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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Angry Chef's 7-course response to John Kessler's open letter to Atlanta chefs

On Monday, the AJC's lead dining critic John Kessler posted an open letter to Atlanta chefs. Here's my response:

Dear Mr. Kessler,

I too write this letter with respect. While you indeed make some very valid points in your letter, I think giving us a “how to” list of tasks to work on is perhaps a bit much. There is no denying that we can always do better. Improving should be a cornerstone of every chef’s personal and professional mantra. Moreover, no matter how bitter and jaded some of us (chefs) are, most of us are very committed to sharing our passion for food with our guests. I agree, when we take the time to eat a meal, we should allow that time, no matter how short it is, to transcend us to place absent of all stress and dilemmas. Is this a practical aspiration?? Probably not, but it’s certainly worth trying. While I took the time to read your list of pleas, I
would implore you to have a taste of these 7 courses:

1. Perhaps you’re pointing your finger at the wrong folks? If you expect us to “game up,” then perhaps your employer should as well. If you want to get the dining public excited about eating in our city maybe the food section should be more than 3 pages, and maybe one of those pages shouldn’t be Kroger coupons. Here’s a surprise for you, before we actually start serving butternut (or African) squash soup to you when it’s in season, we read about it first in your publication. In fact, Elizabeth Moore will usually
start hounding me for a recipe sometime in late August in hopes will see it in print in the AJC. It’s a vicious cycle brother; it’s going to take more than a few chefs to really change the landscape here. Maybe the influence of the press can give us a hand? Moreover, how should chefs really react to you being the restaurant critic again? My interpretation is that the AJC doesn’t hold critiquing restaurants in very high regard…If it did, it would have sought out a fresh voice, and a not so familiar face. Talk about taking the “game” out of something.

2. How well do you really know Atlanta and its diners? Just because you presented your “declaration of dining” in an idiot proof numerical format doesn’t mean it’s that easy. On a daily basis we are compelled to deal with a barrage of “dining obstacles.” And that’s before we get to people’s personal taste. Furthermore, we’re chefs, not personal physicians. Don’t kid yourself, people would rather eat what’s not good for them at our places instead of in the own homes because it comes with less guilt and accountability. Just call me Pusherman.

3. Please stop using Seegers, Joel & The Dining Room at The Ritz Carlton as a barometer in which we chefs should aspire to perform. While there is no denying that these chefs brought an immense wealth of talent to Atlanta’s dining scene, they obviously couldn’t sustain practical business models and unfortunately this is a fairly significant aspect of keeping a place open. I’m sorry, but I think it is quite clear that this genre of dining is dead. Yes, these chefs brought us incredible flavors, but they also obviously employed detrimental methods that led to the demise of their restaurants. Does the food still
taste incredible if there’s no one in the dining room eating it? Were these chefs truly committed to Atlanta; if so maybe at least one of them would still be here working? Perhaps a little more credit can be given to us for actually keeping our businesses open, employing people and aiding a struggling economy.

4. Cooking for the right reason…With the loss of these three culinary stalwarts mentioned above, you believe that we’ve been left with fewer cooks. I agree, we have been left fewer cooks, American cooks. However, I think you may be bit off on the reasoning. The real reason is that being a cook is too damn hard and doesn’t pay very well. That’s why if and when this entire immigration debacle comes to a head, Atlanta and probably many other cities will be left with very few restaurants. No Mexicans, no cooks. Young men and women don’t want to be cooks anymore because they’re told in culinary school upon graduating they will become chefs. Moreover, the romantic imagery in which you discuss the nature of being a chef further deceives young men and women into thinking that becoming and remaining a chef simply rests on their love of food and cooking. Why be a cook when I can be a chef and dream up new sauces that “bridge” flavors and hone my finesse. We need to figure out how to get American men and
women excited about straining stocks, deveining shrimp and organizing dry storage. I knew quite a few folks who worked at the three restaurants mentioned above; most were way too caught up on what kind of impact the job would have their resume rather than really being consumed by the passion of the food they were cooking.

5. You wrote a very interesting piece (I wanted to comment on that piece as well, but never did) some time ago about “what to expect from restaurants in months to come.” Seemingly more and more restaurants these days are not merely chef driven; they are even chef owned. As more chefs take this risk, they learn that there are so many more variables to attend to each day beyond the food…In fact most days; the food is the easy part; probably because we love it so much. However, the unfortunate reality is that sometimes we get caught up in other matters of business, like paying bills, reading your blog, and dealing with employee issues. Sure, it would be great to hang out and play in the kitchen all day as if it were a magical laboratory, creating emulsions, foams and just being witty, but then when would actually get any work done? I do admire your passion for food, but I think it’s about time you help “regular folks” recognize the blue collar that most of us wear. Sure, the evolution (or should I say explosion) of the Food
Network has catapulted the image of a chef to that of a rock star; but most of are still playing air guitar while putting away deliveries in the morning.

6. We cook for people, not critics. In doing so, we hope that these people return to our restaurants so that we can stay open, keep people employed, pay taxes and ultimately, support our families, who we don’t see very much of. (Are you starting to see a pattern here?? The whole risk and actually being responsible and accountable thing.) Yes, you are absolutely right, we should put forth great effort to present our guests with new and exciting flavors; however, this is no easy task, as I am not sure if you are aware, but
people are creatures of habit. This whole comfort food thing has really caught some people’s attention and is sticking. People are drawn to what is familiar; they don’t want to be intimidated by the menu and its offerings. Some of them still want to wash down their boring mashed potatoes with White Zinfandel. As mundane as it sounds, we have to serve people food that they will actually buy. Yes, we need to combat this with our creativity, but it is certainly not nearly as easy as you convey it to your readers.

7. Help portray us from a position of strength. If you are so nervous about what kind of impression we're going to make on thousands of people who descend on us later this year, maybe you could actually write about restaurants that are not on Buford Highway or in Duluth. I love Buford Highway; but part of that love is the mystique and sense of adventure that it conveys. Maybe all the “gems” shouldn’t be divulged? This may be crossing the line, but how many restaurants on Buford Highway do you think employ
a public relations firm?? A lot of restaurants that you are addressing in your letter employ these agencies, and they expect results, write about the restaurants that the greater public deem relevant. Furthermore, when the chicken pluckers come into town next week, I highly doubt the concierge at The Marriot is going to recommend his or her guests go get Bahn Mie at Quoc Hong. The PR gospel is that in order to get national press, you need local press…People who aren’t from Atlanta should be made aware that there are a lot more than the four or five restaurants that appear repeatedly appear in Bon Appetite and Food & Wine. Yes, you are certainly entitled to your opinion, but aren’t you also somewhat obligated to be a voice of the Atlanta public and its diners?

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