Why Eat Out?
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT: THE IMPORTANCE OF DINING OUT
Amy Scherber and François Payard
What does it take to become a great chef in America today? Certainly education--either as an apprentice or, more than ever before, in professional cooking schools--and experience in the kitchen are important. A profound understanding of ingredients, and the flavors and techniques that will best enhance their taste, is vital--along with a commitment to excellence at every step of the way.
But leading professional chefs across America agree that the most important aspect of a professional chef's development is eating out. What most of the general public do for sustenance, and many restaurant lovers do for entertainment, is the lifeblood of an ambitious chef's professional development.
"I am a huge advocate of chefs learning to cook by eating in good restaurants," says Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo (Chicago). "I recommend that constantly. The first thing that anyone who's serious about becoming a chef should do is save up every penny they've got and eat at the best restaurants in the country. And not just once--they need to go regularly."
Bob Kinkead, chef-owner of Kinkead's (Washington, DC), agrees. "I have always been of the opinion that I learn a lot more by dining in restaurants than by working in them," says Kinkead. "That's how I saw the big picture of what a restaurateur aims to achieve. A lot of the time, people get stuck in the restaurant kitchen or in the dining room and they don't get to see what the rest of the picture is all about. For chefs and cooks, it's important to see the context in which food is presented. The whole dining experience is not just about the food, the service, or the décor--great restaurants pull everything together into a great package.
Eating out offers professional chefs a chance to experience a taste of history; to learn the best practices of those restaurants that excel at one or more aspects of the restaurant experience, such as food, service, and/or ambiance; and to develop a sense of their own place within the context of the contemporary restaurant culture.
Suzanne Goin of Lucques (Los Angeles) believes that it's absolutely essential for young cooks to eat out. "I can't think of anything that is more important," she insists. "When I interview a cook, I always ask, 'Where do you eat? What are your favorite restaurants? Have you eaten here?' That is how I figured out where to work--I wanted to work where I wanted to eat! When I walked into Al Forno [in Providence] , I smelled the aromas, tasted the food, and just knew I had to work there!"
Despite the importance of dining out as part of a culinary professional's education, it's something that is not part of a typical cooking school's curriculum--underscoring the need for the book you're now holding. "In cooking school, we were never taught how to dine," recalls Rocco DiSpirito of Union Pacific (New York). "In fact, I don't think there's enough emphasis placed on the notion that you need to dine as much as you cook in order to really have a full understanding of the two sides of the experience.
Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand of Tru and Brasserie T ( Chicago) concur. "Young kids should spend more money on travel and eating," argues Tramonto. Gand adds, "We think dining out is so important that we even recommend that cooks invest in themselves by maxing out their credit cards on restaurants instead of clothes!"
Investing in this book is an excellent place to start, to point you on your journey.
Eating Out as a Life-Changing Experience
In the best of circumstances, dining in restaurants can literally be a lifechanging experience. In fact, it was in this way that several leading chefs found their calling.
"My dad was a total Francophile, and took us to lunch at Roger Vergé when I was around twelve," recalls Suzanne Goin of Lucques. "I was served a whole fish, with slices of cucumber on top as the scales. As a kid, that fish completely blew me away! We had a cheese plate, and the waiter was so great to me and my sister as he showed us all the different goat cheeses, which I loved. Plus, the restaurant is a beautiful stone mill in a dreamy, fantasy setting. It felt like we were members of a little club. The experience was not just about the food, but about the restaurant--the whole magical world of it," says Goin. "It made me want to get closer to that world, not only by becoming a chef, but by opening a restaurant--so I could really be creating something, as opposed to just cooking something."
A visit to the Drake Hotel when she was sixteen was a turning point for Cindy Pawlcyn of Mustards Grill (Napa). "I had soft-shell crabs, which were sautéed tableside with sherry, and I remember thinking, 'This is so cool--I want to be a chef!' I had already been thinking of becoming a chef, but this was the experience that really convinced me. It was every single element of it, from the exotic aromas, flavors, and textures to the beauty of the dining room and their treating us like ladies--the whole nine yards."
