To those concerned that I would quit the blog over some Beard snub have no fear.
Truthfully I wasn’t sure how I would feel after the local folks overlooked us, I knew it was coming-that was my best guess anyways–but until I read it I thought I might be upset. Strangely a calm came over me.
I’ve been writing this blog for 4 and a half years, and for a long time I could not imagine the not writing of this blog. Having a voice was very important to me. More recently however I have been interested in going in different directions, but there was not a chance in hell that I was going to stop writing this blog because of threats.
Now that I’m officially off the radar I can be as honest and open as I feel like…that’s incredibly empowering and exhilarating.
I’m in Chicago today, I’ll hit you back tomorrow with some thoughts on the creative process, how a dish is created and finds it’s way to a menu.
Interestingly Adam Platt the other day described my writing on the subject of critics this way, “In my opinion, much of what Stewart has to say about the local food-writing/critic community is founded on a misunderstanding of the standards of opinion writing vs journalism.” A fascinating analysis to be sure, but Platt all together misses the point of what I have been saying, so let me try to explain in another way what I have been presenting these past four and a half years.
I love watching diving during the Olympics, it’s fantastic fun. More than once I have remarked that a dive was executed with exquisite precision, and been surprised that the score was not higher.
The reason for this is obvious, of course. Dives are judged by level of complexity as well as execution. A perfectly executed dive that is easier is not scored as high, why? Because it’s easier.
The effect of judging this way pushes the sport ahead. It creates an environment where folks are continuing to push themselves to execute dives at a more and more difficult level-where ultimately the spectator is the victor. It is exciting to watch these attempts being made, in the long run diving has been advanced by judges that knew how to judge a dive, precisely because they intimately understood the difficulty of executing specific tasks.
This is true for great, even the good food critics. Their are too many others that don’t understand level of complexity, they simply look at a dive, call it wonderful, and instead of seeking to illuminate and provide context, they do one of two things. They either decide that nothing is more important than their own opinion (vanity trumps all), as in “it’s all subjective, so who cares?”. Or worse, some critics don’t understand the level of complexity level inherent in various attempts.
A great example of a review that ignores complexity was the review in the Star Tribune by Rick Nelson of Butcher and the Boar which was awarded four stars recently.
Let’s consider Butcher and the Boar. It’s a fun restaurant, the design is great, and it’s food is delicious. It buys ice cream from Sonny’s as opposed to making it, it serves delights like “grasshopper pie”. Some of their sausages are mixed and prepared for them by a meat packer in St. Joseph. Menu items include, sour cream and chive mashed potatoes, beer battered fires, and caramelized broccoli. It’s the quintessential suburban resto, think Redstone meets Manny’s.
To be clear it is executed at a high level, and it was a stroke of sheer restaurant brilliance to make a Redstone style resto “chefy”, as it gave license for folks that call themselves, or think of themselves as “foodies” to enjoy a classic American concept, the suburban steak house, without the guilt of admitting that they like it. It’s hard not to like, I enjoyed my experience there-but anyone with even a cursory level of culinary knowledge isn’t going to confuse it with high level cuisine-certainly nothing approaching a four star level of complexity.
There is plenty of room in the market for all types of restaurants, and excellence on all levels, a lower star rating, similar to a dive, doesn’t mean that a “dive” was not excellent, but it means a level of complexity was not attempted-and therefore does not deserve to be judged on the same level as when it was attempted. Period.
There is a saying I heard recently, “you can’t be 100% better than the competition, but you can be 1% better in many ways”, except of course when you have critics that don’t know the difference, that can’t or don’t care to see the 1% improvements.
Thankfully there is enough of a population that does know the difference, that isn’t even paying attention to these silly and ultimately harmful reviews.
There are enough folks that have the culinary understanding, and the dining experience to know making things well by hand is harder then taking them out of a box, scooping ice cream out of a tub, that it’s infinitely harder to make unique dishes, and concepts, good critics know that, and they take that into consideration when they write reviews.
Shunned by a community that seeks to send a message. Stop speaking your mind, they say. Stop writing your blog, your stop speaking out of school. You have no right. It’s even written about in magazines by critics, “How do you solve a problem like Stewart Woodman.” You shun him is the answer. I guess I thought we were better than that.
In the case of one charitable organization we were told yesterday that they would be happy to take our money, but for the second time they decided to exclude us from mentioning our name in their promotional material. And then this Beard thing…anyone who thinks Stewart Woodman is not among the top two or three-never mind the top twenty-hasn’t been paying attention to his work.
Clearly Stewart Woodman has made a lot of people very angry.
The problem, the real problem is how to do you tell a man who is determined with every fiber of his being to be honest with people, to shut up–and why tell him that anyways? Are his ideas so abhorrent? Um, like which ones?
How do I tell a man whose very foundation-as a tiny child-was in experiencing horrible unspeakable shit, and keeping it secret, for his family’s sake? This need of his to be honest and to stand up isn’t born of some desire to be the center of attention, but to speak up for the voiceless. Andrew Zimmern pointed out last week to Fox 9 that many chefs were afraid to speak up, but ask yourself why he isn’t, honestly I think he’s more afraid of not speaking up.
