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Top Chef Challenge: Make Food For The Masses

The celebrity chef obsession with fast-casual chains has less to do with Chipotle-style riches than with getting back to what they love.

Top Chef Challenge: Make Food For The Masses
[Photo: Flickr user Parker Miles Blohm]

Kevin Gillespie, a celebrated Atlanta chef, remembers the exact moment he decided to leave the world of luxury dining: He noticed that his parents had stopped coming to Woodfire Grill, the elegant restaurant where he was the co-owner and executive chef.

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Kevin GillespiePhoto: courtesy of Kevin Gillespie

Meals at the restaurant, served on fine china and silverware, included creations like foie gras with banana and cashews, octopus tempura, and squab fowl with saffron potatoes. Dinner could run upwards of $100 or $200 a person, but his parents knew they could stop by whenever they wanted and the meal would be on the house. “When I asked my dad what was going on, it suddenly became clear that he felt that as an average blue collar worker, Woodfire Grill was just not a place he was comfortable spending time at,” Gillespie tells me. “It broke my heart. My parents mean a lot to me and I hated to think that I was part of a world that they didn’t feel like they belonged to. As chefs, we are blue collar workers ourselves and at fine dining restaurants we aren’t cooking for our own people.”

Gillespie acted fast. In 2013, right after that painful conversation, Gillespie left his post at Woodfire Grill and later that year, he opened a casual Southern restaurant called Gunshow. He brought the same passion and creativity to his food as he had at Woodfire Grill, but everything at the restaurant was meant to feel familiar and humble. Rather than haute cuisine, he aimed to create perfectly executed versions of what you might eat at your grandma’s house: goat cheese with Georgia strawberries, pork belly steamed buns with peaches and cream, and the wildly popular banana pudding.

Gillespie says that he works hard to keep prices low, which can be hard since he is committed to using fresh, local produce. Guests can walk out spending $30 a person, and many go all out and spend in the range of $50. But perhaps more than the price, the ambience of Gunshow is designed to feel homey and welcoming; a place Gillespie’s own father would enjoy a night out with his friends.

Earlier this year, Gillespie went a step further in democratizing his food. He opened another casual restaurant called Revival, which has a typical Southern family-style approach of “meat and three,” the latter referring to three side dishes.

No Longer Constrained By The Rules Of Fine Dining

Gillespie’s not the only chef drawn to the idea of moving away from fancy, expensive restaurants to more casual fare. He’s riding a wave that is finding expression in the actions of fine chefs in almost every major city across the country. Chefs with burgeoning luxury restaurant empires are now expanding into lower-priced concepts: Jose Andres has launched Beefsteak, a whole grain and vegetable bowl restaurant, which he hopes to expand to a chain around the country, while David Chang has just opened Fuku, a creative fried chicken sandwich restaurant. A meal at either restaurant will run you between $10 and $15. Joshua Skenes, of the famed Saison restaurant in San Francisco, is about to open Fat Noodle this summer, which will specialize in hand-pulled noodles from the Sichuan region of China and cost under $10 a bowl. And then there is Mark Ladner, the executive chef at Del Posto, a Michelin-starred New York restaurant, who took last summer off to take a food truck called Pasta Flyer on the road, serving perfectly cooked pasta.

Mark LadnerPhoto: courtesy of Mark Ladner

Before Chipotle, before Shake Shack, and before Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ food truck, the career path for talented, ambitious chefs was well defined: Work your way up the luxury dining restaurant circuit in order to make a name for themselves and get a shot at running and maybe owning your own place, and then if things go really right, maybe multiple high-end restaurants. To Gillespie’s relief, and many of his colleagues, those days appear to be over. “It is a great time to be a chef because we now have more creativity than ever,” Gillespie says. “We’re no longer constrained by the rules of fine dining; we can literally create any kind of restaurant that we want–upmarket, downmarket, a food truck, or maybe even something in between that hasn’t been invented yet.”

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Gillespie believes that there have been several cultural shifts over the last decade that have produced this world of new opportunities. Millennials don’t seem to be so impressed with expensive food; they care about whether the food is well crafted, locally sourced, and delicious. They know that this package can be delivered at a reasonable price. As a result, today’s chefs don’t feel that their reputation rests solely on how much a diner is willing to pay for their meal.

But if price is not the differentiator, how does the diner tell the difference between Gillespie’s Revival and other restaurants in the same price point where the food may be of lower quality? In other words, what does a chef need to do to stand out in the crowded, competitive world of casual dining? “It comes down to attention to detail,” Gillespie explains. “That’s what it always came down to, even at the more expensive restaurants. I spend so much time thinking about each part of the meal and the dining experience. That is where all my energy goes.” He believes that diners are able to feel the difference when their dinner has been perfectly executed, even if they aren’t able to pinpoint all the ways that Gillespie has been orchestrating it behind the scenes. “That’s the magic of restaurants,” Gillespie goes on. “You can’t tell exactly why you feel so great at the end of the meal, but you just know you do.”

Focusing On The Food, Not The Silverware

Outside observers might assume that casual restaurants have lower margins than their more expensive counterparts, but that’s not necessarily true. Fine-dining restaurants invest millions of dollars on prime locations, interior design, silverware, and large staffs. While they charge more per diner, many of the world’s most expensive restaurants are not necessarily big moneymakers. The dynamic shifts at a more casual joint. Gillespie says that does not have to spend money on crystal drinkware–mason jars are all the rage and cost a fraction of the price. Instead, he spends more time thinking about buying high-quality ingredients while still maintaining reasonable prices.

