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Quality – A Guest Perspective

November 21, 2013

Sometimes this little blog of mine drifts off course. One cannot be influential when mired in petty squabbles. I recognize that. But details matter. This is why in three star restaurants chefs use tweezers to plate their dishes. This is why the best coffee shops steam a fresh pot of milk for each order. This is why top flight bartenders will spend countless hours making homemade bitters just to add one drop into their mixing tin.

Maybe influential is too high a bar anyhow. After all, those that are attracted to a food blog like this one, are generally fairly likeminded individuals. So I’ll gladly settle for inspirational.

Just recently, I got a note from someone involved in the restaurant business who has asked to remain anonymous. Let’s call this person Capital Region Foodie X. Well, Foodie X has been hearing what I’ve been saying and was inspired to write an insider’s view on food quality in Capital Region restaurants.

The truth is that not everyone involved with restaurants in this town hates me. Sure, some of them talk smack behind my back on Facebook writing things like, “DB pooped in his big girl panties because people called him out for giving 5 star yelp reviews to people that sell fish sticks…” But others solicit my input, and put my thoughts into action in ways that benefit their bottom line.

Still, it’s refreshing to see someone from the front lines of our emerging food scene recognize that we’ve got a problem in the Capital Region. Hopefully by calling attention to one of the issues that’s holding us back, we can make the changes needed to improve our restaurants.

Here’s what Foodie X had to say:

Quality. The OED defines it as the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind, or a measurement of the degree of excellence. Quality is expressed in a cyclical process of expecting someone to create excellence so that someone else can receive excellence.

You may be asking why this is important for a Capital Region food blog, and the reason is because it is systemically what is wrong with the Capital Region food scene. The good news is that we have the power to fix it.

Daniel, ever the trumpeter of questioning one’s dining experience to the praises and sometimes boo’s and hisses of his wide audience, really is doing us a service by telling us to question why the Capital Region food scene can’t compete with its outlying regions. As a person currently working in the food industry, this blatant statement does not offend me because it’s true; we really can’t.

People speculate as to why, offering everything from lack of disposable income to lack of skill in the area, two factors that often beget each other. However despite the economy many high-priced restaurants are thriving, and the CR boasts several chefs that have earned their James Beard awards. Then… what’s the problem? We have chefs that have skill, we have people that are willing to pay, so where is the disconnect?

We’re forgetting one important factor and one imposing figure: where the food meets the business. Money. Margins. Turning a profit.

In the end, a successful business turns to the Unattainable Triangle, which is a maxim that operation options are quality, speed, and price, and that quality goods delivered efficiently will always come at a higher price, and conversely lower quality goods will always come at a lower price.

At least that’s the assumption, and this is where things get tricky because what if you tweak the model? What if you focus your energies on a lower quality product delivered efficiently and expect a higher price? Perhaps you’ve heard of this unappetizing aphorism: polishing a turd. Crude but accurate, and this is the problem holding the Capital Region back from really being put on the map.

When some of our highest ‘quality’ restaurants are purchasing the same frozen, dehydrated, or preserved product from the same place that the bar down the street is getting their flash-frozen jalapeno poppers and then plant five-star restaurant prices on it, that is not quality. It’s a great business model, but it’s also sullying the culinary sector of the Capital Region. I see it daily, and it’s not our chef’s faults.

So many talented chefs are restricted and frustrated with their budgets and buying power that businesses impose, and in turn we are paying for faux luxuries that we assume exist. How many dishes are made from scratch, or even made in-house, or simply made from high quality ingredients? That, if anything, is a higher deterrent to chefs in the Capital Region.

Is everyone doing it? Nah. But enough are that it pisses me off almost on a daily basis. Why? Because I see couples saving up for a 30th anniversary dinner at a steakhouse where they will pay $60 apiece for a steak with a minimum BMS (beef marbling score) that is not only not hand-cut, but also individually vacuum-packed, frozen, and delivered from Sysco. Because when I was at a very prominent restaurant a few months ago with family, we ordered mozzarella to be hand-stretched at our table from their cart and upon asking where it came from, the waiter replied that he wasn’t sure, just that they got it in 10lb blocks from Sysco. I sat through my entire meal asking myself why I was paying a good hunk of dough for someone to boil a chunk of factory-pressed and preserved curd.

