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weinoo

Great Restaurants Without Known (or Celeb) Chefs

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The January, 2012 issue of Bon Apetit has a wonderful piece about the New York restaurant/institution called La Grenouille, which is turning 50 years old. The premise is how wonderful La Grenouille is, reveling as it does in its "uncoolness and squareness." That is to say, it's classically French.

But another point that the author brings up is this...the restaurant is good, even great - and there's no celebrity chef at the helm. And the most important position is that of the maitre d'hotel; in the old days, the maitre d' started in the back and worked his way to the front. Since the maitre'd (Charles Masson) at La Grenouille is the son of the original owners, I can understand their (both the authors and Masson's) feelings. Quoting Masson, he writes:

One of the greatest enemies of harmony, Masson believes, more pernicious even than foreign herbs, is the cult of the celebrity chef. 'When you make a restaurant all about one person, you're putting one person's ego ahead of the pleasure of your customers,' he says. No cook's name appears at the bottom of his menu, and Masson does not bestow such titles as executive chef. Nor will you ever see a cook schmoozing with clients.

I'm sure we can all name a few restaurants ostensibly helmed by a celebrity chef - where we've had less than wonderful experiences. And on the other hand, we've probably all had a great dining experience at a restaurant where the chef's name is a mystery.

Agree or not - can you name one or two restaurants without a big name at the top, where you'd be more than happy to dine on a weekly basis?


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

mweinstein@eGstaff.org

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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If you visit Piemonte, maybe attracted by the Alba truffles and the wines, don't consider only the great 2* venues of celebrities Davide Scabin at Combal.zero or Enrico Crippa at Piazza Duomo.

I don't know if this is what you have in mind, but there is this little joint in Turin city called Consorzio, where the two young enthusiastic owners/managers source the best produce you can imagine, and have it cooked simply but impeccably by whatever cook is still managing to stand their fiercely demanding patterns of work.

This is a place where I'd eat every week.

PS: some pics here.

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In NYC, I'd be happy to dine at these two restaurants weekly:

Fette Sau

Raoul's

At least I don't think either one has a big name at the top...

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Not places where I'd go on a weekly basis, but some of the grand tables in Paris such as Tour D'Argent and perhaps Taillevant are more associated with the patron or the restaurant than the chef.


More Cookbooks than Sense - my new Cookbook blog!

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In Melbourne, the Flower Drum has been listed in the world's Top 50 list a few times, and has been suggested as the best Chinese restaurant in the world by the New York Times. It's had the same executive chef (Anthony Lui) since 1985 but AFAIK he's not popped up on any TV shows, released any books, or lent his name to a kitchenware line...

His name might be known to those in Melbourne foodie circles but he definitely doesn't have the name recognition of the chefs with famous restaurants on Sydney's waterfront, or advertising deals with local supermarkets.

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And the most important position is that of the maitre d'hotel; in the old days, the maitre d' started in the back and worked his way to the front.

I think this is a major recent change in the way patrons relate to restaurants.

Back in the day, everybody knew that the guy you had to know was the maitre d'. The maitre d' was the public face of the restaurant; he was the one who could get you in and get you seated. The chef was just someone who worked there.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the various maitre d's at the top restaurants in Manhattan were celebrities in their own right. Much much more than the chefs were.

Now that's changed. To the point where, when Daniel Boulud tells the following story (as he loves to do), it's with a sense of how funny it (now) is:

A few years ago, Puff Diddy -- a Daniel regular -- took Jay-Z to Daniel for Jay-Z's first visit. Daniel visited their table several times: he doted on them.

"Is he the guy you have to know?", Jay-Z asked Diddy.

"No," Diddy answered, gesturing toward the front desk. "He's the guy you have to know."

Daniel may think it's cute -- but as with so many other things, no matter how much the mainstream might condescend to them, the rappers have a better sense than most people of how things really work.

PS -- For Italy -- which is just developing a "celebrity chef" culture -- Davide Scabin is as "name" as chefs get.


Edited by Sneakeater (log)

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And the most important position is that of the maitre d'hotel; in the old days, the maitre d' started in the back and worked his way to the front.

I think this is a major recent change in the way patrons relate to restaurants.

Back in the day, everybody knew that the guy you had to know was the maitre d'. The maitre d' was the public face of the restaurant; he was the one who could get you in and get you seated. The chef was just someone who worked there.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the various maitre d's at the top restaurants in Manhattan were celebrities in their own right. Much much more than the chefs were.