Paul Bartolotta, formerly of Spiaggia (Chicago) , found himself working in restaurants in Milwaukee as a teenager, but his job developed into a calling. "I ended up working for a Florentine chef," he remembers, "and I would sit around late at night, listening to his stories about growing up in Italy. I was enamored with all the folklore. He told me, 'If you want to get closest to real Italian food, you need to go to Doro's in Chicago.'
"So, when I was seventeen, I put on my white polyester suit and took the train to Chicago for the first meal I had ever had by myself. Doro's had white leather chairs, white linen and fine silver, and served northern Italian food. They were wondering what this kid was doing eating by himself in a restaurant, but I was totally excited by the whole experience. At the end of the meal, I asked to thank the chef. When it was explained to me that the chef didn't come into the dining room, I asked to go into the kitchen. At that time, diners weren't allowed in the kitchen, but I finally got back there, where I found all these cooks speaking Italian. The chef was a big burly guy with a waxed handlebar mustache, a floppy chef's hat, and a little tie around his neck. He looked like the quintessential Italian chef.
"I asked if I could watch for a few minutes, and just stood by the wall, watching him call orders. It was an epiphany for me--that's when I knew that I wanted to cook," says Bartolotta. "I subsequently went back several times, ultimately becoming friends with the chef. I would come in and watch them cook in the morning, then go sit and eat lunch, and then take the bus and train back to Milwaukee."
Allen Susser of Chef Allen's (Miami) recalls eating at La Grenouille in New York when he was seventeen. "It was very classic, fabulous French cuisine. It was the first time I ate frogs' legs and had the adventure of eating something new and different. The whole combination of food, wine, and service was transformational. The experience at La Grenouille showed me what classic cuisine could be like, and it brought together all the information I was learning in school [New York City Technical College]. That meal compelled me to go to France to work.
A fellow student at New York City Technical College, Michael Romano of Union Square Café (New York), befriended an instructor who nurtured his interest in the field. "Tom Arends, who taught a wine course, and I became good friends. He saw a real spark for this profession in me. He was influential in getting me a job in Paris at the Hotel Bristol, and while I was there, he visited and we had many meals together.
"One was at the Bath Hotel in England. It was like one of those meals you read about in the old books. We were drinking Burgundy from the thirties and eating roasted grouse--in England they hang grouse, and they get pretty ripe. The experience of having all this food that I had read and heard about, accompanied by forty-year-old Burgundies, was a great education.
"He also took me to most of the three-star restaurants in Paris at that time. Those meals were very classic, and they brought to life in a spectacular way the things I was learning about in school. If you've never had that kind of experience, you just don't know it exists. It doesn't matter what you're cooking if you've never seen what it can be. I am very grateful for those experiences. Knowing how much they influenced me, I encourage aspiring chefs to seek them out," says Romano.
Dining as Professional Development
Any serious creative professional must first devote time and effort to mastering his or her creative domain. While it's possible to simply pick up a paintbrush and start painting, the serious study of painting involves not only learning the basics of paint, paintbrushes, and canvases, but examining and analyzing the techniques and philosophies of great painters in history.
"No professional operates in a vacuum," observes Robert Del Grande of Café Annie (Houston). "If you look back, Mozart knew Haydn's music backward and forward, and Beethoven knew Mozart's music backward and forward, and all three of them studied Bach's music. You always want to study those who came before you, and then your peers.
The same is true for professional chefs. Their concerted efforts to learn from those who came before them send them not only to books but to the restaurants in whose hallowed halls cuisine came--and is coming--into its own.
"Reading good art criticism will allow you to develop a sense of how a certain piece of art fits into the whole world of art, both historically and conceptually," says Rick Bayless. "In terms of cuisine, I think it's very hard for young chefs to get that perspective. You can't get it in the kitchen--you've got to be in the dining room."
A Taste of History
A generation ago, any self-respecting professional chef in America needed to make a pilgrimage to Europe to learn from some of the world's best restaurants. Today, many of the world's best restaurants can be found in the United States, but still, because of the importance of particular European restaurants and chefs in culinary history, many of the most serious professionals with the resources to do so still make it a point to visit these restaurants.
