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Daily Gullet Staff

Recognizing Magic

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gallery_29805_1195_5620.jpgby Ya-Roo Yang

 

"There isn’t a person in America who hasn’t fantasized about having a business that involves food," Clark Wolf tells me over the phone. "The first thing people do when they make a lot of money is to think about buying a bed-and-breakfast, a vineyard, or trying their hand at a cheese-making place, or running an artisan bakery. Americans do value good food. People want to have something that relates to them, and nothing is more important than food." He should know. As a food and restaurant consultant (Clark Wolf Company) with more than 25 years of experience under his belt, Wolf has worked with a wide range of clients, from institutions such as the California Milk Advisory Board to restaurants like the legendary Russian Tea Room and megahotels like Caesars Palace and Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

 

"As Americans, we try to pretend that food is cheap and easy to get, and we rely on it to make us feel safe," Wolf says philosophically. "We realize the value of a good meal across a warm family table."

 

Perhaps this sounds a bit esoteric. Then again, Wolf is not your average food and restaurant consultant. He’s sharp and howlingly funny. He writes for several magazines, including Food Arts, Sante and Forbes; designs a line of tableware with Fortessa, and is working on a book about American-made cheese. For someone who has garnered such accolades as the "slam dunk, hit city food consultant" and the "Merchandising Maestro," Wolf seemed to me more like a renaissance man. "In ancient times, you'd study classics -- basic pieces of knowledge -- to become a refined, complete person," Wolf suggests. "The study of food could be the core of a new classic course of study. Through food you can study history, anthropology, chemistry, biology, sociology, economics, and politics. Everything is connected. It’s the only place in the world where I believe in a trickle-down theory."

 

While one can expound on theories, it takes a lot more than that to make a restaurant successful, so I decided to ask him about the practical aspect of the business. "There are several keys to being a restaurant consultant," Wolf explained. "I have to be able to help nurture a business, acting as if it’s my own and never forgetting that it’s not. I help people learn and help them keep learning. Education allows you to succeed." Another key, according to Wolf, is knowing where to get good food. "Having grown up in California, I have benchmarks for what things taste like. Knowing that puts me ahead of most chefs and restaurateurs."

 

"My mantra is: not simple, not simple, not simple," he declares. But, aren’t the best things in life the simplest ones? "Really good simplicity is hard to do," he clarifies. "Simple emotional experience -- that I believe in. Once you have that plate of food, it should be a clear, straightforward experience."

 

Wolf believes that much of the food and restaurant business is common sense. "If a food comes in a package that looks like it should hold tennis balls, don’t eat it! It probably tastes like a tennis ball," he said emphatically. "When I go to a natural food store and see labels that say "conventional" produce, it’s not. It’s industrial food! People get upset about paying two dollars for a peach. I tell them that that two dollars will save you and your family hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical costs later in your life. That two dollars and a brisk walk will save you a bundle.

 

He’s also of the opinion that there are no hard-and-fast rules to success. "The industry has guidelines, but they're never gospels," he said. "Sometimes redoing something is a bad idea, but sometimes it’s right. It depends."

 

Going beyond their own sphere of experience tends to happen away from home. "Americans like to learn about new food and drinks on vacation," Wolf says. "And since 9/11, vacation has been closer to home. This has fueled some really really good food in Vegas. It used to be that in Vegas, 90% of money went into gambling. Now it’s 40%. People are spending money on shopping, shows and good restaurants. It’s practically a political act to do a restaurant in Vegas."

 

I muttered something about Vegas being an arena for celebrity-chef egos. "I prefer to work with chefs in their post-jerk phase," he stated unequivocally. "When they get more confident, and when their other testicle descends, they tend to be better people. I do not need to give my money to talented jerks. Cranky is fine, impatient is fine, but you've got to be kind to people."

 

Are there any clients he refused to work with? "I have fired a few clients," he replied. "I don’t take clients unless I believe in them. In a few cases, people I've walked away from went on to be successful and I am still glad that I wasn't a part of it."

 

That raised the question of what inspires him to be a part of a business. "Recognizing magic," he answered definitively. "One of the jobs of a consultant is to recognize and promote alchemy. The whole has to be more than its parts. Consulting is not just about the present. It's about connecting with the past and approaching the future. I feel very fortunate and I work very hard. I love doing stuff that has an impact."

 

Clark Wolf will be a panelist on the upcoming eG Spotlight Round Table on The Future of Dining, 26-30 September 2005

 

Ya-Roo Yang (aka Bond Girl) is a New York forum host.

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"I prefer to work with chefs in their post-jerk phase," he stated unequivocally. "When they get more confident, and when their other testicle descends, they tend to be better people. I do not need to give my money to talented jerks. Cranky is fine, impatient is fine, but you've got to be kind to people."

Wow. My first testicle has not even descended yet.

How do I get to be a better person? How can I even learn to be kind to people as Clark suggests?

:biggrin:

.............................................................................

I did enjoy this article, though, Bond Girl. :smile:

Karen

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Sorry to go on about this. . .but how does one know when the chef's second testicle has descended? This is important, obviously, in terms of knowing whether to support this chef or not.

Maybe they could erect (heh) something on top of the restaurants of the various chefs that are "in the running"? Something like the thing the ball falls from on New Years Eve in Times Square? So that when the magical moment happens, just everyone who is anyone can know and rejoice.

It is better than the other option I thought of, anyway.

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You have a really good bullshit detector, Carrot Top. :biggrin:

No disrespect intended to the rest of Mr. Wolf's remarks, but it certainly does come across as at least a bit sexist to be talking about the other testicle descending. Then again, given the default assumption that chefs are men, a successful woman chef probably has to, figuratively, have balls to make it in the world Mr. Wolf is part of.

