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Story - Food

Jul 3, 2017 5:19 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Too Much Primp And No Prep In Resto Biz

Bobby Flay signs cookbooks for fans at the Food Lab conference at Stony Brook Southampton in June. TOM KOCHIE
Jul 6, 2017 4:10 PM

I have never been so happy to be wrong as when an editor at The Press emailed me to let me know that the owners of Zum Schneider in Montauk had called to say that they were very much open.I had seen the advertisements and much ballyhooed listing of the old Oyster Pond building by the Putz of Montauk, and the shuttered windows (which they always are in winter, of course) and made an assumption that it was over for Zum. I must say, I was as surprised as I was disappointed, since every time I go to Zum it seems to be jamming.

You see, Zum is the genuine article. Actual restaurateurs, running a restaurant that, while it has an obvious “theme” and even costumes during Oktoberfest, is not consumed with the sort of self-conscious primping and posing that so many (make that, too many) restaurants nowadays have become.

It’s a topic I’ve heard a lot of scoffs and laments about lately from those of us getting overcooked in the convection oven of this industry. There was even a recurring theme among speakers at last month’s FoodLab conference at Stony Brook Southampton: many in the business today come in with a superficial goal for what their restaurant will be—or what it will look like at a glance anyway—but do not have the gumption, skills or dedication to apply that vision particularly well at all.

Two of the speakers said things that stood out to me in particular. One was Bobby Flay, who I’ll admit, I’ve snickered at a time or two for being such a “TV guy.” But Mr. Flay came up in the biz the right way—grinding away for a couple of decades in blazing hot kitchens, earning promotions by cooking his way out of the weeds, seeking to work for and with the best other chefs just for the sake of learning from them—and then landed on TV because of his personality.

What he said at FoodLab was: that is an all-too-uncommon thing now. A lot of new young cooks come into the business with their eye on being a “celebrity” chef, as if that is some career choice, like pastry. They want to put in minimal time at the grind, eager to make the next jump not for the sake of being better but just to pad their resume. Everyone wants to say they worked for Keller or Boulud, when all they really did was a one-week unpaid internship.

But because TV is alternate reality, with no need to show real long-term results once it’s moved on to the next thing—and is always desperate to crown the next superstar right now—it settles on youngin’s who have typically done nothing to earn real respect as cooks, nevermind chefs, that the heat of financial life and death would usually demand. They’re all personality and have worked on their shtick as much as their sauté.

For all the seasons of “Top Chef” that have purported to uncover hidden talent, only one or two former contestants have found a modicum of commercial success in the restaurant business, where everything rides on your ability, not on what a few judges think. The rest have all cashed in on cookbooks.

Names like Emeril and Colicchio and Flay have become household names and product tags around the country because of their personalities. But they got to the point where their personalities came into play based on success in the eyes of customers and company bookkeepers. They spent the first decades of their careers toiling, and in the early days of cooking TV, producers looked for established and proven talent to showcase.

When I ran food in my late teens and early 20s, one of things I remember was that the real hard knuckled guys on the line in summer often had no fingerprints—they’d burned them all off in the trenches of kitchens where mercy and patience were as scarcer than a cool breeze.

Those guys, by the way, would’ve made outstanding reality television characters. No makeup needed.

All this applies to the front of the house as well. As Cookshop owner Vicki Freeman and New York Times foodwriter Florence Fabricant discussed during one of the FoodLab panels, many restaurants today start with design, with image and with a very particular clientele in mind—then they decide what the food is going to be and find the chef to make it.

They pour mountains of money into creating a visage in just the right shade of cool for the moment. They pile on the public relations and drop all the right names (“… worked with Thomas Keller …”). They call in all their good looking friends and the place is packed and eminently Instagramable from the minute the first banquette squeaks under someone’s butt. They are cool and celebrated and everyone is the hottest new thing. And in three years—they’re gone.

Ms. Freeman noted that some of the venture-capital backed restaurants have made a business model out of this kind of flash-in-the-pan approach. Pile it on, pack ’em in and then shut down as soon as the flame flickers a bit, and start over, using the name recognition that those first couple years of cool earned them. There’s no seasoning in the business. Nobody ever has to learn how to adjust to actually meet demands of customers who know the difference between hospitality and personality. You just offer what you’re going to offer and bully clueless sheep into coming by making it embarrassing for them to say they haven’t been yet.

Case in point: I had been planning to share my recent experience at Le Bilboquet, and the deluge of bumbling snobbery and amateurishness that we heartily laughed at throughout the visit, but Laura Donnelly did such a fine job of relating it in last week’s edition of The East Hampton Star that I just can’t bring myself to try to catch up. Suffice to say, it’s a Ricky Gervais-worthy mockery of what one might expect a restaurant owned by an absentee billionaire non-restaurateur to be.

The food was decent (not as good as Laura made it sound in her always careful good-cop-bad-cop approach, though) and the setting is still one of the best on Long Island, so maybe if they get over themselves for a minute it will actually be an enjoyable place to visit.

From the good news biz: LuLu—or LuLu’s as everyone seems to be calling it as though some lady named LuLu owns it—up the block is really cool and the food is pretty darn good, so the deep pockets of billionaire owners can do some good things for us hoi polloi with an evening off, when applied properly.

For real people trying to make a buck on the back of good cooking skills and genuine gracious hospitality, Bistro Été is back, now in the shopping plaza in Water Mill, and is as good as it was last summer in the old Robert’s building.

And, finally, a sigh. Momi Ramen is out of business, another dagger in the hearts of anyone hoping that ethnic food other than Italian and Mexican will ever make it into the Hamptons food scene.

Guess I’ll have the salmon.

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