants to provide a more customized and personal experience for guests, creating an opportunity set, I believe, on par with the market opportunities we saw decades earlier to offer better food and warmer “gathering place” environments.”

But when you get beyond Chili’s and Applebee’s and Paneras, have you ever wondered why the upscale casual and fine dining restaurant marketplace overall has been so slow to adapt? I have two theories.

One: This is a damned tough business and it’s hard enough just trying to be successful (i.e., profitable) without needing to innovate in ways that have nothing to do with your core service of producing incredible food–to say nothing of training a staff that turns over monthly, managing shocking rises in food costs, and fighting to keep your patrons from migrating to the 20 new eateries that opened in your neighborhood in the last year.

Two: The dining experience is extremely personal. Sure, people share their experiences digitally, but they don’t experience them that way. Everything great about dining in a sit-down restaurant (that distinction is very important here) is rooted in a personal, TACTILE experience–the progression of tastes and smells, the staff that helps to curate your experience, and the elements of the environment around you. For me, even just the process of reading a menu for the first time (on paper…like I like my books) with a glass of wine in my hand is as important a part of the experience as eating. 

I’m totally guilty of the occasional snatched food photo, but I typically put my phone away when I enter a restaurant. I’m there so I can do something OTHER than check my emails or see if some’s “liked” my check-in. That’s not why I’m there. I’m there to enjoy the reason why these guys are in business. The food. And, other than whatever high-tech gadgets the chef might be employing that night, I feel comfortable in saying that the technology the blogs and trades are talking about building into the diner’s experience isn’t going to make it taste any better. 

 

 

A (Literally) Moveable Feast

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I just caught wind (thank you, @Culintro) that Noma, considered to be the best restaurant in the world, is relocating to Japan for two months at the beginning of 2015. 

As noted on the restaurant’s website, “Although our entire staff will move to Tokyo, we’ll leave our ingredients at home. Rather we’ll bring our mindset and sensibilities to the best of pristine winter produce from all over Japan.” 

Chicago’s Alinea and New York’s Eleven Madison Park traded places for five nights in 2012, but that was really just a space swap, each arriving with trucks filled to the gills with serviceware and ingredients allowing local diners to partake in an uber-exclusive pop-up from afar. 

This time Chef Rene Redzepi (@ReneRedzepiNoma) will transport only staff from Copenhagen to Tokyo, allowing the environment and the local ingredients to dictate the Japanese translation of “Noma”. 

What a beautiful concept. 

For a restaurant with a hyper-intense focus on landscape and a desire to explore how natural surroundings shape who we are, it seems a logical progression. 

I would wager that we are all trying to communicate who we are through what we produce and share with the world. What new landscape (business, passion, art form) would you immerse yourself in just to see what came out? And would you be open to the change? 

Own It

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These days lines are blurring across all categories of popular culture and aren’t we lucky. Food has infiltrated nearly every other corner of culture, as the most current, most sought after element binding it all together.

Typically it’s an organizer’s job to curate the chef/food component of an event. This time it’s the food bringing the rest together.

Chipotle’s @CultivateFest adds ideas and music to the mix with their free to the public festival hitting three US cities in 2014. 

Stand for something and then make sure people know. How? Starting your own festival is one way to do it. 

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