The anecdotes that follow in this section are representative of story after story we heard from leading chefs across the country. While the specific details differ, we suspect that the other chefs who have made pilgrimages to the same restaurants will nod in recognition of their own similar experiences.
La Pyramide is one of the most influential restaurants in France's restaurant history, as it is in many ways the "grandfather" of several of the country's other most important restaurants. Some of the cooks who once worked under the restaurant's legendary chef-owner Fernand Point include Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Louis Outhier, and the Troisgros brothers, all of whom went on to become Michelin three-star chefs in their own right. The restaurant is also credited with giving rise to nouvelle cuisine.
Fernand Point was succeeded after his death by his wife, Marie-Louise, who continued to run the restaurant and maintain its Michelin three-star rating. Point's book Ma Gastronomie is considered a classic. It was published posthumously in 1969 as a colorful history of La Pyramide, Point's culinary philosophy, and his signature recipes. Its broad influence--as well as the restaurant's reputation--naturally led chefs from around the world to make pilgrimages to La Pyramide.
"When I was younger, I read a lot and was very taken with Fernand Point and La Pyramide," remembers David Waltuck of Chanterelle and Le Zinc (New York). "When I graduated from college I went to Europe to travel by myself, and I had to have lunch at La Pyramide. Fernand had already passed away, but his wife was still there, as were many of the staff members I had read about.
"It was extraordinary. I had built my expectations up so much, but the experience didn't let me down. I still remember everything I ate. I started with a crayfish gratin, one of La Pyramide's signature dishes, then had trout mousse with a black truffle sauce, followed by beef with red wine and marrow, and finally dessert. I remember being very, very full--I didn't eat for a day afterward!
"I drank a half bottle of white wine and a half bottle of red wine, and I was struck that the sommelier treated wine without any kind of pretension. He had a workingman's hands, which wrapped around each bottle. I saw him open a very expensive bottle of wine at another table; he poured a little wine right onto the floor because he thought there was some cork in it, and then he just continued to pour it into the glasses.
"I feel that a lot of what we do at Chanterelle was influenced by La Pyramide," acknowledges Waltuck. "I did not work with Point and make no claims to be Paul Bocuse, who did, but reading Ma Gastronomie and understanding what the place was like in the thirties and forties definitely influenced us. Chanterelle has a handwritten menu, like La Pyramide. And we too believe that food can be done in a careful and special way without being pretentious."
Carrie Nahabedian of Restaurant Naha (Chicago) recalls backpacking through France on her first visit to Europe, at age nineteen. "The only place I really wanted to go was La Pyramide," she recalls. "It was a big escapade--we took the train from Paris to Lyon, and then to the sleepy town of Vienne. In the train station we changed from our T-shirts and grubby jeans into nicer clothes, and gave a kid a dollar to watch our backpacks. We walked over to La Pyramide, all dressed up, and there was Madame Point, writing the menus by hand. I felt like I was walking back in time.
"The experience was incredible," she remembers. "The dining room was amazing. The women were dressed as if it was their last day on earth; they were in Chanel suits, with all their pearls. The restaurant had stools for their purses and stools for their dogs. I still remember the butter--it was shaped like La Pyramide, the statue in the middle of town. The sommelier, who had been there since the restaurant's opening, presented me with the wine list. When I opened it, it smelled like the 1800s! He told me that they kept the wine lists in the cellar.
"I ate all the classic dishes, like the gratin of crayfish. Whereas a chef today might create a dish in an hour and just play around with it a little bit, Fernand Point worked seven years perfecting that dish. We had Bresse chicken with truffles stuffed under the skin, and potatoes swathed in cream. I even remember how crusty the bread was. We had a bit of an introduction from Jean Banchet [the founding chef of Le Français in Wheeling, IL] , who used to work at La Pyramide and for whom I had worked, and they sent us every dessert on the menu, including the signature gâteau Marjolaine, which was named after Point's daughter. Then they sent us after-lunch drinks! The chef came out and spoke to us, and everyone could not have been nicer. I still recall signing the American Express bill after the meal. I figured out that it cost a hundred and forty-five dollars--and that was twenty years ago! I sweated that one out, wondering how I was going to pay for it after having spent three months in Europe!
