How Thomas Keller transformed American cuisine by combining French snobbery with a greenmarket sensibility.
Once upon a time, a young chef, still reeling from a failed restaurant in New York City, found himself in beautiful Yountville, Calif., among the vineyards of Napa Valley. He found a building that had once been a brothel, and then a French steam laundry, but was now a restaurant owned by the local mayor and his wife. Over the next two years this chef, Thomas Keller, raised more than $1 million, and in 1994 his new restaurant, aptly called the French Laundry, opened its doors.
It was the beginning of a restaurateur’s dream come true—one that forever transformed the U.S. food scene. By 1997, Ruth Reichl, then food critic of The New York Times, had called the French Laundry the most exciting restaurant in America. The French Laundry Cookbook, published in 1999, is now in its 16th printing. Keller has put together an impressive string of successes, opening a French brasserie, Bouchon, along with the more casual Bouchon Bakery as well as the family-friendly Ad Hoc, all in Yountville. He’s since rolled out outposts of Bouchon in Las Vegas and Beverly Hills. He plans to open a second Bouchon Bakery in New York next year.
Alice Waters and Chez Panisse may have started the locavore movement. Jean-Georges Vongerichten perfected high-end fusion cooking, and Wolfgang Puck created the celebrity chef. But Keller, with his emphasis on flights of tiny courses, his application of rigorous classical French technique to both high and low cuisine, created a new style of fine American dining. A decade later, there is still a two-month wait for a table at the French Laundry.
Keller has become the only American chef to be awarded three Michelin stars for two different restaurants, the French Laundry and Per Se (which marked his triumphant return in 2004 to New York City). He is the darling of the James Beard Foundation, with awards for best American chef, outstanding chef, and best new restaurant (for Per Se), among others. “Most anyone who’s been to Per Se, and I imagine to the French Laundry as well, has seen how an American, cooking mostly American food, can make a restaurant experience to equal any other in the world,” says Sam Sifton, food critic for The New York Times. “For a young nation, that’s something.”
Yet Keller comes off as exceedingly modest. He didn’t attend culinary school, choosing instead to apprentice himself to master chefs in the U.S. and France, landing his first job as chef de cuisine at La Reserve in New York in 1984. He insists that the secret to his success is not talent but hard work and an obsessive dedication to detail. The French Laundry has featured a new menu every day since it opened; Keller will serve asparagus there only during the three or four weeks in early spring when it is at its peak. “It’s all about ingredients and execution,” he says. “That’s the equation for good cooking.”
Keller’s very success—and the requisite temptation to expand—could ultimately threaten the culinary perfectionism upon which his reputation rests. Ad Hoc’s famous fried-chicken recipe is now sold as a kit by Williams-Sonoma stores, alongside cookie mixes from Bouchon Bakery. So far, however, Keller seems to have walked the fine line between cashing in and selling out. “If I have to be a brand,” he says, “I am determined to be Hermès.”
The recession isn't just over, it actually ended in June 2009, according to a statement made Monday by the elite, ivory-tower cadre of U.S. economists known as the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).
The Business Cycle Dating Committee of the NBER held a conference call on Sunday to call an end to the recession and back-date that optimistic event for the economy to June 2009. The NBER committee determined that a trough in business activity occurred in the U.S. economy in June 2009, ending the recession that began in December 2007, and signaling the start of economic expansion.
The NBER call of a recession that ended more than one year ago would still leave the 18-month recession as the longest of any recession since World War II. The previous record was 16 months of recession.
Of course, given the uneven performance of the market in 2010 and the continuing record level of unemployment in the U.S., critics immediately attacked the NBER data-crunching as the typical ivory-towered "out of touch with economic reality" stance.
It certainly seemed in Monday trading as if bullishness was reigning, with all the major market indexes up more than 1% in the morning.
In its typically obtuse economist language, NBER noted in calling a June 2009 end to the recession that in "determining that a trough occurred in June 2009, the committee did not conclude that economic conditions since that month have been favorable or that the economy has returned to operating at normal capacity. Rather, the committee determined only that the recession ended and a recovery began in that month."
NBER economists say that real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales data indicate the start of the rising phase of the business cycle after June 2009. To support their claim that the recession ended over a year ago, while for many Americans there has been little indication of a recession lessening, NBER notes "economic activity is typically below normal in the early stages of an expansion, and it sometimes remains so well into the expansion."
