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The Fault in Our Stars

December 22, 2014

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.

On Chefs
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.

On Cooks
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.

On Money
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.

Here are the menus for Yono’s, 677 Prime, Sperry’s, and even chef Dominic’s own Wine Bar.

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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. December 22, 2014 12:39 pm

    Great post. So much to think about.

  2. December 22, 2014 1:10 pm

    All people in the area care about are leftovers. They use the ratio of meal-to-leftovers to calculate value. Any restaurant that doesn’t provide any leftovers is left fighting to justify their cost. I would argue that priorities of the average region diner and the Michelin guide are directly inverse.

  3. December 22, 2014 3:05 pm

    If you miracled The Spotted Pig to Saratoga or selected other Capital Region locations it would do just fine. The reason we don’t have Michelin star type places is because the people who own and cook at them don’t want to live here.

    A caveat. The Spotted Pig would not do well in the City of Albany. Why? No parking lots. Do not underestimate the power of car culture around these parts. No one is leaving the suburbs if they believe they will have even a slight problem finding parking.

    • DEN permalink
      January 5, 2015 12:10 pm

      I read in New York Magazine that the Spotted Pig sells 75,000 orders of its signature burger every year. That type of volume creates economies of scale which might not be possible up here.

  4. December 22, 2014 3:51 pm

    I worked for years as a line cook and sous chef at a number of Manhattan restaurants, mostly in New York Times two- and three-star kitchens, and including one that’s held a Michelin star for five years now. I moved to Albany two years ago to go back to school, but continued cooking to pay the bills, so I’ve spent time in the kitchens of some of the real darlings of the Capital Region restaurant scene, either as an employee or a one-day interview/”stage”. I was and remain appalled by what I’ve seen. I haven’t seen one kitchen, either as a cook or as a diner that approaches the level of skill, attention, discipline, and organization required to cook at that level. I’ve worked with cooks in Albany who can’t even be bothered to clean up a spill in the walk-in, let alone get an acceptable sear on an order of scallops, or to sharpen their knives – that is, if they even own and take care of their own. These are highly-regarded restaurants, too. The disingenuous owners aren’t any better, passing off Sysco-purveyed cut-rate institutional products and bulk frozen goods as “artisanal” or “local” in their menu descriptions (just pay attention to the delivery trucks rolling behind your favorite local gastropub). No one cares, at all – this is the norm around here. Perhaps, as Mr. Colose suggests, it is because the customers expect so little, beyond quantity over quality and a hefty doggie bag to go home with.

    I have nothing personal against the restaurant business in Albany, and I really wish it wasn’t as disappointing as it is, especially now that I’m retired as a cook and would like to enjoy a meal as a customer from time to time.

    • albanylandlord permalink
      December 23, 2014 12:56 am

      Great comment, thanks for your insights… I always wonder why I am feeling just OK about some of the best restaurants here.

  5. EPT permalink
    December 22, 2014 7:14 pm

    Interesting post and somewhat thought provoking. First, I think there is a big difference between 1,2 or 3 stars. I’ve eaten at the Spotted Pig, it was very good not great. Plus I wouldn’t say it was overly expensive, though more so than the Capital District. Last spring we ate at Eleven Madison Park in NYC. It has 3 stars. The menu is Prix Fixe at $225 for 14 courses. A la carte is not available. With 14 courses it is very difficult to choose the wine, so a logical solution is to choose the wine pairing ($145/person). Food, atmosphere, service-impeccable! Spotted Pig might make it here, forget Eleven Madison Park. Capital District is not a market for very high end food, have you seen the lines at McDonalds? We do have our fair share of very good restaurants, so enjoy what you do have.

  6. December 22, 2014 9:20 pm

    It will be quite some time, if ever, before Michelin might even consider awarding any stars in this region, even if there were restaurants worthy of the designation. That said, it is entirely possible for Michelin worthy restaurants to exist in this region, but they would have to be up-scale destination restaurants attracting diners from elsewhere. One thing that exists that would make this conceivable is the wealth of great product that we have around here. The problem is that it takes a LOT of money and time to make something like this happen. The closest thing that we have had to that in the nearly 25 years that I’ve been living in the region was when The Inn at Erlowest opened under Chef Matt Secich. Unfortunately, the plug got pulled on this promising endeavor before it really had the chance to be successful. The restaurant still exists, but it, like most restaurants in the area, remains mired in mediocrity. Another place that may have had lower level Michelin aspirations in its prime was Chez Sophie, but Saratoga or the region hasn’t seen anything that special since they moved from the diner.

    There is good cooking in a number of the regions restaurants, but the local dining public doesn’t support anything that pushes boundaries. It might be fairer to say that it hasn’t supported anything like that so far, because there hasn’t been any boundary pushing that has truly been worth supporting.

    The bottom line is that this is a beautiful area with plenty of great local product that would appeal to chefs, but the trick is getting the right people behind a project designed not to cater to locals, but to the world.

  7. Ellie permalink
    December 22, 2014 10:49 pm

    Give me a good cut of steak and a cast iron pan and I can match 677 Prime. Let me have at in Empire wines and I’ll pick a good red to sip.

    My kitchen isn’t nearly as nice as their dining room and I’ve yet to perfect oyster shucking. That’s the only reason to go there, besides my fiancé working above it.

    • December 23, 2014 12:07 am

      I like to go out for food that I can’t make as well at home. That includes a wide variety of ethnic foods as well as artistic meals with special creativity. With the quality product available in the area (including seafood), it is easier, faster and cheaper to cook at home than to go out. It isn’t because the chefs of the area can’t cook a good meal, though. It’s about the relative value provided for the money.

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