Mark Ladner, who has been the executive chef of New York’s Michelin-starred Del Posto for a decade, has a job that’s about much more than the food. He manages a team of 200 people. “My role today involves helping young, ambitious cooks who are just starting out in their careers,” Ladner says. “It’s hugely fulfilling. It’s the kind of satisfaction you get from being a mentor or a teacher.” He tells me that he has worked hard to move away from the militaristic approach in kitchens where more senior chefs terrify their subordinates–a la TV’s Gordon Ramsay–and instead goes for a kinder, more instructional style. The other part of his job is logistical. Del Posto is larger than most other luxury restaurants, seating hundreds of guests at a time, and unlike many similar establishments he tries to make it easy for patrons to tweak orders because of allergies or dietary preferences. “I have spent hours going through each item on the menu, deconstructing it and reconstructing it with a slightly different set of ingredients to avoid gluten or pork,” he says. In some ways, his daily work sounds a lot like being a management consultant, strategically streamlining processes and internal systems. And while he enjoys this, it doesn’t allow him to use some of his other skills, like say, cooking.

That’s why Ladner has been tinkering with a more casual dining concept for several years now. It allows him to get back to the basics of being a chef: the food and the guests. Last summer, Ladner went even further, taking a few weeks off from Del Posto to operate a food truck, the ne plus ultra of the casual dining phenomenon. This would allow him to focus firmly on food and particularly his area of specialty: perfectly cooked al dente pasta (that is, incidentally, gluten free). “In America, it is often hard to get perfectly cooked al dente pasta that tastes the way it should,” he says. Serving inexpensive but high-quality pasta from a food truck was a way for him to share his favorite food with a wider swath of people. Pasta Flyer visited many college campuses–Harvard, Wellesley, Yale, and his own alma mater, Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island–allowing him to give young, impressionable students on a shoestring budget a taste for well-made pasta. Unlike his work at Del Posto, the food truck allowed Ladner to get closer to both his food and his patrons. Soon, he is hoping to open a permanent pasta shop in New York along the same lines as Pasta Flyer.

The Future Of Casual Dining Is Ultra-Cheap Dining

Jose Andres, a chef with an empire of restaurants spanning the country from the mediterranean Jaleo and Zaytinya in D.C. to the Chinese-Mexican fusion restaurant China Poblano in Las Vegas to the luxurious Tres in Los Angeles, is focused on creating the next chain of fast-casual restaurants in the country. Beefsteak, his new restaurant concept in D.C., allows diners to create vegetable and whole grain bowls from seasonal ingredients. With his company, the ThinkFoodGroup, he is hoping to grow Beefsteak into a national chain, much like Chipotle or Shake Shack.

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Jose AndresPhoto: courtesy of ThinkFoodGroup

But in some ways, the fast-casual concept isn’t that interesting to him. Andres believes the next wave of chef-created restaurants should focus on an even lower price point and should target underserved communities. “You can get a bowl from Beefsteak for about $10,” Andres says. “But if you’re a single mother with a family, that’s not that cheap. Two meals at a fast-casual restaurant costs you $20 a day per person, which is some people’s entire wages.”

Andres points to the work of his fellow chefs, Roy Choi and his partner Daniel Patterson, who are working on Loco’l, a highly affordable dining concept that will be located in very poor neighborhoods, starting with Los Angeles’ Watts and San Francisco’s Tenderloin. The idea is to create fast food that is healthy and whose price is on par with, or perhaps even cheaper than, McDonald’s. Choi and Patterson are hoping to launch Loco’l in the winter. (They declined to participate in this story because they’re currently focused on branding, menu R&D, and design.)

Andres is urging Choi on, but he’s also dreaming about starting his own uber-cheap restaurant which he has tentatively named (if only in his own head) the “People’s Diner.” For Andres, the fact that top, talented chefs have been able to transgress the norms of the culinary industry by expanding into cheaper, more democratic food means that they have what it takes to take that concept even further and help people who really need it. “Even McDonald’s is not really that cheap when you’re poor,” he explains. “You can spent $7 or $10 there for a full meal. I’m thinking more about food that you could buy for $3 or $4 a plate.”

The way to keep prices that low, he thinks, is to serve food cafeteria style, with large steaming strays of high-quality food that is cooked in bulk. Of course, he believes that it is possible to make the aesthetic and delivery of this food sexier than your average cafeteria. (This, too, is the animating principle behind virtual restaurants Sprig, Munchery, and the like, though they are all currently targeting the fast-casual $10 price point.) While there is a shortage of healthy restaurants in underserved neighborhoods throughout the country, Andres acknowledges that there are always hardworking entrepreneurs who are trying to set up inexpensive restaurants in these communities, but it isn’t easy for them to make their business work. He believes that established chefs could leverage their resources, funding sources, and creativity to help solve this problem. Andres got a taste of how this could work with a bakery he set up on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince in Haiti, through the nonprofit that he established called World Central Kitchen. “You see that it’s not just about delivering healthy food to people who need it,” Andres says. “It’s about bringing self-esteem to communities where businesses have not been interested in investing in that past. It changes everything.”

For now, Andres tells me that the People’s Diner concept is still something that he’s ruminating on. “I really like that name,” Andres says with a laugh. “I should trademark it.” The future of being a chef may not lie in how many stars and James Beard Awards you can amass, but rather how many people you can affordably feed.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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