In fact, NBER says any future downturn would be a new recession.
This view of a new recession may be where politics also come into play. One among the handful of economists on the NBER committee is Martin Feldstein of Harvard University. Feldstein was not only discussing the June 2009 recession end with his fellow NBER economists on Sunday, but telling the press that if the Bush-era tax cuts are not extended, President Obama's policy may cause a new recession.
Feldstein told Bloomberg Radio concurrent with the release of the NBER's death certificate for the recession that raising the taxes on the wealthiest Americans could push the nation back into a recession and urged that all Bush-era tax cuts be extended for two years. President Obama's policy "is going to slow the economy down and could push the economy into recession again next year," the Harvard economist told Bloomberg Radio.
NBER research indicates that real GDP reached its low point in the second quarter of 2009, while the value of real GDI was essentially identical in the second and third quarters of 2009. The average of real GDP and real GDI reached its low point in the second quarter of 2009. The committee concluded that strong growth in both real GDP and real GDI in the fourth quarter of 2009 ruled out the possibility that the trough occurred later than the third quarter.
In less obtuse language last week, Warren Buffett stated in unequivocal terms that there will be no double dip recession.
Buffett's bullish call on the U.S. economy doesn't rule out the NBER hedging of bets, indicating that there could be another downturn in the economy, but it would be a new recession.
--Written by Eric Rosenbaum from New York.
Tom Colicchio talks about what to avoid if you want to succeed as a restaurant owner.
Restaurant owner Tom Colicchio has won almost every major culinary prize out there—including the James Beard award for best chef in 2010. In other words, the man knows a little something about running a successful enterprise or two. But he’s also seen how restaurant owners can make painful mistakes before they even get their establishment up and running. Colicchio spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Jessica Ramirez about what new restaurateurs must avoid if the want to do well in this business. His advice:
DON’T THINK GOOD DINNER HOST EQUALS GOOD RESTAURANT OWNER You need to know that just because you’re good at some aspect of cooking doesn’t mean you can run a place. For example, some people with no restaurant experience have dinner parties at home and think maybe it’s a cool thing to do for a living. That’s not quite how it works because the expectation is different. If the air conditioner breaks at 8 p.m. and everybody’s screaming at you that your restaurant’s too hot, that’s not fun. Your friends at home at your dinner party won’t yell at you.
DON’T ASSUME THE BUSINESS END IF YOU DON’T KNOW IT You can be a great chef, but if you can’t control costs you don’t stay in business. Get the right people—like lawyers—to look over business contracts. I actually have attorneys that do it for me, partly because I’m a lousy negotiator. The other option is look for a partner who can bring those [business skills] to the table, someone who can negotiate that contract on your behalf, someone who’s not going to run the restaurant day in and day out, but who you can turn to for business advice. That’s what I did. I have a backer—his name is Robert Scott, who, before retiring, was the president of Morgan Stanley. I would always rely on him for business advice. So if you take on a partner, don’t just look for someone who’s going to give you money. You want someone who you can also go to for advice.
DON’T LEAVE LAWS AND REGULATIONS TO SOMEONE ELSE In this age, HR is so important. I’m not saying you should have an HR director at a small restaurant, but a lot of people are getting sued these days. So you really need to understand local labor laws because you don’t have to be doing something maliciously to get sued. For instance, there’s [a New York regulation that refers to what’s] called “spread of hours.” Let’s just say an employee works a split shift. So this waiter comes in and he worked three hours for the lunch service, and he takes off for three hours, and comes back and works dinner for six hours. If the spread of hours, including the break, is more than 10 hours, you have to pay [one hour of additional pay for each hour in excess of 10 hours]. So a lot of these laws are bizarre, but not knowing them can hurt you.
DON’T TRY TO BE EVERYTHING TO EVERYONE Try to figure out what you want to be and stick to that. You can’t be everything to everybody. You have to figure out your price point and figure out how to deliver quality and value at that price point. Then every decision you make is in support of that concept and that price point.
DON’T SPEND WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE TO Designwise—and I learned this the hard way—you can probably spend a lot less than you think you can or than you think you need to. Once you’re presented with a design from an architect, try to take money out of it. If you don’t, then you end up spending way too much for things that really, at the end of the day, won’t make much of a difference to your bottom line.
