The Fault in Our Stars
There’s a conversation that has unfolded in a corner of the internet that is too important to ignore.
It started over a month ago when Dominic Colose hypothesized about whether a restaurant in the Capital Region would ever be awarded a Michelin star. These stars a big deal. And the truth is that you don’t have to be in a big city to have one. You just need the food, service and decor. And as chef Colose argues, a customer base willing to support it.
There’s more to his argument. You can read the full thing here in addition to a few comments from the peanut gallery.
But on Friday, Greg who writes the Humbling Attempts blog, picked up the gauntlet and wrote an illuminating post into the Capital Region dining scene. He detailed a heartbreaking experience with a local restaurant patron’s delight in mediocrity, along with his further analysis of why we are unlikely to get a Michelin starred restaurant in the area.
It’s time for me to put in my two cents.
Dominic says, “The first thing necessary is a chef with the talent and determination to do the work required to meet the standards of Michelin reviewers. I don’t think we have that. We have some very good chefs, but not of the caliber and/or commitment needed for that level of achievement.”
Greg says, “I know there are talented chefs around here, and lots of chefs with lifetimes of experience – but we are talking Michelin Star quality. Im not sure there is anyone in this area who is at that level. I completely acknowledge that I could be wrong here – there are a million reasons why our food scene is what it is – that are completely out of a chefs control.”
My take? A long time ago, I thought that chefs were a big part of the problem. But these days, I’m reluctant to lay too much of the blame at their feet. Many care deeply about good food. Some try pushing their customers into unfamiliar waters. But these efforts are largely unrewarded. I always go back to the story of Brian Bowden and the local beef pho with tongue he made as a special at Creo. I was out of town and the regulars just didn’t want it.
Dominic says, “Many of our young talented cooks want to run a kitchen and be culinary stars in our small pond before working under a more experienced chef for the number of years required to be fully capable of reaching a level to be noticed by Michelin.”
Greg says, “I agree with this 100% – but I think its a bit more complicated. Are you implying that there is a pool of ‘great’ chefs with years of experience to teach in this area? Im on the fence about that .”
Me? There’s clearly a lot of turnover, and that is incredibly hard when trying to manage a kitchen. Our local restaurants also don’t draw the talent pool of culinary students who effectively work for free to learn from masters in the field. All these hands are able to julienne perfect vegetables, French bones to spotless perfection, and spend as much time as needed to clarify stocks and sauces. These things are important in elevating restaurants from good to great.
Dominic says, “The biggest obstacle to a Michelin star in the Capital District is the dining public. We simply do not have enough people who will support the effort needed to achieve that level of excellence…I recently read a comment on a popular food blog about the opening of a new pub that was scoffing at the $13 price tag for a reuben made with locally produced corned beef, locally made cheese, barrel aged sauerkraut, and top quality bread. ”
Greg says, “Then there is the question of whether or not it is financially viable or even possible. Is there enough wealth in this area to support it? In addition to a higher overhead because of the venue, supplies, ingredients, etc, a starred restaurant requires a lot of highly specialized people. Virtually every position in the restaurant needs to be filled by someone who specializes in what they do and have has a lot of experience doing it. Most restaurants in this area can’t even afford to hire a Pastry Chef”
I disagree, and I’d like to take a couple of moments to once again prove this point.
People pay a lot of money to eat in fancy restaurants in the Capital Region. So let’s look outside the region for a moment at a few other Michelin starred restaurants for sake of comparison. I could do these all day, but let’s stick to a couple of examples for right now.
The Spotted Pig in Manhattan has a Michelin star. Here is the dinner menu. So does Danny Brown over in Queens. Its menu can be found here. If you want to see the full NYC list, here’s a good link. Think a Michelin starred restaurant is more expensive in these big cities that have to pay big city rents? Think again.
I’ll spare you the play by play. Sure, there are more expensive Michelin starred restaurants than the ones that I’ve highlighted above, but the bottom line is that you can eat dinner at a NYC Michelin starred restaurant for less than the cost of eating at some of our region’s more popular fancy restaurants.
So what’s the answer then?
In their conclusions, Dominic suggests there is no audience for better food. Greg sees local restaurant patrons deeply satisfied with mediocrity and resistant to change. And their points are well taken.
And to a degree, they are right. But here’s the thing, there absolutely is an audience for better food. However, that audience has been burned. A lot. Mostly by restaurants that promise fine dining, but don’t deliver on the experience (despite charging a pretty penny). And that has driven these eaters away. Many are choosing to dine out on vacations. Others are cooking at home.
If a local restaurant could consistently deliver the experience, I bet people would change their tune. Although it’s not going to be easy. The answer isn’t charging more money, it’s elevating the experience.
That said, I agree that our area needs that dedicated population of cooks to support our more talented chefs. This would seem to be the weak link in our market. And it’s a problem I have no idea how to fix.
In the meantime, I’m very happy eating at Ala Shanghai and hitting up finer dining opportunities in my travels. Of course, I’m also looking forward to tasting chef Dominic’s winter menu. Because even though his menu is priced on par with starred Michelin restaurants, I’m pretty sure a half portion of something soul satisfying from the upcoming winter menu will be money well spent.