The New York Times food section featured an article today about a growing trend in dining that eliminates the service staff. This is nothing new if you have sat at the counter at a small sushi restaurant. However, this intimate scenario has become increasingly popular in newer restaurants, exemplifying the shifting trend in the diners desire for a food based experience, eliminating the middle man and interacting directly with the cooks.
When I first started working with Veil’s Chef de Cuisine Johnny Zhu, who’s recent homecoming to Seattle drew him from Chicago, he told me tales of a restaurant with no service staff what so ever, where the chefs not only cook, but take your order, run food. A dining room where all beverages are on a bring your own basis, where they filled the house with hip-hop, the Ramones, what ever they liked. A cooks kind of place.
I flew to Chicago just to eat at this homage to everything a cook is. Schwa it’s called, a slang term thrown about in elementary school. I arrived alone, spent the next 2 hours chatting with the guys, cook to cook, while enjoying an immensely creative, if not a bit fragmented menu. I might have wondered if there was a cohesive thread to the menu had the cooks not been at my table. Two minutes with the chef and it’s clear that he is the cohesion to the meal, his invitingly spastic personality being reflected in the seemingly random progression of modern dishes. The menu pulls you here and there, just like a conversation with the chef, but centers you with the joy in seeing food so clearly representing those laboring to create it.
With each course the cooks and I peeled back the layers, spoke of those we knew in common. Chatted about the time both the chef and I spent at The Fat Duck. Talked about Johnny, who had worked with one of the cooks for a while. And when they found out I flew in just to see them, they gushed. Then while dropping my dessert, they invited me out for beers afterwards. As a cook, I couldn’t have dreamed of a better dining experience. It was worth every penny, the two days out of my life it took to eat there.
My friend Chris visited with a group from The Fat Duck, so we chatted a bit about the meal, and he dropped a bomb on me.
“It’s closed” he told me. Apparently the day after Chris, Heston, and others dined there Schwa closed it’s doors.
A little devastated, I told Johnny. We weren’t really sure what to believe. Since then we have looked at each other and asked, “do you think it really closed?” Or, “any word on Schwa, is it happening?”
We talked about cold calling the restaurant to see if anyone answered, “but no one answered when it was open,” we said. “The website is still up,” we chatted with hope.
It was a beacon for us, even if it was far away, and a place we can only dine at with plane tickets and hotel rooms. It was a place run by us, for us, so to speak.
Thank goodness for this recent article, which speaks of the sudden closing, and it’s reopening. Just knowing Schwa is there feels good, it’s shear existence bringing joy to my little cooks heart.
One day, I think, I’ll make it back. One day, I day dream, I’ll open something like it.