But in terms of his main points, I don't think I have a much better understanding of how to recognize the magic he speaks of now than I did before reading. I have a feeling that we may be talking about an intangible quality that's somewhat indefinable, much like Justice Powell's remarks about obscenity (he knew it when he saw it).

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Another key, according to Wolf, is knowing where to get good food. "Having grown up in California, I have benchmarks for what things taste like. Knowing that puts me ahead of most chefs and restaurateurs."

I love California, and its veritable cornucopia of fine native produce, wine, cheese, etc. But how does it put a chef ahead of a colleague who grew up in Brittany, Emilia-Romagna, Viet Nam or Upstate New York?

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The testicle comment strikes me as, simply, colorful use of the English language. To obsess over it, howl about it and call it sexist is, shall we say, premature. Nor do I think the idea here was to teach anybody how to "recognize magic" or be a restaurant consultant. It's a profile, not a how-to. While I didn't, and wasn't supposed to, learn how to do Mr. Wolf's job, I did gain as much insight into who he is and what he does as one could reasonably be expected to gain in a short profile. And I enjoyed reading it.

Perhaps a more productive avenue of discussion would be to engage the piece on its substance. The whole concept of the restaurant consultant is a relatively modern one. There was nobody like Clark Wolf available to help you open a restaurant in the 1950s. The proffer is made that "Wolf is not your average food and restaurant consultant." This is certainly the case, as he is perhaps the most or at least one of a small group of the most sought after restaurant consultants out there. But what struck me most about the statement was the idea that there is such a thing as the "average food and restaurant consultant" -- that restaurant consultants, who didn't exist half a century ago, are now a given in the industry.

It underscores how much the business has changed. Restaurants, even those that appear to be artisanal, individual and personal, are increasingly adapting to the way real businesses do business. They retain the services of consultants, publicists and other advisors. At the level of a place like the French Laundry, they even utilize the services of a psychologist.

The concern, for me, is that if the same consultant helps set up 500 restaurants then those restaurants will not be as unique as 500 restaurants that had been set up independently. There's the potential for sameness. I get the sense from the way he talks that Mr. Wolf understands the need for balance here. Still, I wonder if the "average food and restaurant consultant" gets that, or understands that "I have to be able to help nurture a business, acting as if it’s my own and never forgetting that it’s not."

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Fat Guy, I have a feeling you could say more about what Mr. Wolf does than he did in that interview. What do you know about how restaurant consultants work and what they do?

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Yes, the testicle comment struck me as colorful. That is what captured my interest.

Sexist, I could care less about. It is or it isn't, it doesn't bother me in the least.

Obsess about it, no, definitely not. :biggrin:

Just trying to understand how the thing worked since he mentioned it.

..........................................................

Edited to add: Just so that it does not appear that I do not take the interview "seriously", I should add that the questions Bond Girl asked were excellent. The thought comes to mind that the venue of telephone interviewing might be fraught with difficulties. The time is short and depending on how focused or not one is, there is no going back on whatever comes out of one's mouth.

Clark is an enormously bright and talented guy from what I know of his work.

It will be a pleasure to learn more about what he has to say on the business aspect of things when he comes back to eGullet as a panelist in the upcoming discussion.


Edited by Carrot Top (log)

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Awwww, Carrot top, you are too nice.

It's a failing that I only allow to happen for a short portion of the day, Bond Girl.

It is rather dull and tiresome.

:biggrin::wink:

Karen

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Fat Guy, I have a feeling you could say more about what Mr. Wolf does than he did in that interview. What do you know about how restaurant consultants work and what they do?

Yep, the first thing that struck me was how little information he is giving away. A bit of a puff piece really.

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I don't think the idea here was to write a how-to manual; it was to introduce people to someone and something they're probably not all that familiar with. Specifically, it was to generate interest in the upcoming roundtable discussion, in which Mr. Wolf will be participating. As it says above, "Clark Wolf will be a panelist on the upcoming eG Spotlight Round Table on The Future of Dining, 26-30 September 2005." That there is so much clamor for more information is a good thing. I hope it means you're all going to ask him questions.

But I also think a careful reader can learn quite a bit from what Mr. Wolf has said above. No, he's not going to spoon-feed all his trade secrets, but, for example, if every aspiring restaurant consultant would take to heart the statement that "I have to be able to help nurture a business, acting as if it’s my own and never forgetting that it’s not. I help people learn and help them keep learning. Education allows you to succeed," then the entire profession would be elevated immeasurably.

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Hello, everyone.

I think this topic is very interesting from the point of view of the wild, yet usettled markets. In America, the Culinary revolution has taken a strong hold on the coasts and in major cities. However, in many places in the States, and in even more places in the rest of the world, this business consulting approach to restaurants is very new and hence - very valuable.

I just relocated to Moscow, Russia. I've been working mostly in San Francisco, but also put in a year each in London and Paris. Let me tell you - I really miss the civilization (in fine dining) here! Especially considering there Manhattan-like prices in a country with a much lower GDP. Looking for work in Moscow has been stressful, but even more so because there are probably 10 places with decent enough food to make it interesting for me to work there.

With parts of the city swimming in oil money, restaurants are opened all the time. (An almost equal number of restaurants fails... ) In fact, owners expect (and some often achieve!) to start collecting a very hefty profit 6 months after a very, very expensive to design and equip restaurant opens.

So for these entrepreneurs, a more business-scientific approach would very very exciting. Because for the life of me, I don't understand how they do it! :) Perhaps if there was someone here like Mr. Wolf, the ENTIRE dining experience would be enjoyable, and there would be more great affordable places with great young chefs popping up.

Maybe I should write a book about this? :)


Edited by Ekaterina (log)

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