Even if you have never eaten at one of Joe Bastianich’s New York restaurants, you may have seen him on TV – he is a judge on the American version of MasterChef. But his real claim to fame is his success as a restaurateur. The places he runs in New York with Mario Batali are among the city’s most celebrated: Del Posto, Babbo, Otto, Esca etc. He is a partner in the phenomenal food-restaurant emporium Eataly and now there are restaurants in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Singapore and Hong Kong and God alone knows where else.
I’ve been reading Restaurant Man, his best-selling, foul-mouthed memoir, to gain some insights into the success of his many restaurants and though the New York food scene is very different from our own, the book is packed with wisdom and anecdotes.
Here are some of the things I learnt. Many surprised me. And perhaps they will surprise you.
According to Bastianich, you can probably tell what your restaurant experience is going to be like when you get the menu. If the menu card is dirty, you should “run like hell”. If it has misspellings, then you should “get the f… out.” If you find you can’t read it because the typeface is wrong or too small, that too is a deal-breaker.
His argument is that anybody who can’t be bothered to design a legible, easy-to-read menu probably doesn’t give a damn about making the customer feel good or comfortable. If a
cannot make the effort to correct the mistakes (spellings etc.) on the menu, then that sloppiness extends to everything else. And if the menu is dirty, well then you can bet that the kitchen is a lot dirtier.
Many, if not most, Indian
do not understand ingredients. This is bad. But not as bad as the West, where chefs have a greater understanding of ingredients but wilfully hoodwink customers by serving substandard or bogus ingredients. For instance, says Bastianich, “The problem with a lot of farm-raised salmon is that they feed them dead salmon parts. It is disgusting. They don’t give them fresh water to swim in and their flesh becomes murky and tastes like shit.” I see his point, which is why I am so suspicious of most of the salmon served in Indian restaurants where cheap, flabby fish is bought from unscrupulous importers.
But in America, says Bastianich, a lot of cheating also goes on. A veal Parmigiana may well be made from pork that has been hammered to look the part. (According to him, by the way, the highest-food-cost item on New York menus is a veal chop. “There is almost no margin; I lose money on it.”)
In India we get a lot of cheap and nasty olive oil that no Italian would use (and crores are spent on advertising to persuade us to use it). But, says Bastianich, it is not so different in America. “It is the scourge of our industry, these f…ing Italian places where you are seated and they appear with a bottle of shit olive oil and fake balsamic vinegar”. Real balsamic vinegar is expensive, so much of what goes out into the restaurant market is cheap vinegar, coloured with caramel and acid. It is the same with olive oil. If the restaurant knows you are going to mix the oil and vinegar so you can’t taste either, they won’t spend money on quality olive oil and will fob you off with rubbish.
Then, there is the cheese scam. Real Parmigiano-Reggiano (the Italians loathe the fact that ‘Parmesan’ has become a generic term) costs money. So restaurants tend to buy catering packs of bogus ‘Parmesan’, not made in Italy, and then cut with a cheaper cheese like Stella. It is easy to tell if you care: “Good Parmesan cheese is like snowflakes that melt on warm concrete but when the Stella hits your pasta, it forms those little waxy balls that don’t really melt. That’s how they cut corners.”
You know this already. If the bathroom is not spotless or if there is a funny smell, leave. That is probably the state of hygiene in the kitchen and the store room.
Much of Bastianich’s book is about wine service, range and storage. Some of it is of limited applicability to India where the wine culture is just taking off. Most restaurants have a formula for marking up wine. They take the cost price and multiply it by a variable (usually five-times or so for a cheap wine and two or three times for an expensive wine). But a restaurant’s cost price is a historic number, and not the price of the wine today. So, if you know your wines, you will always find gems on every list: wines which cost say $20 when the restaurant bought them and now cost, say $80. The restaurant will not necessarily update the pricing to reflect current cost, so there may be bargains. For instance, the Orient Express in Delhi has the best value wines in the city because it bought its great wines years ago. (That’s my example, of course, not Bastianich’s).
Equally, some new restaurants will deliberately keep wines prices low to encourage you to drink. The best value Italian wine list in Bombay today is at Maritime at the Taj Lands End where mark-ups are low. Some years ago, ITC deliberately slashed wine prices at many of its restaurants to promote a wine culture. So if you know wine, you can always get lucky.
But broadly the same rules apply to wine lists and menus. If a list is bad or if many of the wines are unavailable, get up and leave. Recently, I was horrified to find a really crappy list at one of Bombay’s most expensive restaurants. I should have got up and left. But because the service is good and I have a sentimental attachment to the place, I stayed. This was a mistake. When my wine arrived, a man described as a ‘sommelier’ poured it and promptly put the cap back on. Did he not want it to breathe? Or did he simply not understand? Probably the latter. A crap wine list is a symbol of a greater failure: the lack of a wine culture.
Contrast this with my experience at Maritime where the bar-manager (he is not grand enough to be called a sommelier) recommended a good wine and was passionate enough to make me try the new house wines (excellent, by the way) in the hope that I would order them next time. (The house wine was Indian – Fratelli – so he lost money by recommending a cheaper option. But he won my respect).
The truth is that critics don’t matter in India. We have very little influence and nobody cares what we write except perhaps for a few chefs or restaurateurs whose egos are hurt by bad reviews. But in New York, restaurants are made and broken everyday by reviews in The New York Times. (Nobody else, including Michelin, really matters in that city.)
But till I read Bastianich’s memoir, I had no idea how hard restaurants tried to impress The New York Times critics. When Bastianich opened Becco, he longed for two stars from The Times. (Basically: two Times stars is the equivalent of a Michelin star in France; three Times stars is two French Michelin stars and four Times stars is three French Michelin stars. I say “French Michelin” because I’m not sure I trust Michelin stars outside of France).
The day Bryan Miller, The Times critic came in, Bastianich writes that they cooked “every dish twice to make sure it was beyond criticism, made the portion size bigger, really laying it on thick. I waited on the table myself and made sure the check was low.” They got their two stars.
He writes about Ruth Reichl, who put his restaurant Babbo on the map. Reichl has done her own memoir about visiting restaurants in disguise to be truly anonymous. But Bastianich writes: “She was trying to go incognito but we know some of her guests. So we planted a few of our friends next to her. That’s a big thing, we always do that – you put a plant next to important critics, and they order everything on the menu and ooh and aah while the critic looks on because critics eat not only their own dinner but everyone’s dinner around them. When Ruth was there, we controlled the room down to the breadcrumbs, from what song played when she walked into the room to Led Zeppelin with the linguini and Jimi Hendrix with the saffron pannacotta. It was curated to the micrometer, every detail of the experience.”
That’s a lot of trouble to go to. But it paid off. The restaurant business is about quality. But I guess a certain level of cunning helps as well!
From HT Brunch, January 19
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