Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Dinner, Disrupted

Silicon Valley has brought its wrecking ball to haute cuisine, and the results are not pretty.

At a fancy Silicon Valley restaurant where the micro-greens came from a farm called Love Apple, I got a definitive taste of California in the age of the plutocrats. This state — and this native of it — have long indulged a borderline-comic impulse toward self-expression through lifestyle and food, as if success might be a matter of nailing the perfect combination of surf trunks, grilled lamb hearts and sunset views.

For baby boomers who moved to the Bay Area in search of the unfussy good life, in the late 20th century, it was all about squinting just right to make our dry coastal hills look like Provence — per the instructions of the Francophile chefs Jeremiah Tower and Alice Waters of the legendary Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse.

By the early 2000s, that Eurocentric baby-boomer cuisine enjoyed a prosperous middle age as “market-driven Cal/French/Italian” with an implicit lifestyle fantasy involving an Italianate Sonoma home with goats, a cheese-making barn, vineyards and olive trees, and a code of organic-grass-fed ethics that mapped a reliable boundary between food fit for bourgeois progressives and unclean commodity meats.

Today, Northern California has been taken over by a tech-boom generation with vastly more money and a taste for the existential pleasures of problem solving. The first hints of change appeared in 2005, when local restaurateurs sensed that it was time for a new culinary style with a new lifestyle fantasy. That’s when a leading San Francisco chef named Daniel Patterson published an essay that blamed the “tyranny of Chez Panisse” for stifling Bay Area culinary innovation. Next came the 2009 Fig-Gate scandal in which the chef David Chang, at a panel discussion in New York, said, “Every restaurant in San Francisco is serving figs on a plate with nothing on it.” Northern California erupted with an indignation that Mr. Chang called, in a subsequent interview, “just retardedly stupid.” Mr. Chang added that, as he put it, “People need to smoke more marijuana in San Francisco.”

By this point, I was a food writer of the not-anonymous variety, by which I mean that I joined the search for the next big thing by eating great meals courtesy of magazines and restaurants, without hiding my identity the way a critic would. In 2010, a magazine asked me to profile the extraordinary chef David Kinch of the aforementioned fancy restaurant, which is called Manresa and lies in the affluent suburb of Los Gatos.

I went there twice for work and concentrated both times on the food alone. I was knocked out, especially by a creation called Tidal Pool, which involved a clear littoral broth of seaweed dashi pooling around sea-urchin tongues, pickled kelp and foie gras. I know that I will set off the gag reflex in certain quarters when I confess that, in my view, Mr. Kinch took the sensory pleasure of falling off a surfboard into cold Northern California water and transformed it into the world’s most delicious bowl of Japanese-French seafood soup. Mr. Kinch, I concluded, was the savior sent to bring California cuisine into the 21st century.

Two years later, in December 2012, a magazine editor said that he could expense a Manresa dinner for the two of us. He suggested that we bring (and pay for) our spouses. I had never once eaten at a restaurant of that caliber on my own dime because I did not make nearly enough money. But I liked this editor, I loved Mr. Kinch and I calculated that my one-quarter share of the evening’s total would be $200. I decided to make it a once-in-a-lifetime splurge. After we sat down, Mr. Kinch emerged and said something like, “With your permission, I would love to create a special tasting menu for your table.” Because the editor and I were pampered food-media professionals, we took this to mean something like, Don’t sweat the prices on the menu; let’s have fun, and I’ll make the bill reasonable.

The meal lasted five hours, consisted of more than 20 fantastic courses, and we all felt that we had eaten perhaps the greatest meal of our lives. Then the bill came: $1,200, with tax and tip. It turned out that “a special tasting menu” was a price point marked on the menu. My editor friend confessed that he could charge only $400 to his corporate card, and I felt sick with self-loathing. I knew this was my fault — not Mr. Kinch’s — and I looked around the dining room at loving couples, buoyant double dates, even a family with two young children for whom a thousand-dollar meal was no stretch. I had been a fool in more ways than I could count, including my delusion that one could think and talk about food outside of its social and economic context.

Like any artisan whose trade depends upon expensive materials and endless work, every chef who plays that elite-level game must cultivate patrons. That means surrounding food with a choreographed theater of luxury in which every course requires a skilled server to set down fresh cutlery and then return with clean wine glasses. A midcareer professional sommelier then must fill those wine glasses and deliver a learned lecture about that next wine’s origin and flavor. Another person on a full-time salary with benefits must then set down art-piece ceramic plates that are perfectly selected to flatter the next two-mouthful course. Yet another midcareer professional must then explain the rare and expensive plants and proteins that have been combined through hours of time-consuming techniques to create the next exquisitely dense compression of value that each diner will devour in moments. Those empty plates and glasses must then be cleared to repeat this cycle again and again, hour after hour.

In the case of Northern California, these restaurants must satisfy a venture-capital and post-I.P.O. crowd for whom a $400 dinner does not qualify as conspicuous consumption and for whom the prevailing California-lifestyle fantasy is less about heirloom tomatoes than recognizing inefficiencies in the international medical technology markets, flying first-class around the planet to cut deals at three-Michelin-Star restaurants in Hong Kong or London and then, back home, treating the kids to casual $2,000 Sunday suppers.

The foragers and farmers and fishermen of the old Chez Panisse fantasy still figure, but now as an unseen impecunious peasant horde combing beaches and redwoods for the chanterelles and Santa Barbara spot prawns that genius chefs transform into visionary distillations of a mythical Northern California experience that no successful entrepreneur would waste time living.

In a normal metropolitan area, super-upscale places like Manresa have such narrow profit margins that ambitious young chefs open them mostly to establish their reputations; later, to pay the mortgage, they open a profitable mid-range joint nearby. According to Mr. Patterson, the opposite is now true in tech-boom San Francisco.

“Busy high-end places are doing fine because they have more ways to control their costs, but the mid-level is getting killed,” Mr. Patterson told me. “I’ve heard guys say they’re doing eight million a year in sales and bringing home less than 2 percent as profit.” (...)

I am all in favor of San Francisco’s $13 per hour minimum wage (which rises to $15 by 2018), plus mandatory paid sick leave, parental leave and employer health care contributions. But labor costs at restaurants are inching past 50 percent of total expenditures, an indicator of poor fiscal health. Commercial rents have also gone bananas. Add the ever-rising cost of frisée and pastured quail eggs and it’s no wonder that many restaurants are experimenting with that unique form of sadism known as “small plate sharing,” which amounts to offering a big group of hungry people something tiny to divvy up. Even nontrendy joints now ask $30 for a proper entree — a price point, according to Mr. Patterson, that encourages even affluent customers to discover the joys of home cooking.

This is all fine at the handful of places that are full and profitable every night — State Bird Provisions, Lazy Bear — but, according to Gwyneth Borden of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, an alarming number are not. The bigger tech companies worsen the problem by scooping up culinary talent to run lavish free food programs that, as Ms. Borden said, offer workers “all-day bacon and lobster rolls and tacos.” This kills the incentive for employees to spend a penny in restaurants, especially at lunch. (Ms. Borden also told me that she can’t count the number of times she has heard an Uber or Lyft driver confess to being a former chef.)

Constant traffic jams and great restaurants in less congested cities like Oakland discourage suburbanites who used to cross the Bay Bridge for date night in San Francisco. Besides, as Mr. Patterson says, the city clears out on holiday weekends. “They all go to Tahoe,” he said. “You want to get a reservation somewhere? Just book a table during Burning Man.”

by Daniel Duane, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Mark Pernice