Why I Love Restaurants, April
7, 2006 — If you look at the most popular food-related sites
on the web or food print publications almost none of them are
primarily about eating out. Most of them spend their time focusing
on cooking and recipes. And this is a funny thing to me. America is
kind of nuts right now when it comes to food. Most people are
optimizing around cost, convenience, and quantity. And people are
eating out more and more. But the people interested in food have
decided that cooking is where their interest lies. Here's the
problem: if the only people eating out are the people that are
optimizing around the wrong things, then the food in this country
caters to that audience - essentially, it's garbage.
People who appreciate good food need to go out to eat. And here's
why. Even the people who are into food, subscribe to cooking
magazines, read food blogs, are likely crappy cooks. They may think
that reading recipes makes them good, but I'll bet 90% of them are
terrible. And yet, here's a crazy thing... these people who purport
to like food, are eating food made by lousy cooks - themselves. Even
crazier is that there is a world filled with these people called
"Chefs". Strangely enough these "chefs" have dedicated their lives
to trying to cook good food for others often at reasonable prices
and in convenient locations. It's no wonder that restaurants end up
pandering to Americans who eat food like a duck having the gavage.
They are the only ones who go out to eat. The others are sitting at
home doing a bad job following recipes from "Cooking Light".
The small subset of people who love food and know
better than to
cook for themselves and just how much good food they can
get outside of their own kitchens are carved out as some snobby minority labeled "foodies".
I'll count myself among them so my brethren (and sistren?) don't
criticize me for my hypocrisy. Us foodies are guilty of fetishizing
good food and the people that make it. This website is essentially
food porn. I don't think anyone literally masturbates to this site's
food photography, but the mental equivalent is repeated hundreds of
times daily. What's the problem you ask with this? Nothing per se,
except that good food should be so prevalent in this country that we
don't have to repair to our high end restaurants and out of the way
roadside stands to get our fix.
Essentially we need to create a virtuous cycle where more people
want high quality food, and more people can make a living creating
high quality food. When you can get amazing food by randomly picking
a restaurant in a city you've never been, Wolfgang Puck's empire
will crumble. And that will be a good day for everyone.
And this leads to why I love the restaurant. And when I say
restaurant, what I really means is anyone who sells food I can eat
with no preparation. This includes diners, cafes, bakeries, bagel
shops (also I suppose known as bagelries though I think that word is
kind of dopey so I won't say it out loud), coffeehouses, chocolate
shops, roadside stands, and of course... street food vendors. I love
the fact that the world is littered with hundreds of thousands of
places where someone wants to save me the trouble of cooking and is
willing to feed me, often at a very reasonable price.
What makes this all the more amazing is that creating food for a
living is hard, low-paying work. Which means, many of these people
cook for a living because they love to do it. Think about it. Not
only are there a zillion restaurants out there, but a significant
number of people working at these places love to cook for
others. Passionate, professionals, all ignoring their better
economic instincts, so they can make me a sandwich, or a nice bowl
of soup, or a hot dog, or some foie gras. That to me is amazing, and
I for one am grateful they are there.
When you add to this the fact that given how busy our lives have
gotten, eating out together is one of the last bastions of the
face-to-face social experience, restaurants should become even more
exalted in our minds in terms of their role and importance in
I know not every cook at every restaurant is good. In
fact, I'll claim the overwhelming majority of those that have cooked for
me are not very good at all. This doesn't necessarily mean they lack
talent or passion. But it does mean they aren't executing well with
those natural resources. Yet in Japan, or Italy my odds are better than
50-60% that the restaurant I eat at will be delicious. Do you really
think that Italy and Japan naturally produce better cooks? I don't.
However, I do believe in capitalism and the power of markets. Businesses
find their audience and work hard to cater to that audiences every need
and want. The difference between the U.S. and Italy is that in America
the audience sucks. They demand higher quantities of food relatively
independent of what it tastes like. As I said in my last post, I have
spent the last few years on this blog appealing to and trying to
influence that very same audience. But the truth is that nobody who
doesn't have some inclination to eat well reads this site.
ultimately I am appealing to you, the restaurateur, the chef, and in
some cases both. Someone must take a stand. And while I understand that
a restaurant is a business. I believe that you can make a successful and
lasting business by being intellectually honest, and staying true to
your values. You may have to compromise other things to get there (your
rate of growth, your location, your ability to scale your enterprise,
your food network show) but in the end, if you can educate the diners in
your small corner of the universe that better food exists, consistently,
and interestingly, then they will reward you with loyalty and love. And
if they don't, I'll smack them.