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23

2004
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Super Chef, December 23, 2004 — Being on the edge of legitimacy means that while food bloggers are typically not considered professional journalists, they are sometimes considered worthy of press freebies. Here’s how it works: someone has a product to promote, they give that product to journalists hoping they’ll write something favorable about the product or at least mention it. I’ve started to get more and more press releases over time. I could probably get even more freebies if I really wanted, but who has the time. I don’t mind paying the $7 (are movies still $7?, I think I’m woefully out of touch) to see Sideways.

A few months ago I agreed to check out Super Chef, The Making of the Great Modern Restaurant Empires, by Juliette Rossant. I generally avoid spending a ton of time writing about things I don’t really enjoy, but I feel like there are some important things to learn from Super Chef. More on those later. Firstly, the title. Super Chef. Already I’m slightly irritated as I don’t really know what it means. It’s not that I have a problem with calling out certain chefs as superlative. Certain chefs deserve those accolades. It may just be my perception, but calling the top celebrity chefs “Super Chefs” seems slightly affected, and feeds into this notion that a) you have to be a celebrity chef to make great food, or b) all celebrity chefs make great food. I admit this may just be me being oversensitive, but I can’t help the way I reacted to the title.

The book covers several chefs: Wolfgang Puck, Charlie Palmer, Todd English, Milliken and Feniger, and Tom Colicchio. The first thing that struck me was that I’d eaten at five of these chefs restaurants (Chinoise and Wolfgang Puck Express, Aureole, Border Grill, and Craft) and had mediocre meals. Now I have no doubt that each of these Chefs in their own right can cook up a storm. But this is in fact the point. These chefs create food experiences with their names on them, and yet the quality of the food (that I experienced) paled in comparison to what the namesakes of the restaurants can make with their own hands (I assume). And ironically, this really was the theme of the book for me. Read on as Juliette Rossant tells the story of six chefs who used to make great food and now are too busy running their “modern restaurant empires” to do any actual cooking. These chefs swear up and down that their contribution to their empire is strict quality control.

There are passages describing how meticulously the “super chefs” train their chefs who cook under their name in other cities. But after a) eating in some of their restaurants, b) reading sections describing the details of Wolfgang Puck lending his name to a line of canned soups, and c) hearing about chefs show up once or twice a year to train staff on a cruise ship, or making airline food, the entire affair simply sounds unappetizing. I'm not saying I have a problem with canned soup, or food on cruise ships. I just started to wonder, what really was the Wolfgang Puck "experience" if you could put it in a can? In some ways the book reminded me of the tv show “The Restaurant”. It was contrived but fun “drama”, but most disappointingly, the food did not look appetizing. Though I watched the show I had no urge to go eat at Rocco’s. The same was true of the book. Though I read it, I had no desire to eat at any of the restaurants described in its pages.

So halfway through reading the book and thinking about how uninterested I was in eating any of Wolfgang Puck or Tom Colicchio’s “fast casual” food, I realized that Juliette Rossant was a business reporter. This book wasn’t about food, it was about the business of food. Fine. I like reading about business. I reframed my expectations for the book and read onward. And again, I was disappointed. As unappetizing as the food sounded, the business practices of many (not all) of the “Super Chefs” in question often seemed random and dopey. None of the chefs seemed to be super impressive business people from the descriptions in the book. Many of them, Milliken and Feniger and Todd English specifically, seemed to make every step in the restaurant business a painful misstep. From growing too quickly, to making naïve decisions about personnel, to getting enamored with their own celebrity, etc. I'm not saying they are bad business people, I'm saying that this is the impression I got from the book.

Super Chef was neither an exciting behind-the-scenes look at the food that built these careers, nor was it a particularly illuminating view into innovative and consistently successful businesspeople. I read the whole thing, so you don’t have to. I wish the book had gotten either more hardcore about the detail of the food (and the quality of that food) that it described, or focused on people who really were business leaders you could look up to. I suppose since I have yet to either cook or run a business as well as any of the people covered in the book, people may question my judgment. That said, I can read, and from what I read, the book did seem neither a food book nor a business book to me. In the end, whether it was the awkward writing, the impression that I got that the author was trying to sound objective but was really enamored of her subjects (pick one please), or the fact that I never knew whether I was supposed to be excited about the food or the business of food, the book felt to me like the food and chefs it was describing – a lot of stuff thrown together to see what would stick.

It's funny but if only the premise had been different, I might have actually enjoyed reading the book. The theme that kept hitting me over the head as I read the book was how incompatible expertly hand-crafted food and large-scale business seem to be. I would really have loved to understand not just how chefs have failed to scale their business while maintaining quality, but understand much more about some of the successes (if there are any). Now that would be interesting, and understandable.

 

     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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