For poets, autumn may be a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, but for restaurant critics it is time to get cracking. Reading those long lists of new places to eat in New York and around the country, I stare hopelessly at my calendar, trying to figure out if there might be a way to squeeze an extra two or three nights into each week.
There’s not. I’ve tried.
So when people ask me what I’d like to see in the fall crop of openings, I don’t say, “More restaurants.” But I do find myself hoping for different restaurants, or restaurants run differently, by a wider and more diverse range of operators.
A few years ago I would look at these lists and, if a good number of projects were backed by big restaurant groups with a strong track record, I’d take it as a sign that an interesting season was in the wings. Now I’m less sure. What I see more and more is the way power accrues to chefs who are already powerful, while independent restaurants struggle to get going.
Of course, I’ll end up reviewing many projects from the groups at the top of the ladder, and chances are that a lot of those reviews will be positive. (The big groups got big by knowing what they’re doing.) But I’ll also be looking at the lower rungs of the ladder for a chance to celebrate fresh, individual points of view.
I’ll hope to see something like the Grey in Savannah, Ga., where a black chef, Mashama Bailey, reclaimed a bus station where waiting areas were once segregated, or like Bad Saint in Washington, where a team of young Filipino-Americans serves magnetic interpretations of the food they grew up with.
I’d like the path to the top of the restaurant business to be cleared of the obstacles that make it difficult for women and minorities. In March, when I reported on the attractive business deals being given to chefs by New York hotels, I noticed that with the exception of April Bloomfield, very few of those chefs were women. That needs to change.
Most restaurants, though, are funded by loans and private backers. Aby Rosen, one of the owners of the Seagram Building, recently told a reporter for Town & Country how he had raised $32 million for the Pool, the Grilland another restaurant the Major Food Group is building there. He and the restaurateurs solicited investments from “a nice mix of hedge fund guys, fashionistas, rich guys — an interesting group of 100 people who then bring 20 or 30 of their friends, and suddenly you have 2,000 people.”
It’s wonderful that all these interesting guys are willing to help. It would be even more wonderful if having a hand in these high-profile projects gave them an appetite for backing other talented chefs and restaurateurs who don’t have such an easy time getting financing. Maybe they will want to start something in neighborhoods that make banks skittish.
Perhaps a few will emulate Richard D. Parsons, the former chairman of Citigroup and Time Warner, who spent some of his fortune reviving Minton’s Playhouse and setting up a sister restaurant in Harlem, empowering a team of black chefs to explore the African roots in American cuisine. (Both establishments will be changing direction this fall, but the original model could be exported to other neighborhoods, other cities.)
The days when female servers were scarce in the dining rooms of formal restaurants should be over, and more people of color should be working at jobs besides busing tables and filling water glasses.
Change is happening, but slowly. I was immediately impressed by the diversity of Tom Colicchio’s service staff at Fowler & Wells, now called Temple Court, but the fact that it stood out indicates how unusual such diversity still is. Small, independent restaurants, the ones that cater to a younger crowd and make a show of their sustainable, local ingredients, can be some of the worst offenders.
This matters. A mix of backgrounds and points of view makes organizations smarter and more self-aware, as anybody in the human-resources department will tell you. For restaurants, it’s also one of the clearest ways to signal that everybody is welcome. (If you want to see this in action, walk into the Red Rooster Harlem on a Friday night.)
Another signal, of course, is keeping the prices low. Expensive restaurants can be a treat, when they’re good. But prestige in the restaurant business has been derived by high prices for too long. Chefs and restaurateurs know all kinds of tricks for keeping costs on a short leash. Now a few are using that knowledge to open places that are truly affordable.
Brooks Headley, who used to be the pastry chef at Del Posto, exiled himself from the fine-dining realm to run Superiority Burger, where the cooking is clever and delicious and nothing on the regular menu costs more than $9. Claus Meyer, one of the founders of Noma and the owner of Agern, a coddling New Nordic dining room in Grand Central Terminal, has just opened a nonprofit restaurant and culinary-training center in Brownsville, Brooklyn, offering a 50 percent discount to people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Not everybody can run a nonprofit. We all need to earn a living. But the restaurant business has become a cultural obsession, and people who are talented and lucky enough to have had some success in it don’t have to devote their lives to feeding the same sliver of society over and over. The world is too big for that.
This content was originally posted on The New York Times.