Monday, May 30, 2011

"I don't LIKE food. I LOVE food. If I don't love it, I don't swallow."

The problem with cooking is that it is highly subjective. No doubt Ego loves food that I don't and vice versa. Even Skinner, who more resembles Ego than I (if only in animation) does not get transported by his Ratatouille in quite the same way. Personally, I’ve had differences in opinion from all the food critics I’ve followed. What then, will enable our restaurant to be successful if 1) diners follow critics whose advice I don’t follow myself, 2) sometimes trend, not the food itself, dictates success and most importantly 3) cooking is so subjective?

A lot of consumer restaurant reviews criticize, "the food was good, but nothing mind-blowing." What really strikes me is that restaurant patrons (and critics alike) want to see something new on their plates in order to grant the highest points to a particular restaurant. Put something completely new on their plates, and they insist that the “flavors don’t work.” Even molecular gastronomy, arguably one of the newest culinary traditions, reproduces classic flavors albeit in new shapes or forms.

I once had a woman criticize my cooking, saying that the particular dish was something she could have made herself. Though I didn't take her criticism well at the moment, I think it provides some insight into this current quandary of mine. That is to say, isn't the food that tastes like something you could have made yourself something that resonates most with your palate? Aren't the most popular restaurants often the ones that are most predictable, because they produce Mac and Cheese just how the generalized you remember it? Why do people profess to want something new when they fall back on what is known and familiar?

I guess I’m just trying to figure out what people look for when they go to a restaurant. And, given that tastes can be vastly different from person to person, how do you decide which subgroup to appeal to when putting together the character of your menu? How much of your own agenda (in our case, sustainability) do you put aside to appeal to customers’ taste buds, which for better or worse have been conditioned by excess sugars, fats, and salt?

Ultimately, there is no clear science to putting together a restaurant, or a concept, or a menu for that matter. Being Type A, an overachieving Asian, and Virgo all in one, I’ve pushed and pulled on TM to apply structure and frameworks to her menu planning. We’ve brainstormed, we’ve strategized, we’ve simplified, and then we’ve elevated, all in the hopes of appealing to this unknown person, a critic, a food blogger, a fat wallet patron, a regular old chum. All this when at the end of the day, what we should have been doing all along is designing a menu that we’d want to eat from day in and day out because we will be, after all. Isn’t that what upsets us about the current state of restaurants in LA? That is, there are too few restaurants with the kind of menu that we would eat from everyday, luxurious and healthy at the same time, sophisticated and sourced sustainably, and all with a conservative price point.

The realization that we should serve what we want to eat ourselves incidentally is the reason we started on this restaurant journey in the first place and came full circle while I was watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. (It is no coincidence that I begin and end this blog with a TV/film reference). He was astounded when a fast food operator told him that he wouldn’t change his restaurant’s menu because he served what his customers demanded. The implication is that food revolutions begin at the forefront of the industry, i.e. at restaurants, grocery stores, butcher shops, etc. Whether people will buy the food to begin with is somewhat irrelevant; most people will change their buying behavior when presented with better alternatives. I have no doubt that what we produce at home are better alternatives. So...who cares if you can make my food yourself? Please do, it's good for you and the earth.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Don't underestimate how hard it is to make money

I'm not wealthy. TM is not wealthy. Our parents are far from wealthy. And for better or for worse TM and I have both moved around a lot in the industry in order to leave behind lawsuit-worthy levels of sexual harassment, aggressive and unchecked bullying, outright deception from management, wages that boiled down to as little as $5.50/hour, and lack of arguably basic standards including health insurance or a clean and safe working environment. I understand that we have "chosen" to forgo the sort of career path that potentially enables impoverished restaurant workers to find investors that will help them start their own concepts. On the flip side, I wouldn't go back and stay a minute longer at any of the places I've left if given the opportunity.

So when - at the behest of our well-meaning friends enamored with TM's cooking - we set out five months ago to open our first restaurant, we naively believed that we would be able to win over more than a couple potential investors with our innovative ideas on how we would demand better from the industry. We even designated a whole month to our efforts - affectionately dubbed "Fund-raising February." Come May, we have gained verbal commitments from several individuals who we will be forever indebted to as the-ones-who-believed-in-us. The big investors, however, the ones loosely swinging around numbers in the 5 or 6 digits have all but disappeared.

Shaken but not deterred, we have sought additional options. This included revising our earliest projections from a healthy $750k in start-up capital to a very lean $300k. We have obtained quotes for used kitchen equipment, renegotiated with our landlord to spread upfront costs over the term of our lease, and reconfigured operations so that I'm on the line. We have also sought new financing opportunities, including loans through the California Redevelopment Agency and the Small Business Development Center. We worked painstakingly on a Kickstarter video and are even considering using credit cards to bridge any final gaps.

Despite the nerve-racking process this has all turned out to be (and continues to be), I have to admit that I'm grateful for the experience. I'm grateful because it has made me even more resourceful and will make me a better money manager. And ultimately, if we can look back years from now on a successful restaurant launch, I will be able to say with not a little glee that choosing to stand up for ourselves was never a detriment.

Friday, May 13, 2011

I can't stop thinking about bread.

Our blog has been quiet for more than a month. I suppose it would be appropriate to break the silence with the crackle of freshly baked bread. Since my initial bread blog, I have experimented with the country loaf (and many variations of it, including olive, multi-grain, raisin), croissant, kaiser roll, flatbread, baguette, and dinner roll. I've even trained with the bakers at the Le Pain Quotidien commissary in Inglewood, producing a few pretty baguettes while there.

At this point, I have a few conclusions: 1) bread isn't really worth baking unless it's really good. "Really good" defined as crackly crust, good crumb structure, flavorful. The flavor should come from the dough itself, not from add-ins. When the bread itself is solid, add-ins make the final product that much better. 2) some level of investment is necessary to bake most types of artisan breads because the crust is so important. In commercial decks, steam is initially injected into the closed compartment of a hot oven. I've learned that it's possible to reproduce the sealed environment using a heavy cast-iron combo cooker, but this obviously cannot accommodate a baguette. 3) it really isn't that hard to make delicious artisan breads if you understand the fundamentals of cookery and respect your own limitations, whether imposed by skill or equipment. After several months of baking bread, I'm back at where I started - perfecting the country loaf. Mainly, it's because I'm able to make large batches with no more equipment than a cast-iron and a plain old home oven.

These realizations have led TM and I to really narrow down what we envision for the bread program at Raciรณn. Simple, individual miniature country loaves (i.e. rolls) - add-ins to be determined - to start the meal and slices of country loaf w/o add-ins to accompany stews or serve as the base of pan con tomate. Simple, easy to produce w/o the excess of additional kitchen equipment, and most importantly, a dining pleasure.