Chefs, Businesses and Their Restaurants

toque.jpgOver 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.

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23 Responses to Chefs, Businesses and Their Restaurants

  1. Joe says:

    Off hand, I’d say it does make a difference whether a restaurant is chef-owned or not. I know there are going to be exceptions, but I imagine chef-owners are, in general, going to be more committed to serving the best food they can. I know this is a huge generalization, and there’s a lot more that goes into a restaurant than just the chef or owner.

  2. Varmint says:

    That may be the case, Joe, but when a chef-owned place isn’t all that good, we’re also more likely to give them less grief than we would from a place owned by non-chefs.

    And I’m generally talking about places that are a bit more creative or high-end than national corporate chains. I’m focusing on locally owned places.

  3. Rafe says:

    Frazier’s did start as a chef-owned place, though, right? Wasn’t Kevin Jennings the chef/owner?

    Either way, I agree with you that there is a bias among foodies toward chef-owned restaurants. It’s kind of a natural reaction, though, in that the vast majority of restaurant patrons don’t really know or care. So caring about who owns the place where you eat is a way to differentiate yourself.

  4. Dana says:

    Good points. This may be a stretch, but I’d even go so far as to not rule out chains that are owned by local people, and even local franchisees of a national chain, certainly as a secondary point, though.

    I have a list of about 15 restaurant I want to visit, and I haven’t even added the Mint to this list.

  5. Varmint says:

    And this all leads up to a story I’ve been working on that involves nothing but common sense: you will get a far better dining experience if you make the slightest effort to get to know the people in the restaurant. I’m not at all saying you’ll get special treatment, but you’ll understand what the restaurant is trying to accomplish. That’s why restaurant reviews will never be the feature of this blog. I don’t seek out anonymity when I dine, and when I write, I’m probably not completely objective, because my personal feelings get involved in the process. But that’s what I want to happen. Dining, when it’s fun, is an emotional process. You’re interacting with your friends and the food and the waitstaff and the wine, and you just have fun. And I’m the first to admit that when it’s a chef-owned restaurant, at the very least I want to meet the chef. Every once in awhile, we develop some level of friendship, but that’s not because of the chef-customer relationship, it’s because we have some other things in common.

    I wouldn’t take the time to do that with non-chef restaurants, but I do now, and it has resulted in a better dining experience.

  6. Varmint says:

    Oh, and Rafe, Kevin Jennings was not the chef at Frazier’s.

  7. Rafe says:

    This is probably a digression, but how do you go about meeting the chefs? Do you ask the waiter?

  8. Varmint says:

    You start a blog, silly! 😉

    Seriously, you take the time to ask questions of the people at the front of the house. Ask about the menu or the wine list. Ask about where the chef gets her seafood or mushrooms. If you really care, that will become obvious. And that info usually gets sent back to the chef, who then gets a little intrigued by this inquisitive customer. And more often than not, the chef, if she isn’t completely overwhelmed, will come out to introduce herself. They are just people, you know!

  9. Maura says:

    I think it’s more important that the owner have a passion for food. Obviously, it’s fair to assume that a chef is going to be passionate, but that doesn’t mean a non-chef wouldn’t be just as passionate. Just as important is whether the owner knows how to run a business and hire good people. It doesn’t matter how talented a chef is, if s/he has no idea how to run a restaurant, the place is doomed.

    Varmint, I don’t see how you could keep your personal feelings out of it (the general you, not you specifically). As you said, dining is an emotional process. I don’t want to eat with people who don’t feel something about what they’re eating. What’s the joy in that?

  10. ac says:

    Good to see their is a blog that exists that has an open mind about things-it’s about time. Lots of foodies out their base their opinions on personal feelings toward a place, just from hear-say, or just plain jealousy and not wanting to see a place suceed. To each their own, but don’t knock something before you have attempted it! There is plenty of room in Raleigh for successful restaurants.

