Thursday, January 31, 2013

What's the point of a restaurant, anyway?

So go ahead and go read this article on dishes you might decide you're better off making at home. It's an argument I've heard before, and there is a certain amount of sense to it. One of the examples the article uses is edamame. Super-easy to prepare, so why would you pay someone else $6 for a small bowl of what probably would cost about $1 at the grocery store? It's really not that simple, though.

Mario Batali has a quote (I think it ended up in Bill Buford's Heat, my copy of which I'm only now remembering I've given away) that goes something like, "Here's what we do: we buy food. We do things to it most people don't know how to do, and then we charge them more then we paid for it." Beyond the hospitality that a restaurant provides its guests, it's really this that brings people in. It's about knowing how to find the best ingredients and having the skill and technique to do something with those ingredients that most people aren't capable of doing. I get that it sort of sounds callous to say out loud, but it's true of anything. If you could find all the requisite components that compose an iPhone and knew what to do with them to make them do their thing, well. You could build your own iPhone, right?

And I'll totally own as I've never been a chef. (For the record, I've spent about half of my career behind an espresso machine and the other half in various, relatively savory restaurant kitchens.) Good chefs (real chefs) are those rare people who can look at a stack of seven disparate ingredients and know instantly how to put them together to make them greater than the sum of their parts. I've never had that intrinsic talent--what I'm good at is being shown what my chef came up with, how to make it happen again...and then make it happen again. And again. And again.

So when I hear someone suggest something like above, where you're letting yourself get ripped off if you pay someone money to prepare something as simple as a good edamame appetizer, I get a little frustrated. (Bear with me, I'm about to get a little food-wonky. All vocabulary is used unironically and with awareness that it makes for some relatively purple prose.) I had two equally good, equally revelatory dishes last year--not surprisingly during the same meal--that were so deceptively simple that they put the lie to the article I posted above. How simple? One was fried eggplant drizzled with honey. The other was sauteed mushrooms with sherry. That's it. No obscure cuts of meat. No odd molecules holding together some unrealized-in-nature structure. No well-traveled herbs who's names I could pronounce without a guide. Just basic, relatively common ingredients--and only a few of them, at that.

But I don't know how to do what the kitchen (ok, this was at Curate in Asheville, North Carolina) did to those mushrooms. I mean, I AM a restaurant professional. I know how to saute mushrooms. But I don't LIKE mushrooms. Except there. Except those. They were transcendent. They were the Platonic ideal of sauteed mushrooms. They were so damn good and so well done that they made me like mushrooms. And ohhhhh man, the eggplant...

So yeah, there are plenty of restaurants to go to where you should know before you walk in the door that you're about to be gouged for bottom-dollar ingredients prepared roughly and without skill. (Someday I'll get on my alfredo sauce soapbox.) But if you know where you're eating, and you know the skill and investment of the people making your food? Find the simplest, most humble-sounding plates on the menu, and revel in them.


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