Before I launched into my Tabla review a few weeks back I got a call from my previous master, Chef, from whom I had not heard in something close to 6 months (how’s that for avoiding a hanging preposition? That’s the grammatical equivalent of beating Ron Artest with a sick crossover). This coincidence means that I had a chance to deconstruct my recent meal with my typical SCUDS eye, and get super geeky-technical about it with someone who actually knows what the fuck I’m talking about, and cares to hear it. After decompression, Chef and I got into a long conversation about the vastly different dynamic in reviewing alt-diet cuisine and straight-ahead cooking.
Why alt-diet restaurants are, on a theoretical level, doomed to failure
As much as I hate to bring him up, Anthony Bourdain gave some sage advice in his book kitchen confidential: “never work for owners who are in the business for a passion, love or any other motivation other than money.” [I’m paraphrasing] Owners who are in it for love or passion rarely have any fucking idea what they are doing and it rarely–if ever–ends well. The business of food, or more precisely, preparing food and serving it in a controlled environment in exchange for money, is a business–there are many many successful restauranteurs in the world who have learned the inexact art of managing food-cost, making great food, creating vibe, attracting and keeping buzz, managing the wayward personalities of the industry (and the customers) and staying sane. Few, if any of these people are in the alt-diet business.
The issue with alt-diet restaurants is that everyone is in it for the very reason Mr. Bourdain rightly warns us about. If your mission is to make vegan food, it is never because you know it’ll sell and you’ll make a killing, it’s inevitably because you’ve got the money (or the cojones) to try to convince the world of some high and mighty exaltation of the soybean, respect for mother earth and the animal kingdom, or somesuch. I’ve ranted in previous iterations of this bitspace about my distaste for high and mighty statements of purpose in restaurants, and the alt-diet world is full of them. It drives me bat-shit insane. My SCUDS peeps can’t stand it. It has led to me automatically lengthen my blinks so as to mask my eyes rolling when a waitress starts telling me that their to-go boxes are made out of compressed corn oil, so they’re biodegradable, but don’t microwave them, or they’ll melt. Better yet, don’t put them in the sun, or hold them for too long in your hands…
The ‘passionate people’ in the restaurant business don’t understand what a game of inches and nickels it really is, and what ends up happening is mismanagement, poor food-cost controls, bad hiring and general disarray; what was ‘rich hippy X’s’ or ‘young, idealistic activist Y’s’ utopian fantasy of vending socially conscious food to the unenlightened masses turns into a moneypit. Quality goes out the window in a last gasp to keep the place afloat, the two loyal customers they had get the hint, the staff flee like rats on a sinking ship and the loyal/stupid ones stick around and get a tearful goodbye instead of their last paycheck.
Before you write off the preceding as applying only to hippie-run vegan restaurants or those crazy ‘raw’ people (who, by the way, demand more mastication, manipulation and abuse of their food than any cooked dish–it’s the culinary equivalent of BDSM without the candles and hot wax), remember that Alice Waters was very much the figurehead of early alt-cuisine, in bringing local organics to the table. One should look to Waters as the exemplary demonstration of alt-diets appropriately marketed to the masses. Then again, she timed it with the last wave of true ideological naivete America will see, so sprinkle some organic evaporated Celtic sea salt on that.
wielding the dangerous sword of criticism
The alt-diets dining world is so small I feel that any honest go at it deserves an ‘atta boy and a pat on the back. It isn’t like the rest of the dining world, where spotting a heinous attempt at restauranteurism is considered a natural part of ‘culling the herd’–you pan a alt-diet restaurant in a large enough forum, no one goes, it closes, and now you’re down to… 4. Alt-diet places are like endangered species: no matter how mangy and nasty looking they are, you can’t help rooting for them to survive, and you would certainly feel bad hitting them with your truck.
Unfortunately, many of the alt-diet restaurants I’ve visited deserve a healthy critical bitch-slap. Far too many alt-diet restaurants that feel that since they are providing food for an underrepresented minority, they can get away with not doing things that a restaurant should. An abridged list: provide good service, make the best food possible, not hire people with dreadlocks (seriously folks, it’s a damn health hazard), try hard to create a menu and environment that people of all dietary types will enjoy, keeping the politics to a minimum, etc…
some examples from over the years: one restaurant’s menu went from Korean noodle bowls to tater tots–all the consistency and quality befitting production in the box of death (microwave). I felt like I was in my old buddy Rudy’s living room, raiding the fridge, watching re-runs of Ren and Stimpy and clearing tubes like it was going out of style.
I went to one place and watched the only cook on duty, a tall, dirty hippy, spend a grand total of 3 minutes in the kitchen to prepare 5 orders of food. Small wonder, my food was frozen inside.
I won’t even start recounting the horrible service I’ve experienced in alt-diet places. Everything from seeing waitstaff snag some food off the plate before delivery to watching a girl pour my beer with a minimum of 18″ of distance (think bottle at chest level, glass at waist), to hearing these words ‘alcohol is not Ital, man. It’ll mess up your chakra.’
I’m pretty sure Hallie Sallasie didn’t do yoga.
So what’s your point, buddy?
I’m not sure. It’s easy to stand on the consumer side of things and disparage the quality of alt-diet cuisine in Portland and around the country. I do, however, have a bit of experience on the other side of the pass, and I will tell you that decisions and management of alt-diet restaurants are consistently, and predictably, based on the whims and misguided theories of the very type of owners and investors I described above. Their goals are so large, their means so vast, their intentions so good, but their grasp of the operation so shaky that I have seen little more than chaos result. Is it too hard to just try to make the best food possible, and leave it at that?
Truth of the matter is that when you put some alt-diet heads together, the list of good restaurants is painfully, painfully short. Is it a basic fact that alt-diet restaurants are doomed to be unprofitable, and thus the professionals stay away? I know pros in the alt-diet world. For a long time I was headed straight for that fate as well, so there is enough money and interest to keep at least a small market running–the question, then, becomes whether the alt-diet community is just a bunch of people with bad taste, low expectations, or both. Are we all the friends of these ill-fated restauranteurs, too friendly/not friendly enough to tell them the truth?
Perhaps I’m over-reacting, and the ratio of badness:deliciousnes is more obvious in the small sample size that is alt-cuisine; there are certainly plenty of bad ‘normal’ restaurants, they are just easier to avoid.