"After all this, we still had to get back on the train. I remember feeling like Cinderella after the ball, because we had to convert back to the traveling fools that we were. We stumbled back to the train station to the laughs of the kids who were watching our bags. The restaurant had given us a bag of macaroons and cookies for the train, and I remember skipping meals until the next day.
"I still have the menu Madame Point gave me, written in her big, flowing handwriting," Nahabedian muses. "And I still have my travel diary, tied with ribbon, with all the details written in it."
Taillevent is one of the most legendary Michelin three-star restaurants in Paris, renowned not only for its cuisine, but also for its extraordinary hospitality. Several chefs point to the level of service they experienced at Taillevent as an ideal they strive for in their own restaurants.
"We went to Taillevent on our first trip to Paris," recalls Patrick O'Connell of the Inn at Little Washington (Washington, VA). "We saved it until the end of our visit, because even then it was considered by most people to be one of the three greatest restaurants. There was a taxi strike in Paris, and we were late because we'd taken the Métro and had gotten off at the wrong station. We were having a fight on opposite sides of the Champs-Elysées, hollering at each other, and I said, 'Well, we might as well not even go--we're forty-five minutes late already! You know how they are in fancy restaurants--they throw you out if you're five minutes late. They're haughty and mean and horrible.' But we decided that instead of blaming each other, we'd sullenly skulk in there anyway.
"We got there expecting one of those haughty greetings--you know, 'What do you mean, you are forty-five minutes late for your reservation?' But instead, Monsieur Jean-Claude Vrinat came running to the door saying, 'I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry--will you forgive us?' He knew there had been a taxi strike and after seeing that we were not in the best of moods, he just kept bowing and assuring us, 'We'll make it up to you!' He was keenly aware of what it might be like to be a visitor in a foreign country, all geared up for this grand experience, and then coming up against this frustration.
"We ended up having an amazing evening there. Afterward he had someone drive us back to our hotel in his car. We were astounded by such a thoughtful gesture, but for him it was just part of business as usual," recalls O'Connell.
Bob Kinkead of Kinkead's (Washington, DC) had been working in France and recalls, "My then-girlfriend, who's now my wife, came over to meet me in Paris, and I was dying to go to Taillevent. The only time we could go was for lunch the day she arrived. I picked her up from the airport, ran her to the hotel to change, and showed up to the restaurant at one-fifteen for our one o'clock reservation. We were worried because we were late, yet we were the first there. The owner, Jean-Claude Vrinat, is one of the great restaurateurs of this or any century, and he said to us, in perfect English, 'Because monsieur and madame are here before the rest of our guests have arrived, we would like to offer you our house special pear cocktail.' We, of course, accepted.
"We ordered the tasting menu, and when the second course came out--a seafood mousse--it was ammoniated. As this was a three-star restaurant, it meant that somebody had screwed up in spades! I called the waiter over and he could smell it right away, so he apologized and took it away. Then literally every waiter and bus boy, and even the owner and chef, came out and apologized. They sent us an escargot course that was sensational.
"The rest of the meal was terrific, but as the meal progressed, I was reminded that Diane does very poorly with being overtired. As the adrenaline wore off and the time change and jet lag set in, she went from nodding out to literally crying from exhaustion. My grasp of French was enough to order, but not enough to explain the concept of jet lag.
"They came over and apologized again, making sure it was not the food that had us upset. Then Mr. Vrinat walked over with a shawl and draped it over Diane's shoulders, saying, 'Madame might have a chill?' He asked if there was anything he could do or if there was any problem. Then he came over again and said, 'Because madame is upset, in addition to the dessert, we are going to serve you apricot soufflés.' After that, he came over with the cognac cart. Their cart is one of the finest collections in the world, with some over a hundred years old, and he basically said, 'Take your best shot!'
"I came to realize that these people were willing to do anything they possibly could to ensure that we were not going to have a bad time. It is a three-star restaurant, so you are paying for an over-the-top experience, but none of the other three-star restaurants I have ever been to has ever gone to that extreme. It set the standard for service by which I judge every other restaurant that I visit," says Kinkead.