New York has experienced many golden ages—more than any other city in the world, save perhaps Paris. And right now, we're living in the golden age of wine bars.
There are currently 237 wine bars spread across the city's five boroughs, 69 of which opened last year alone. There are wine bars that specialize in the wines of South Africa or the wines of Italy or only of France. There are wine bars that pour only organic selections—with a bit of proselytizing served alongside. There are wine bars where champagne is the focus (and the prices are accordingly high) and wine bars that refuse to serve any white wine but Riesling by the glass. There are wine bars that offer little more than pretzels or bar snacks and wine bars that serve steak dinners from menus so expansive they might as well be restaurants.
But the best part about wine bars—besides the wine—is the sense of intimacy they inspire, offering a glimpse of a neighborhood, a life.
Take for example, an encounter my friend Stephen and I had at Bin 71, a wine bar on the Upper West Side. We were drinking some good Muscadet (the 2009 Domaine de la Pepiere) when a woman next to us struck up a conversation. First, she asked if we were a couple.
Just pals from college, Stephen and I replied.
That was nice, she said, in the hurried fashion of someone who just wants to tell her own story.
She launched into her dating life in detail—all the undesirable men she'd met working "every possible Internet dating site" until she finally decided that trying to meet someone in a wine bar might be better.
How was that going?
Nothing so far, she admitted. The only single man she had met was drinking water and eating a salad. He didn't want to talk. But she remained optimistic—and had a good glass of Sauvignon Blanc at her side.
Even the people on the other side of the bottle tend to talk more with wine as a prop. At inoteca in the East Village, the waitress actually kneeled next to our table as she described to my friend Bruce and me what she liked about the 2009 Bisson Rose from Liguria.
"It's light and juicy—a really pretty wine from a top producer that's perfect for the summer."
She seemed every bit as intent on sharing her delight as she was making the sale.
But when did this conversation begin? Exactly how did this golden age get its start? Did New Yorkers suddenly develop a collective craving for Cabernet by the glass? A desire to talk about aromas and tannins? Paul Grieco, who operates two of the city's best wine bars, Terroir and Terroir Tribeca as well as Hearth restaurant in the East Village says the phenomenon has as much to do with wine as it does the economy.
"Anyone who wanted to open a restaurant in Manhattan in the past 24 to 36 months has opened a wine bar instead," said Mr. Grieco. "A white-tablecloth restaurant costs a million dollars but you can open a wine bar for only a few hundred thousand dollars." And since many wine bars, including Terroir, have sizable menus—their owners can still "act like they're running a restaurant," he said.
Wine bars have also been showing up in neighborhoods like Sunnyside and Long Island City in Queens. They're a marker of gentrification, a latter-day Starbucks of sorts. They are also a so-called attainable luxury, offering wine and food that is reasonably priced.
At Terroir Tribeca, for example, a plate of "funky beef balls" costs only $7 and sandwiches cost a few dollars more. At Hearth, a main course is under $30. And the food at all three is overseen by same chef, the talented Marco Canora.
Of course, there are reasons beyond cheap eats and small checks that draw people to wine bars—and reasons beyond attenuated ambition that people open them, too. Mandy Oser, who runs Ardesia wine bar in Hell's Kitchen with two partners (and works at Le Bernardin during the day) opened a wine bar last year because, she said, she thought it would be "fun."
Fun would certainly seem to be a reason why people show up at bars (wine or otherwise) though a wine bar also offers the possibility—or the guise—of an education.
At Ardesia, for example, there are 30 wines by the glass and any one of them, or all, can be tasted for free, accompanied by a mini-tutorial. My friend Christina tried three different wines at Ardesia and received three different disquisitions before settling on a Pinot Bianco that the bartender said had an "ocean air quality."
There's just one place bypassed by the golden age: Staten Island. The borough only has one wine bar, the Cellar. (There are three in the Bronx.) Although the Cellar has been open for three years and owner Stephanie Perno said business was solid, she had no plans for a second location.
"I don't think Staten Island can support another wine bar," she said.
On the other hand, Mr. Grieco is looking to expand into other boroughs. Including Staten Island? Mr. Grieco demurred, "I wouldn't rule it out."
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