Why can these businesses get away with serving lower-quality product at a higher cost to the public?

If polished turds sell, your margins increase so that you can pour more into advertising and you become a destination. A place where people save up to go to for special occasions, even if they are getting jacked. It makes me want to stand outside these establishments and greet every person who walks up to the doors. I want to tell them the truth of these things, and then let them know that there is a restaurant only a few blocks away that serves actual seabass, that there’s a steakhouse just down the road that does amazing things with Wagyu beef, or a bistro nearby that serves only the finest local products and can tell you the location and process of every single item on their menu.

But I can’t, because I would lose my job. So I’m writing this blog post instead. A little cowardly? Maybe, but I wouldn’t be the bearer of this crappy news if I didn’t have a solution to it.

The answer is you, the consumer. The next time you dine out, ask where your food comes from. If local is your schtick, then did it come from New York? If quality is your thing, ask if they hand-cut their steaks. Ask what purveyor they get their fish from. Ask who rolls up to their door with a truck-full of vegetables.

And if you don’t like the answer, if it’s not good enough for what you are paying, then leave and tell them why you are doing so. Find a place that satisfies you. For as much as we may exalt or condemn a restaurant, it really does come down to the information we ask for and the choice we make as a result of being an educated consumer.

Until we start making decisions as such, these trends will continue and so many places that have potential in the Capital Region will continue to suck. But if we encourage change, if we become the educated consumer. And if we demand quality, then the industry will change with us. It’s that simple.

I would like to thank Foodie X for the candor of this post. These are important considerations to keep in mind when we go out to eat. Should you start asking questions and glean any reaffirming or dismaying information in return, please feel free to share. And if you are uncomfortable with the comments section, I’m always reachable by email.

Contact info can be found here.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2013 7:59 am

    I truly believe the numbers of us (those who agree with Foodie X) are growing every day. It’s a slow process . . . but I truly believe that over time, Albany will step up it’s food game. I see it happening. Again, it has been slow – but I see changes. There are a growing number of people that care a little less about volume (how much do I get on my plate, for my dollar) and care more about quality (how good is the food on my plate) – and understand that quality comes at a higher cost, both with ingredients and labor.

    I have changed. I come from a family that eats at fast food and chain restaurants. I once believed this food was good. I coupon hopped with all of the buy 1 get 1 deals. BUT THEN . . I began to taste my food. I began to ask questions. I began to value the experience of food. There is great pleasure in experiencing different depths of flavors in cheeses from around the world. I once paid a few dollars for Cracker Barrel cheese at the supermarket. I now have respect for and enjoy exploring cheeses from around the world at The Cheese Traveler and other places. The cost difference? About $30/lb for cheese. But I would rather pay $36/lb for a very small piece of great cheese that I will savor . . then $6/lb for plastic waxy cheese that belongs on a Ritz.

    I now only wish I could convince my Dad that there is more to food than how much you get for your dollar. I wish my grandmother wouldn’t say something is delicious before it even touches her mouth. I wish my mom wouldn’t order ‘crab cakes’ at every single restaurant we ever go to. It’s slow – but I am working on it. (BTW, I love crab cakes. Just not the pre made frozen ones that you get out. And it’s shocking at what restaurants are using them!)

    But it becomes even worse, when you get this lesser grade food and you pay TOP DOLLAR.

  2. addiesdad permalink
    November 21, 2013 12:01 pm

    While I respect Foodie X’s need to be anonymous, he (in the generic sense, don’t know if it’s a dude or not) could still offer suggestions without compromising his career. In a lot of way ways, this is a case of “I want you to be accountable for change, not me”. Yes, it’s the patron’s responsibility to know where there food comes from, but the fact is many folks are uncomfortable asking these kinds of pointed questions, because they really don’t know what to do with that info. I just don’t see the average party of four walking out if they discover their veggies come from Sysco, especially if it’s a place like 677 Prime that has convinced area diners of its quality.

    What is far more helpful, and brave and risky, is for Foodie X to compile a list of restaurants in the CR that meet his criteria, and maybe Daniel and his readership can add to that list. Push that list around Facebook, or let FLB’s loyal readers use it to encourage their friends and family to frequent the listed venues over others, and then you’ll start to see the changes. If NWBB deserves it’s reputation, tell us so we can tell the world!