"The first time I was ever in Europe, Deann and I went to Paris for a week," says Rick Bayless. "Having done a lot of reading, I wanted to eat at Taillevent. We made a lunch reservation, and I can tell you exactly how much we spent, because it seemed so outrageously expensive: a hundred and thirty dollars for lunch. Here we were, staying in a place that cost twenty dollars a night, and we spent a hundred and thirty dollars for lunch!
"We walked in the door as young people, wet behind the ears, and we obviously didn't know what to expect or what to do, but we were still treated like the king and queen. We had been out shopping, so we had all our bags with us. They whisked them away, took off our coats, and immediately started catering to every need we could ever imagine. It was the most magical dining experience I have ever had. I have been to a lot of those kinds of restaurants since then, but to this day, I still have never had service that was so caring and luxurious. When they came around to the table at the end of our meal--and, of course, we were thinking about money all the way through the meal, because it was very expensive for us--they offered us a digestif on the house. I thought I had died and gone to heaven! It meant so much. I don't know whether they were bemused by us because we loved everything that they did for us or whether they would just normally have done that for everyone, but I felt like they were doing it only for me."
Bayless says he recalls that experience constantly at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. "When people come in, we try to be aware of those extra little touches. Sometimes it's just a matter of saying to an out-of-towner, 'Oh, have you gone to the Terra Museum of American Art? There's a great show over there.' Or "Catch the Maxwell Street Market on Sunday morning--you'll never forget it'--anything we can do to let them know that we're concerned about them as individuals, not just as a number," he says. "That meal at Taillevent really focused us, and it's why we are dedicated to having only one restaurant: because we know we can't do that with multiple restaurants."
Understanding the Customer's Perspective
Time and again, leading chefs stressed that dining out is not just important for learning about food. The insights they gain into the customer's perspective are invaluable in their development as restaurant professionals.
"Cooks need to realize that the plate they put together in forty-two seconds is going to be scrutinized for half an hour as a diner eats it and picks it apart," says Michael Romano of Union Square Cafe (New York).
"Cooks tend to lose sight of the fact that this is food they're working with, food that people are going to put in their bodies. Too often, it becomes a routine for them.
There are many fields of endeavor in life that bring pleasure to people's lives, from music to painting to dancing to cooking, but cooking is different from all the rest in one critical aspect: If you don't like a concert or a painting, you can just walk away, but if something is wrong with your food, it can make you ill or even kill you. As cooks, we are the only ones who get that intimacy with people. That is a very special trust that we have. No other field has that. You'll forget about a bad play the next day, but what we do becomes you, very literally. That's something that I want my cooks to think about. It's important for them to have that respect for themselves and for their craft," Romano says.
"I always tell people that the reason our restaurant is good isn't because we're strong in the kitchen; it's because we know what it's like to be in the dining room,"asserts Rick Bayless. "We have a really firm policy that our staff has to eat in our restaurant regularly as guests. We don't think that they can understand what it's like to be a customer unless they are one. We focus very strongly on that: what it's like to walk in the front door, sit down, and have a meal here.
Developing the critical eye of a customer is very important to a chef, according to Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin (New York). "When you create a new dish, you put so much of your heart into it that you become unable to critique it objectively. Because you did it, it's your baby. Technically, it was difficult to make, and you are so proud of it, it feels as though it s a miracle," he admits. "But the customer doesn't care how difficult it was to put together. What the customer cares about is how it looks and tastes. So I think it is very important to get some distance, and to see things through a customer's eyes."
Jean-Georges Vongerichten of Jean Georges ( New York) agrees. "Pierre, my chef, and I will never put a dish on the menu if we don't first sit down and eat the whole dish," he says. "When you compose a dish and try it in the kitchen, you don't know what's missing. But if you sit down to eat your dish, you'll know after a few bites whether the balance is right or whether there's something that needs adjusting.
