Food Trends: Good or Evil?
Ripert and Bourdain Weigh In:
Anthony Bourdain is the irreverent, sound-bite-spouting host of the TV shows No Reservations and The Layover. Eric Ripert is the soft-spoken, brilliant chef at the astounding seafood restaurant Le Bernardin in New York City. Perhaps surprisingly, the two men are buddies who delight in insulting and one-upping each other. Recently they turned their friendship into a live show, Good vs. Evil, with events around the country. (Check anthonybourdainontour.com for upcoming dates.) On stage, Bourdain and Ripert playfully torment each other and seriously discuss the state of food and restaurants in America. Recently, F&W got the two men together to hear their varying perspectives on food trends, both good and evil.
Anthony Bourdain: I’m not categorically against food trends. Cooks tend to see a breakout dish and replicate it, and eventually, you see that dish re-created all over the world. Sometimes good ideas are just good ideas. The impulse to copy them is understandable. When the public goes into a frenzy over something like a cupcake or a meatball, it may be annoying to us jaded foodie observers, but at the end of the day, a meatball can be a pretty damn good thing. Yeah, I don’t have strong feelings against food trends in general. You know what I’m against? Listicles. Those lists that are created by the media to predict the coming year’s food trends. They are always based on absolutely nothing. I don’t like those.
ER: I find the pop-up trend entertaining and fun. I don’t want to be a part of it myself, and I don’t have to—I have a real restaurant. I have a kitchen and a dining room and so on. But some incredibly talented chefs, like Laurent Gras [an F&W Best New Chef 2002], are doing pop-ups in between full-time restaurant gigs. I think that’s interesting. I’m all for it.
AB: As somebody who’s done a lot of catering, I can say that pop-ups must be incredibly stressful for the chefs. But they clearly provide a venue for people who, for whatever reason, either don’t have a restaurant, or won’t have one, or don’t want one.
ER: Exactly—don’t want one.
AB: Pop-ups are a good thing. But what I like most are restaurants with visiting-chef programs. I love it when I hear a chef say, “We have a guest chef coming in and doing a menu for a couple of days.” I think that’s great. Coupled with a sort of theatrical booking concept—“Now appearing, for four nights only, Laurent Gras, with Laurent’s menu; buy your tickets in advance”—I think that’s really exciting.
Fancy Chefs Making Burgers
AB: I understand this trend. It’s dismaying, but I completely understand the impulse. What chef wants to die broke? And let’s face it: Burgers are good. But it is definitely a little dismaying, any time you see really great chefs cooking below their abilities by putting out a burger.
ER: A burger is part of the menu at our Westend Bistro in Washington, DC. Our burger was actually inspired by McDonald’s—except for the quality of the meat, of course. A McDonald’s bun is perfect. You put it in your hands; it’s not too big, it’s not too tall. The ratios, the slice of tomato—for some reason, it’s all perfect. The pickles are perfect. The shredded salad, it’s not too much, not too little. When we did our burger, for us, it was a very interesting research project. We looked at companies like McDonald’s and Burger King and thought, What is great in their approach? And how can we make it great with the meat that we have, which is, obviously, of different quality?
AB: With restaurants that don’t take reservations, you’re only getting customers who really, really, really want to eat there. Who’ll wait hours for a table if they have to. All others need not apply.
ER: I like the idea of offering reservations. At my restaurant, I want to pamper my customers and give them maximum service to make their lives easier. So we let people call for reservations.
ER: At Le Bernardin, we have six people answering the phone every day, taking reservations. It’s an investment for us, but at the same time, I think it’s fantastic when you call a restaurant and you hear a human voice talking to you, and you don’t have to wait or go through a machine. We provide that at Le Bernardin because, clearly, we are a fine-dining restaurant, but I also like more casual places that take reservations so you don’t have to go to your dinner with a feeling of uncertainty. Am I going to eat tonight? Am I going to freeze my ass off outside? Am I going to get drunk before the meal because I’ve had to wait at the bar forever before a table is ready?