  11. who says:

    hello varmint. my name is jeremy clayman and i am the chef at The Mint. i am not an owner at the mint (i have a small percentage, but i would not say that i own the joint.) there has been a lot of negativity towards us since we opened the doors, much of it unjust, but understood i guess. we at the mint are trying to bring something new to the raleigh dining scene, i know everyone says something to that degree but we are making a go at it. i have gotten the green light from the investment team to use the best products i can find, and without destroying the bottom line, i do make huge efforts to utilize the best foodstuffs i can get my hands on. this kitchen is abundant with food passion. i come from some places where food is looked at in a different light so training others who have been in a less intense environment has proven to be a chore in some cases. i moved here to help a friend open a restaurant, i love cooking, and i just want a fair shot. for people to be so upset and not even try a restaurant because of political irritations and situations out of the chef”s control… i appreciate the compassion but that hurts business, slaps me in the face, and ultimately takes food out of my baby’s mouth in the long run. i just want to ba a part of a movement that brings new life into this capitol city. from what i hear, raleigh has needed something more sophisticated downtown in a dire way, now that it has begun, people hate it. our restaurant is not the end all be all for food in raleigh, but we do bring something different to the table. we reach to that “outside the box” area. we want people to stretch their limits just a touch relating to something as simple and basic as food. this could result in even more outside the box thought process, thus resulting in a more open minded culture in a small town. i am not naive enough to think we can change the way people think, but i would love to have an impact on how people eat. there is so much out there in the food universe, we in raleigh, are quite a while behind. the mint is trying to help to catch up. i also feel like there are chefs here that are compelled to resist others’ success in food. if there are more successful restaurants, the foodie subculture can expand and the entire restaurant business does well, resulting in a larger amount of successful chefs, etc. it’s all an upward spiral. thanks varmintbites for allowing me a voice. we have been pummelled since the day after we opened from so many different sources, it’s nice to know that someone can take a step back and look through the windsheild not just the bug smashed on it.

  12. Varmint says:

    Thanks for chiming in, Jeremy. I think that folks will give any restaurant a try, particularly when there haven’t even been any reviews published. I think a lot of the concerns with The Mint had less to do with the deal with the city than with the grandiose expectations and then the somewhat amateurish state of their early communications, including the website. The expectations are still there, of course, and the pressure does fall on you and the front of the house to follow through. If you, Jeremy, were the face on this restaurant and were relatively well known in the area, then would the initial impressions been any different? I really don’t know. I’m really trying to sort out this entire “chef-owned” issue. William D’Auvray and his wife own Fins, and he hasn’t necessarily received the love of the foodies, either, although he just moved his restaurant.

    Ultimately, you just have to do the best with what you have. If you have a passion for your craft, that will come through on the plate, and that’s what will make the final difference.

    Please feel free to use this blog as a sounding board. Bounce ideas off of the readers. But don’t be defensive! Do what you do best by focusing on the food. All else will pay off.

  13. In response to Joe. I can understand your reasoning that if a Chef owns a restaurant they will likely be committed to serving the best food they can. I would argue however that ANY restaurant owner Chef or not will be committed to serving the best food they can if they are a true professional. I would also argue that a Chef with no ownership of a restaurant, that focuses solely on the food (instead of upcoming tax payments, problems with the air conditioning unit, hiring floor management, etc, etc…) has much more time to focus on keeping the food quality as high as possible, getting the food to the guest in a timely manner and worrying more about the running of the kitchen than anything else. Obviously some people are extremely gifted and are very capable of owning a restaurant and running a kitchen but don’t think for a second that a Chef that doesn’t own a restaurant cares any less about the food they put on their menus (which is a reflection of themselves and their craft).

    Scott Luetgenau
    Director of Operations
    Urban Food Group

  14. Joe says:

    I’m sure we can all point at crappy chef-owned restaurants, and great chain places or non-chef-owned places (and vice versa, of course). My statement was a huge generalization, and labeled as such.

    But even without the generalization, I can think of a couple of factors in favor of independent places. (1) Consider a dozen independent restaurants, and a dozen restaurants owned by an over-arching company. I think it’s much more likely there’s going to be more diversity in the 12 independent places than in the ones owned by an umbrella. And that diversity is important to me, not in a nampy-pamby PC sense, but in the sense that I get bored easily, and I’m often looking for something different or outside the norm. (2) A crappy independent place is likely to die a quick death, or stick around for reasons other than the food. A crappy unit in a large operation is likely to go through a different set of death throes, and likely stick around longer, thereby making the chain (or chunk of a unit) look crappier when compared to the independents who are sticking around.