"Also, once food leaves your kitchen, it is experienced in the dining room in a totally different way," he explains. "In the kitchen, you work under intense fluorescent light, and you might only glance at a plate. In the dining room, the customer literally sees it in an entirely different light."
Rocco DiSpirito of Union Pacific (New York) recalls, "I was working at Adrienne as a commis on the fish station, and one night I decided to come in for dinner. That's when it first occurred to me that what we feel in the kitchen is completely different from what the guest feels in the dining room. The environments are so different, even though it's just a thin wall separating the two. I was amazed that the food I was eating was the same food I knew from the kitchen. It struck me at that point that it's truly amazing how this all comes together in the package we call a dining experience. Up until then, I had a one-dimensional view of dining based solely on what I did in the kitchen. I didn't really understand that there are so many other components that make up a great dining experience."
Experience the Industry's Best Practices
Jeremiah Tower, the legendary founder of Stars (San Francisco), would always press the point that "you can't create for others what you haven't yet experienced yourself." It was for this reason that he took his staff to the finest restaurants and hotels to experience the best. Understanding why a restaurant excels--and experiencing that excellence--helps chefs critique their own performances and readjust their standards.
While you should trust your judgment and form your own opinions, it is instructive to dine in restaurants that leading chefs agree are great. Perfection is next to impossible, but experiencing the best restaurants helps clarify the standards to which leading chefs hold themselves.
While flavors and textures frequently command the most attention during a dining experience, it is often the more subtle care taken with food that sets great restaurants apart from good restaurants. Exquisite products and the extraordinary treatment of those products can escape the average diner, but they make chefs sit up and take note.
Mario Batali of Babbo, Esca, and Lupa (New York) recalls his first meal at Marc Meneau's L'Espérance. "It was the week before I went there to work as an extern, and I had a meal there that--from the very first bite to the very last drop of Armagnac--was, without a doubt, a goosebump experience. It was an eye-opener. All the details of a dining experience that I'd never thought about became crystal clear. I had just worked with Marco Pierre White [a London three-star chef], who was the first to open my eyes to what food could be besides just something to eat on a plate, but Marc Meneau did it all--food, service, everything.
"It cost a great deal of money, but it was a worthwhile investment. I got out of it what could be the perfect meal. His food was harmonious, like a concert. I didn't think of it as simple at the time, but it really was. The first course was raw mushrooms, then there were two fish courses, then a game course, then a meat course, then a cheese course, then a series of desserts followed by hot chocolate cookies. It was such a superior experience; every single thing was perfect and very visually appealing. I remember thinking, 'Wow, look at these beautiful paintings that someone drew in my sauce' and 'These guys are crocheting things that look like my grandmother's afghan in the sauce . . . it's amazing!' It was a turning point for me," says Batali.
Patrick O'Connell still recalls the smallest details of his earliest trips to Europe's three-star restaurants. "On a trip to Girardet [in Switzerland] , I noticed that the tiny little greens that garnished the plate were dressed," says O'Connell. "I realized, 'Ah, of course, how could I have been so stupid not to have thought of this myself?' It was a revelation that anything on the plate had to be the best of its kind, and had to be able to stand alone."
Most customers overlook the particular character of a restaurant's service. But all the subtleties of good service add up; it's so much more than a warm greeting, a nice waiter, and a thank you when you leave. Good service makes a customer feel comfortable, but great service makes him feel engaged and exhilarated.
"I'm always struck by the coat-check person in great restaurants," muses Patrick O'Connell. "Instead of standing passively by, waiting for you to undo your coat, they approach you, help you off with your coat, and begin to brush you off, the way an attendant would do--which immediately makes you feel like a royal personage."
Michael Romano of Union Square Cafe (New York) believes that when cooks go to a great place for dinner, they should watch the nuances of everything that happens once they sit down. He recalls, "Danny [Meyer, Union Square Cafe's owner] and I were at a restaurant in Paris, and the [sommelier] was showing us the wine list. He started to talk about a couple of interesting things he had that were not on the list. Now, that's a wonderful thing, because you feel like he's bringing you into this private club or whatever. But the tricky part with that is, how do you let the guest know how much the wine is? It can be sort of crude to say, 'Oh, that'll run you five hundred dollars.'