    So, questions for Daniel and Foodie X: will you start a list of CR area restaurants that meet your minimum criteria for quality? Can the list be crowd-sourced as well, so that the FLB readers who ask the kind of pointed questions FX wants us to can add to that list? Why not sing the praises of quality restaurants from the Mountain?

    • November 21, 2013 12:18 pm

      One step ahead of you. Just yesterday I started a similar conversation with Foodie X, because you are right, that would be valuable information.

      I’m not sure what form it will take, or when I might be able to have something live. Just know that it is in the works. And in the meantime, if anyone wants to share specifics, the comment section of this post is open to everyone.

    • November 21, 2013 2:19 pm

      Ditto this: It’s good to know the places that have quality food, as well as those that are a good value (maybe not top-notch, high-end food but a totally good deal for the price and quality you get), and it’s fairly difficult/awkward to walk into a restaurant you’d been looking forward to eating at, ask questions about the menu and then get up and leave instead of eating (and then have to come up with somewhere else to eat on the spur of the moment). Perhaps what’s needed is a list, a “foodie stamp of approval” for good food and good values around here.

  3. November 21, 2013 12:30 pm

    A great quote from David McMillan (of Joe Beef) and his thoughts on Sysco: “Only a fucking idiot would order fish and beef from the same place he orders bleach and mop heads.”

    • -R. permalink
      November 21, 2013 12:54 pm

      Thanks Jon, that quote gave me a good chuckle.

  4. November 21, 2013 12:35 pm

    Really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for putting it forth!

  5. Stevo permalink
    November 21, 2013 1:07 pm

    Obviously I’m speculating here. But at the risk of being incorrect, my guess is the restaurant Foodie X is talking about is one of Mazzone’s growing empire.

    I refuse to eat at any of Mazzone’s restaurants any more. I dined at Aperitivo Bistro about 6 months ago and was shocked at how expensive and yet how average the food was. There are so many better choices in the area that blow his restaurants away in both quality and price there is simply no need to set foot in a Mazzone establishment ever again. Or at least until his prices come down significantly.

    • November 21, 2013 8:48 pm

      Now that Mazzone has a significant portion of the Empire State Plaza cafe business, I predict seeing an $8 price tag on the same Sysco sandwich Sodexo charged $5 for.

  6. November 21, 2013 3:04 pm

    There is also the issue of portion control. Recently the TU had a roundup of classic red sauce places in which one of the criteria was the weight of the doggie bag; the winner weighed 5 pounds. A lot of Cap District places are expensive because they put too much of their mediocre food on the plate. They could bring portion size and prices down simultaneously while keeping their food cost (the percentage of their total operating budget that actually goes for ingredients) the same.

    The food wouldn’t necessarily be any better, but it’s a step in the right direction especially if it trained a few local trenchermen and women to focus on ingredients and preparation, not just quantity and purported value.

  7. November 21, 2013 6:52 pm

    This is true. We recently made a decision to drop some of items off the menu like our braised ox tail made with Heritage Farms nitrate free bacon and root vegetables from Slack Hallow Farms and a free range antibotic free chicken Coq Au Vin with SHF mushrooms etc. .. I replaced these items with Toasted Cheese options. Granted I still use the nitrate free bacon and cheese selections from AIF, but business has increased three fold. Its deflating. There is a perception that a small cafe should be under $10.00. The rub is that the braised dished required more skill and were a greater bang for your buck. I would have enjoyed making them. Now, I focus our skill and attention on making outstanding soups.
    I worked for a time for a local food tycoon who would say they used trans fat free product. But he was only compliant with the fryolator oil, NOT the food going into the fryer. He would say we had bison burgers for top dollar and it was 20/80 beef. Really sad. They would buy Sysco pies and eggwash them, sprinkle sugar and cinnimon and voila! Homemade!

  8. November 21, 2013 9:14 pm

    Wow- This was a great read! Thanks, Daniel, for allowing this person to share their thoughts on your blog. I couldn’t agree more with Foodie X…Please give them a high five for me! :)

  9. enough already! permalink
    November 22, 2013 10:46 am

    This post was interesting and enlightening, and I am eagerly awaiting more from you and foodie x. Thank you both for getting the ball rolling.

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