By Brian Min
For those of you who have turned a deaf ear to the Chicago food scene, the Boka Restaurant Group has been awfully busy thus far in 2011. Giuseppe Tentori (Boka) is preparing to open his namesake GT Fish & Oyster where Tizi Melloul once stood (the owners have since opened the comparatively-modest Pork Shoppe in Avondale), Ryan Poli left Perennial for Mercadito Hospitality‘s new small-plates venture Tavernita, only to be quickly replaced by Paul Virant (Vie), and Stephanie Izard continues to tear up the West Loop with Girl & The Goat and recently announced plans to open the diner-inspired The Little Goat nearby.
But don’t forget Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz’s contribution to the Boka Restaurant Group’s success despite being the founders of the company (BOehm + KAtz, get it?). It’s an understandable oversight. With every successful restaurant comes another chef thrust into the limelight, further shifting focus from their respective proprietors. Despite co-authoring Life, On The Line, Alinea co-partner Nick Kokonas continues to play a supporting role as chef Grant Achatz appears on USA “Character Approved” commercials. And has anyone even heard of Joseph De Vito, long-time managing partner of Moto and iNG Restaurants, while Homaru Cantu and Ben Roche ham it up on Planet Green’s Future Foods? It used to be that chefs would retreat into the safety of their kitchen away from public scrutiny, preferring to let their food do the talking and the owner to shmooze with the media and clientele. Now, chefs are not only encouraged to engage the public but are being touted as local and national celebrities.
The idea of the celebrity chef draws interesting parallels with the passing of two Chicago business owners: Rich Hess of Sheffield’s in Lakeview and Marie Wuczynski of Rip Tide Lounge in Bucktown. Despite their relative anonymity, Hess and Wuczynski were celebrities in their own right, lifelong employees dedicated to establishments that were, more or less, extensions of their families. It’s a reflection of a bygone era when restaurant and bar owners were the main draw and renown figures in the community. Their home was your home and designed to be an oasis from your troubles. Who doesn’t dream of walking into a bar “where everybody knows your name,” Sam Malone pours your favorite beer, and Norm and Cliff are busy yukking it up as the harsh realities of the world fade into the background? Lefko Stefanos of Blue Stem Martini Lounge in North Center does a fine job of invoking that old-school spirit while mixing martinis, impassioned as much by her craft as her customers. But that charm is like the vintage sign hanging outside: It’s romantic, nostalgic, and dated.
We appreciate corner dives and family restaurants for their low-key atmosphere and unwillingness to change with the times. With them, there is no buffer to distract from their obvious lack of polish. But their inability to adapt is also their crutch. We will always turn to the past for inspiration but that doesn’t mean modern business should emulate it. Good food can trump bad service, but good service can never overcome bad food. Even if we ignored the effects of the recession, dining out has become a matter of both escape and necessity, and the person ultimately in charge of your dining experience now becomes the chef. This shift in power can be credited for three other major changes in the hospitality paradigm:
1. The changing role of the chef. If Top Chef has taught us anything, it’s that chefs are a wild and eclectic bunch. Compared to suit-and-tie restaurant owners, chefs embody a certain blue-collar mystique that the public is drawn to. But chefs are no longer the same line drones and nocturnal delinquents of Kitchen Confidential lore. The evolution of the modern chef has brought us a more educated, affable, and responsible persona, and in some cases, the chef is the owner or acting partner in their restaurant.
2. The changing role of customer service. Now that customers are focused on the chef, front of house operations can take a step back to allow the food to shine. Interaction through the host and server becomes more streamlined and democratic, and a balanced model of warm, friendly customer service (with a heavy emphasis on service) is instituted. Now, every customer is ensured the same quality experience without the risk of alienation through any perceived favoritism. Managers intervene only when necessary and owners take a permanent seat at the bar or phone it in.
3. The changing role of the customer. While their culinary palates continue to demand the latest cuisines and trends, customers have adopted a more independent approach to dining out and no longer seek or expect an intermediary during a meal. Perhaps a cicerone to recommend the latest trappist to accompany a cheese plate but certainly not a conversation about your day. And if someone were to talk to you, it would be the chef…by request..about the food.
[Note: If you’re dining solo in a pub on a Sunday night and the bartender strikes up a conversation with you about bourbon, don’t be a jackass and ignore them. That’s when you can and should expect a more personable experience.]
Thus, it’s not so much the notion of the chef as a celebrity but the chef as the driving impetus for business. Restaurants and bars remain profit-driven establishments, and it’s rare to find one unwilling to sacrifice its integrity for the sake of expansion (Michael Carlson’s Schwa is a notable exception). Alinea may have resisted retreads in Las Vegas, New York, Tokyo, and Dubai, but that hasn’t stopped them from opening Next and Aviary in the Fulton Market District come April. Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds’ lovable Lula Cafe in Logan Square is expanding into the vacant Ruby’s Cleaners next door and has Nightwood in Pilsen, and Carol Watson’s Milk & Honey Cafe in Wicker Park has the equally quaint Italian delicatessen Cipollina, and even markets their own brand of granola in area gourmet markets, cafes, hotels, and restaurants. Even Sam Malone’s beloved Cheers (formerly Bull and Finch) sports a replica in Boston and was subsequently turned into a series of themed airport pubs by Marriot.
For all the warm, fuzzy feelings a place may deliver, in the end, money talks. Success is no longer judged by how many people you know, but how many (return) customers you have. Just as we respect small business for “keeping it real,” it would be just as ridiculous to criticize someone for “selling out” and being ambitious. Times have changed along with preferences, and it’s difficult to argue that the age of the celebrity chef is any less honorable than the “owner as the host.”