"What he did was really exquisite and showed real class. He would say, 'We have Château Blah-blah-blah,' and add, 'And that is in this range,' while pointing to the price of another bottle on the list. So he didn't overtly mention money, but you got the idea. It's very subtle," admits Romano. "But that's an example of the kind of thing that you'll miss if you're not paying attention. And it's something you can easily incorporate into your own business."
"I still think you're hard pressed to find service that surpasses what you're going to get at a three-star restaurant in France," says Traci Des Jardins of Jardinière (San Francisco). "The attention to detail is incredible you never want for anything. Once you order, you never have to ask for anything else. It is all just there at your fingertips, even to the point of having your glass always full to the same level."
The synergy of food, service, and décor coming together in a restaurant supports the intangible quality known as ambiance. Every restaurant has its own ambiance, but when all the elements that go into it are in concordance, a dining experience can be transformed from unique into extraordinary.
Sanford D'Amato of Sanford Restaurant (Milwaukee) credits ambiance as an integral part of the best overall restaurant experiences he's ever had. "They were all at Georges Blanc, where it was not only the food and the service, but the way the room was set up and the whole ambiance of the place," he says. "There was not a bad table in the room.
"My first time in France, there was a definite intimidation factor walking into a place like that," recalls D'Amato. "You walk into a three-star restaurant and think you are going to see God. But at Georges Blanc, they make you feel as though they are truly happy to see you. You sit down and feel like you belong, that this is where you should be. It really transformed what my wife, Angie, and I wanted to do at our place. People who come to Sanford might be intimidated at first, but by the time they leave, they feel like they've been in someone's home."
For Charlie Trotter, eating at the Michelin three-star restaurant Girardet in Switzerland for the first time was a transcendent experience brought about by the way all elements of the dining experience worked together. "Everything about it--the service, the ambiance, the food and wine--was magical," recalls Trotter. "That's when I realized that I wanted to try to put all the aspects together in a restaurant--ambiance, service, wine, cuisine--and really try to focus equal attention on all of them. Until then, I was certainly aware that those aspects were important, but I was pretty much a cook, so it was all about food, food, food, food, food. It began to dawn on me that food actually tastes better when everything else is working well. After traveling around Europe and visiting Moulin de Mougins and Troisgros, I finally realized, 'This is the kind of thing I want to work on.' It was the combination of these experiences--each one made me a little more aware, a little more savvy.
Gale Gand of Tru and Brasserie T (Chicago) underscores that it's sometimes the quirky things that can make a dining experience great. "For example, the bathrooms at Anton Mossiman in England are so terrific--they have an antique phone, water to spritz on your face, and chilled Champagne with glasses. They also have a chaise longue, in case you're feeling faint," says Gand with a laugh.
"At Ducasse, they provide a tableside stool for your purse, so we decided to do that here at Tru," she says. "They also had a bread cart, which to me reflects a real dedication to bread--treating breads like jewels, as you would petit fours
. Ducasse's petit fours
service inspired me to do four courses of petit fours
at Tru. They come in waves: first fruit, then nuts, then chocolate, and then we end with lollipops. I hate good-byes, and petit fours
are like a good-bye kiss. We keep giving you kiss after kiss before you leave! We want our customers to feel well fed--aesthetically as well as literally."
Gain Inspiration for Your Own Creative Process
Eating food created by a professional chef often introduces a whole new range of flavor and texture combinations to a diner. Experiencing these new possibilities can be profoundly inspiring, and it is this inspiration which helps fuel the creative process.
However, inspiration must be followed by conception and execution--both highly evolved skills that take time to develop. Many aspiring chefs seem to forget this, thinking instead that whimsy is all that is necessary to create. Leading professional chefs complain about newly minted culinary graduates who believe their diplomas are proof that they've mastered all they need to know. Innovation can be achieved only after a chef has established a solid culinary foundation and has mastered an understanding of what has already been done.
Dining out is a key component of building this knowledge. By experiencing how professional chefs express themselves through their cooking, aspiring chefs can evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses and further develop their own creative responses.