    I’d spend more time on this comment, but I’m headed out to a potluck dinner. Some of the food will likely be good, and some of it won’t. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to it. 😉

  15. Varmint says:

    But Joe, the question is not one of independent restaurants versus chains. It’s chef-owned versus non-chef-owned. Assume we’re talking about independent establishments regardless. Does your argument still work?

  16. detlef says:

    Varmint beat me to it. Joe, don’t confuse non-chef owner with chain. This isn’t Poole’s Diner vs PF Changs. I think Varmint brings up an interesting point here and was brave enough to sort of admit to his own form of restaurant prejudice. I’m sure plenty feel the same way. Hell, I think I do, and yet have some very recent empirical evidence to support the opposite.

    One can still say that Jujube is a chef-owned restaurant, but that is becoming more and more of a stretch. While I was behind the line nearly every day for the first year and a half, I have since turned the kitchen over to my very able chef Josh and honestly think we’re doing a better job now than we ever had before. The reasons are basically those given by Scott above. Josh needs only to worry about his food and his crew. If somethings broken, he tells me, I get it fixed. I don’t need to worry about something on the stove while I’m in the back looking at the water heater with some DOL inspector, etc.

    Now, I do have a hand in the menu so my position is not entirely unlike many other Executive Chefs. However, I could do exactly what I am doing right now if I had come up in front of the house rather than the kitchen (assuming, of course, I knew food (which plenty of dining room pros do)). In fact, I would likely be better at my current day to day duties had that been the case. Of course, then Jujube wouldn’t be a “chef owned” restaurant.

    That might be over-simplifying it. I’ve heard people say they like the wine list because it seems that a chef put it together. Perhaps there’s something to that. Of course, we chefs aren’t always the greatest at designing dining rooms (I find chef-owned places can be too spartan in decor). We certain have a rep for not being the most jovial people alive. It appears that some of us have issues with basic punctuation (sorry for the dig there, Jeremy, but my eyes started hurting half-way through that brick-o-words you wrote).

  17. durhamfood says:

    Somewhat surprisingly (to myself, and to those of you who know me), I don’t really mind if a restaurant is chef-owned or not, as long as it has a local flavor about it. If the owners care about the communities they live in and cater to, and if the chefs do as well, then their restaurants will be good. One of the biggest problems with food in huge chains is that the drive to uniformity (often due to cost-cutting measures) overrides most other concerns, including the need for real contact with those customers who enjoy something more than just a quick meal. Those problems are also present, to a lesser extent, in food groups like UFG, but the difference between chef-owned and group-owned is far smaller than the difference between group-owned and, say, PF Changs.

    FWIW, the one time I made it to Frazier’s, I had a good meal, but nothing as extraordinary as meals I’ve had at Magnolia or Jujube.

    Under which category would somewhere like Vin Rouge fall, by the way?

  18. durhamfood says:

    PS I have lots more to say, but I’m off to Jujube 🙂

  19. Varmint says:

    Vin Rouge is a place where the owner (Giorgios Bakatsias) has pretty much given his chef (Matt Kelly) free reign. And that’s where Charlie’s and Scott’s points above have a lot of credence: if a chef can truly focus on the food, then that’s obviously a good thing.

    Our experiences are so tied into our expectations that it’s very difficult to separate the two. That’s all I’m trying to accomplish here by eliminating (or at least reducing) my own biases against certain places, and then just let the restaurant speak for itself. I may never succeed, but I can try.

  20. durhamfood says:

    Agreed. A ‘hands off’ approach by owners who aren’t chefs really helps. There is a lot of skill in finding a great chef, and even more so in trusting him/her to do their job well. VR is a great example.

  21. Joe says:

    Matt is actually part owner of Vin Rouge.

    I thought I’d pretty clearly said that I was including chains and other non-chef-owned businesses in my statement. I also thought I was pretty clear that it was a generalization.

    I think I’m going to let go of this now.

  22. durhamfood says:

    ya, I know Matt is part owner, that’s why I asked where it would fall. Then I got confused this morning 😉

    Nonetheless, Bakatsias could legitimately take a greater role at VR, but he seems to understand that Matt runs the place extremely well, so leaves him to do his job…

  23. Joe says:

    Just FYI, and totally by coincidence AFAIK: Matthew Kelly IS Vin Rouge.

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