Southampton,Chrysler Dodge, Hamptons
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Story - Food

Jan 23, 2018 10:15 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

A Kinder, Gentler Kitchen

Jan 24, 2018 10:46 AM

Something odd is afoot in the restaurant business these days it seems. Things are way too quiet. When I started writing this column a decade ago, it seemed that the gossip grapevine was filled with a new tale of drama nearly every week. A chef stormed out in the middle of Saturday night service, a manager was caught pilfering from the wine room, an entire waitstaff walked out because the owner hadn’t paid them in months. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, kitchen fires. It was quite reliable, and also business as usual in the restaurant business that we employees had come to know and sometimes love.

Nowadays, however, things in the business out here are eerily stable. Sure, restaurants still come and go almost as predictably as the tides. But the convulsiveness, the rollicking drama, the firings and the infighting, it all seems to have been reduced to a gentle simmer.

There are reasons aplenty for this.

Partly, it’s the market. Making it in the restaurant business out here is walking a tightrope of razor-thin profit margins, perhaps even more so than in the city’s dog-eat-dog circus of popularity contests (see: the July 6, 2017, edition of this column).

The players that have been able to survive out here are doing so mostly because of their even keels. The industry here is still a very small town; unstable characters do not have an endless supply of new jobs that they can turn to, with owners who haven’t heard of their antics. There are only so many bridges you can burn around here before you are off the island with no way back.

For those of us who steep in the behind-the-scenes, this has meant a kinder, gentler kitchen to walk into. I think back to the days when I ran food in some nutty kitchens. Chefs who screamed so loud that patrons on outside patios would turn their heads. Chefs who threw metal hotel pans at waitstaff and line cooks who made some minor error in their eyes. Chefs who would do things that actually screwed up front-of-the-house mechanics just to be obstinate or to make some childish point. (I once got raw potatoes delivered to a table that was already half done with their dinner and had asked a runner for “some kind of potato.”)

Yes, I will say that those days do seem to thankfully be mostly a thing of the past. I’m sure there are instances, hiccups, even seasons when some unstable character infiltrates a station. But they are fewer—and that is good.

Same goes for the ownership. For the most part there are two kinds of owners in these parts: the restaurateur and the investor. The restaurateur is what the term describes. He, or she, is someone who chose to be in the restaurant business, begged, borrowed and stole the money (well, hopefully, not literally stole) that was needed to open their first place, and they run it as their career. They are usually on the floor most nights.

The investor is just that—someone with a bunch of money that they are putting into a restaurant, either in hopes that it will make them a little more money or, probably more commonly, because they like the spotlight that owning their own place brings with it. Because a restaurant is one of the premier bragging rights among a crowd of rich folks who have almost nothing else to separate themselves. (Everyone has basement movie theaters, private planes and choppers, souped-up Jeeps and Aspen chalets these days.)

Both types of owners, however, are quickly culled if their brand of restaurant creation doesn’t fly. An unstable owner won’t have the capital to survive in a world of $20,000-a-month rents, and an investor who does not foment a stable restaurant environment won’t see the return on investment to justify his pouring money in, either from his own accounts or those of his investor pals. And so they, too, are filtered out.

What you are left with is owners and chefs who are not prone to the kind of loopy twists and turns that the restaurant business in big cities is prone to. I often complain that our restaurant industry out here is too lilywhite, not creative enough, and prone to missing the little things that in this day and age of refined service should not be missed.

But I will say it is nice to see chefs and managers who are, at the very least, not working against their own success and, at best, are really creating the kind of environment where a little tinkering here or there could produce an exceptional product (even if it’s still just chicken, salmon and steak served on a table that still has empty drink glasses on it).

Sometimes boring is better.

I’ll have the salmon.

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