Over the past year or two, we in the Triangle have experienced a mini-boom in the number of chef-owned restaurants. Poole’s, Watt’s Grocery, Piedmont, Rue Cler, Bonne Soiree, and others. To the foodies of the world (and I include myself in that group), one gets a great buzz to eat at a chef-owned restaurant in the first few days after it’s opened. Chef-owned establishments are considered ultra-hip, and I even try to get to know the chefs, because that just makes me hip, too. Heh.
But when a new restaurant opens that isn’t owned by a chef, it just doesn’t get the same press. And I’m as guilty as anyone in that regard. I really started to understand my own bias when it came to Herons restaurant in the Umstead Hotel. I found myself unenthusiastic because Herons was, well, a hotel restaurant. And with The Mint just opening in downtown Raleigh, I certainly didn’t welcome it with much enthusiasm and even told some friends that I really didn’t have much interest in trying it. Was that lack of fervor due to its size, its controversial connections with the city of Raleigh, the menu, or because it seemed to be a place owned by a faceless investment group rather than a known chef? Would I have given as much attention to The Pit if it were just Greg Hatem’s company opening it, without the involvement of Ed Mitchell?
We’ve all become victims of the cult of chef personality, where we’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a well known chef. And when I know the chef or am friends with him or her, I admit I lose some objectivity. I won’t trash them.
But if I don’t know the people running the restaurant, I’m happy to tear them a new one. And that’s not fair. That’s why I made a point of meeting some of the folks at Herons before I wrote about that restaurant. I got to know their pastry chef and sommelier, to learn what they were trying to do. And as a result, my story transformed from what was going to be a piece that focused on their high prices to one focusing on foodies’ bias against hotel restaurants. After my meeting with these people, I ended up doing some research to determine that their prices were reasonable when you look at the entire package they serve. Yes, I loved everything about Herons from the first time I ate there, but I wasn’t willing to go out on a limb and profess my love for them until I put some real, live human beings in the mix.
Let me give you another example of a restaurant that doesn’t get the credit it deserves: Frazier’s here in Raleigh. No, it’s not a chef-owned restaurant – it’s owned by Kevin and Stacey Jennings’ Urban Food Group (one of the best, if not THE best, local restaurant groups in the area). Frazier’s has some of the best food in the Triangle, reasonably priced and in a really nice space. Their wine selection is super (the UFG’s beverage director, Scott Luetgenau, is someone any wine aficionado must get to know!). But they get little to no love from the foodie community, which I just don’t understand. They’ve gone through a couple of chefs, but the food has always been top-notch. Parking is a bit tricky, but not terribly so. This is a place that is as good or better than the hippest chef-owned restaurants in Durham. Ultimately, I think it gets dissed is because it’s owned by someone other than the chef – a corporate conglomerate, if you wish. (Actually, each of the UFG restaurants is owned by a separate limited liability company, the type of entity chefs usually use for ownership of their restaurants – we can delve into the world of corporate law another day).
Does anyone think that the chefs at The Mint, Frazier’s, or The Fearrington House have any less passion than Andrea Reusing, Ashley Christensen or Charlie Deal? I don’t know the answer to that question, but we shouldn’t assume that that’s the case. Let the food and the service answer those questions. Try to get to know more about the restaurant – it is still run by human beings! Ultimately, we need the institutional or investor-owned restaurants as much as the chef-owned ones to have a truly vibrant culinary scene here in the Triangle. And damn it all, I will give The Mint a try.