AB: I don’t feel the same way. With these really good no-reservation restaurants, now the young hipsters, the college dropouts who save their money for a high-ticket meal, they’re just as likely to get a sought-after table as some Wall Street guy. And that’s kinda cool. These customers have just as much opportunity to eat at a place like Franklin Barbecue [in Austin] as anybody else. That’s a good thing, Eric; those people are your future clients.
Chefs Creating Cross-Cultural Cuisine
AB: As long as chefs are combining cuisines that are actually having sex with each other, I think the cross-cultural cooking trend is appropriate. Some chefs can pull it off; most can’t. The guys at Torrisi [in New York City] do it well. Roy Choi [at Los Angeles’s Kogi BBQ] does it brilliantly. Dave Chang [of the Momofuku empire] does it really well. But their food always makes sense. These are chefs who grew up with certain culinary influences, so they think, “I know this food, so it may as well be mine. I’m Korean-American, and I grew up surrounded by Mexicans and eating Mexican food. It’s not like I went to Thailand for two weeks and came back with a fistful of lemongrass and an attitude.” For me, the dividing line is, is it a big-box place? A big-box place with a giant Buddha that’s serving a sort of indifferent pan-Asian food—a little Thai, a little Chinese, a little Japanese—I just instinctively start, well, hating it. I hate that restaurant before I even go in.
ER: I think we’re beginning to see chefs creating a natural, smart fusion cuisine because, if cooking is artistry, and if inspiration comes from somewhere, it comes from your surroundings. And when those chefs are working in big urban centers like New York City, where all the cultures are mixed together, it is obvious that at some point, they’re going to go eat the food of their neighbors or find some ingredients from another country, and be inspired by various techniques. Even in fine-dining places, you find influences everywhere.
AB: Still, the really good chefs who were influenced by Asia, what they choose not to do is really interesting. You’re not going to see one of them roasting goose anytime soon. There are things they don’t even attempt. That’s because there’s an unspoken respect for certain dishes that you understand—“That dish required six generations to get right; I’m not going to try it.” Chefs can understand certain processes and certain flavors, textures, ingredients, but it’s fascinating to see what they choose to not do.
AB: In general, the rise of TV chefs is a positive thing, even when those chefs are excruciatingly annoying. There are some glaring exceptions, obviously. But if shows get people interested in food, raise their expectations, empower them to cook, make them more intrigued by what they’re eating at restaurants and inspire them to trust a chef to suggest to them what they might order, rather than the old system, in which they’d walk into a restaurant and say, “I want this, this and this”—I think that’s a force for good.
ER: I agree. With TV programs, you have choice. You select the program that fits you the most. You have programs that are certain to be entertaining and others that are sure to be inspirational. At the end of the day, they’re talking about food. It’s definitely positive.
AB: Anything that inspires someone who’s never eaten cuttlefish—they see it on TV, and they say, “You know what? I would try that”—that’s a good thing. There is, however, TV food from nowhere, like a hamburger on a doughnut bun. A dish like that exists entirely as a novelty. People would like to position this as a class issue, the elitists versus the working class, but that’s nonsense. All great food emanated from hardworking people with very little money. I deny this notion that there’s any class element to rejecting a hamburger on a doughnut bun. It’s relatively expensive to put a burger between two doughnuts!
Death of Fine Dining
AB: I think fine dining is an ever more difficult and perilous enterprise. It becomes harder and harder to walk the line that’s necessary, to be a fine-dining restaurant and still be convivial. But if fine dining disappears, where will we get cooks skilled enough to open up casual little places, counter spots with fantastic cooking where there’s no linen or crystal?
Chefs as Sex Symbols
ER: In French, our nickname used to be the white rats, because the waiters were called penguins. So the white rats becoming sex symbols, it’s good.
AB: Works for me. I mean, we chefs were all considered hideous, unlovable brutes not too long ago. •