Now that's changed. To the point where, when Daniel Boulud tells the following story (as he loves to do), it's with a sense of how funny it (now) is:

A few years ago, Puff Diddy -- a Daniel regular -- took Jay-Z to Daniel for Jay-Z's first visit. Daniel visited their table several times: he doted on them.

"Is he the guy you have to know?", Jay-Z asked Diddy.

"No," Diddy answered, gesturing toward the front desk. "He's the guy you have to know."

Daniel may think it's cute -- but as with so many other things, no matter how much the mainstream might condescend to them, the rappers have a better sense than most people of how things really work.

PS -- For Italy -- which is just developing a "celebrity chef" culture -- Davide Scabin is as "name" as chefs get.

Hmmm, I guess it depends on how you define Celebrity chef as they are far more recognizable names in Italy at the moment. Not because they are better or worse, of course.

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I think what weinoo was getting at, in his initial post, was not "restaurants with chefs who should be better known," but rather "restaurant with chefs who are invisible."

I doubt anybody goes to combal.zero without knowing who the chef is. Anyone interested in food who could identify that restaurant could also identify its chef. Maybe he's not as famous as Massimo Bottura -- but he's still the reason people go to his restaurant.

Contrast that with a place like Le Grenouille in New York. Or -- a much less respected place -- 21 in New York. Who knows who the chefs are there? People don't go to those places because of their current chefs.

I think a current good restaurant in New York that comes close to this is Minetta Tavern. Diehards know the names of the chefs there -- but they're not really the draw, and I'll bet on any given night most patrons couldn't name them.


Edited by Sneakeater (log)

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I think what weinoo was getting at, in his initial post, was not "restaurants with chefs who should be better known," but rather "restaurant with chefs who are invisible."

I doubt anybody goes to combal.zero without knowing who the chef is. Anyone interested in food who could identify that restaurant could also identify its chef. Maybe he's not as famous as Massimo Bottura -- but he's still the reason people go to his restaurant.

Contrast that with a place like Le Grenouille in New York. Or -- a much less respected place -- 21 in New York. Who knows who the chefs are there? People don't go to those places because of their current chefs.

I think a current good restaurant in New York that comes close to this is Minetta Tavern. Diehards know the names of the chefs there -- but they're not really the draw, and I'll bet on any given night most patrons couldn't name them.

Exactly.

As far as your example of Minetta Tavern, you probably have to know the maitre d' in order to get a decent table at a decent hour. Or at least be a friend of the house :wink: .


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

mweinstein@eGstaff.org

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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Yes, of course I understood the point of the post.

I just meant that I don't think that "scabin is as 'name' as it gets." Or maybe I just interpreted that wrong. In any case I agree that people who go there, do absolutely know who he is.

I think I'd agree about Minetta although I haven't been in a while.

I wish I had some places to contribute for the purpose of this thread, but sadly, I haven't really been wowed by anything in a long time. I do hope people can come up with some more names though.

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I just meant that Italy, because of the novelty of its restaurant culture and its long adherence to tradition rather than innovation in cuisine (neither of those is meant as a pejorative, BTW), lagged behind other countries in developing a "name" chef culture (that is CERTAINLY not meant as a pejorative). Sure, there are a few superstars -- but for Italy, Davide Scabin is pretty famous for a chef.

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For me, it depends on the city in which I find myself.

In Quito, it's the following klatch, at all of which there are master chefs of their respective cuisines who are almost complete unknowns. We go to these places for their food, and have come to know the chefs simply because we kept coming back.

Taberna Gitana, for paella and traditional Spanish cooking. Chef Juan Portillo has been crowned Latin America's King of Paella, and virtually nobody knows who he is or that he's got a restaurant. When we dine there, we can normally simply say "feed us, please" and he selects truly wonderful menus and then comes out and sips wine and chats with us while we eat. It's an experience.

Sher i Punjab, for Punjabi dishes. There's a team of 4 chefs here.

El Arabe, for Syrian dishes. The chef here is Salama, and he used to cook for Saudi royals.

Crudo y Cocinado, for Ecuadorian tipico. The chef's name is Rothman; he's an Ecuadorian.

In Ambato,

Ali's, for all things beef. The chef is Ali Bakhtiari, originally from Persia, and he's a wizard on the grills.

Costa Brava, for all things seafood.

In Baños

La Tasca, for tapas. Chef Pepe Lara is an artist.


Elizabeth Campbell, baking 10,000 feet up at 1° South latitude.

My eG Food Blog (2011)My eG Foodblog (2012)

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