Well, I can’t and won’t tell him to shut up-in fact I will hold the megaphone with him. Others will, and they may even destroy his career for it, they are certainly trying.
But we’re not talking about some kid that grew up in the suburbs whose worst problem was that he couldn’t borrow the car. We are talking about a man who left home the moment he could, who would have been better off an orphan, who changed countries, religions, who sought to re-invent his entire life, a man who ended a cycle of extreme abuse, and has done so with magnificent grace.
I have read here and other places about how he’s egotistical, and arrogant, and what a blow hard he is. It’s even funny to me, because I remember thinking that when I first met him, so you can’t blame people for thinking that. It’s just that they are wrong. That’s all I have to say about that.
A recent study by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and reported on by Reuters shows that when folks are exposed to traffic light like menu indicators they ate less.
“One group of diners received standard menus without calorie information, another group got menus showing each item’s calorie count and the last group got a menu featuring traffic light symbols representing calorie counts.
A green light was printed next to foods with fewer than 400 calories, yellow lights next to foods with between 401 and 800 calories, and red lights next to foods with over 800 calories.
By the end of the meal, diners ordering off the standard menu ate – on average – 817 calories. That compared to the 765 calories people ate when they ordered off the menu with printed calorie counts and the 696 calories they ate when ordering from the traffic light menu.”
Going on to say that, “Based on customer surveys, Ellison and her colleagues from the University of Oklahoma found that the least health-conscious people seemed to cut the most calories in response to the experimental menus.
Those people are “precisely the people that menu labeling laws are often trying to influence,” they wrote.
Regardless of how health-conscious people were, the traffic light menu seemed to have the strongest influence.”
I have never shot a gun. I don’t particularly understand why people love shooting guns so much. Not my cup of tea, gun sports. On the other hand, I am an unabashed fan of the fatty liver of overfed fowl. In the hands of the right chef (and even some of the wrong ones), foie gras is damn delicious.
I’d hazard to guess your average NRA member would scoff at my enthusiasm. But live and let live, right?
Alas, this is America, where every activity, no matter benign, has a political constituency aligned against its practice. Presently, foie consumption and gun use are in the busybody crosshairs. As it happens, gun control proponents and foie gras opponents have adopted a similar strategy.
PETA, and other groups opposing meat consumption, were able to coerce a witless Governor Schwarzenegger to issue a decree banning foie gras. In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, Code Pink, and other groups seeking to ban all guns, have set their sights on so-called “assault weapons” and ammunition clips.
In both cases, sophisticated political operations are preying on the sympathies of an ill-informed public to pass incremental laws toward a broader agenda. I won’t rehash the arguments for or against criminalizing foie, but I can say with certainty the average Joe does not understand how and why it is produced. Virtually nobody even knows what an assault weapon is, much less what it does, how it is used, or what allegedly makes it so dangerous.
But they sure SEEM bad, don’t they? Military grade weapons near our schools? Over-feeding defenseless birds? Semi-automatic weapons and fatty liver make easy targets because most people don’t know anything about them, and have no desire to learn. Planet Hollywood doesn’t need foie gras on the menu, so why should any other restaurant?
Activists, whose core mission is deeply unpopular when forthrightly articulated, have found a rare opportunity to appeal to common sense. But applying common sense to uncommon policy matters is a recipe for unintended consequences.
And, look, here they come. In California, restaurants are already finding ways around the law. Residents are going across state lines to acquire foie gras for themselves. The result will be in unaccountable market. Questions of sustainability and safety will take a back seat to accessibility.
Similarly, banning popular guns because they meet arbitrary criteria will create a well-trafficked black market. If you think that market will mirror the existing regulatory scheme, allow me to assuage your delusion.
Simply put, when you criminalize people, they start to act like criminals. If you are going to break the law procuring an ammo clip, why not go whole hog and grab a machine gun or two? A clandestine foie operation, in addition to mistreating fowl, might just go ahead and peddle shark fins, or even endangered species.
This isn’t simply theoretical. It is the fruit of our failed drug war. Would a free and open market yield crystal meth, or drugs padded with paint thinner and neurotoxins? I doubt it.
When it comes to policy, common sense and popular sentiment aren’t enough. As citizens, we have a responsibility to demonstrate concern for liberty, even when those liberties do not accord with our interests. Else, our laws will not benefit society, but instead the hidden agendas of myopic interest groups.
Kevin Sawyer is a contributing writer to Shefzilla.com. His views represent his own, and not necessarily that of Shefzilla.
I’m assuming you heard about the 500 McDonald’s employees stuck on a cruise ship. Speaking of nightmare cruises-V-day is done.
No, just kidding. I love Valentine’s Day, it’s one of my favorite celebrations, for reals. I don’t care if it’s a “Hallmark holiday”, it’s a Hallmark holiday about love and chocolate, that’s fine by me. Folks dressed to the nines having a blast, beautiful ladies everywhere. What could go wrong?
Sometimes fellow restaurateurs will gripe about V-day, call it “amateur night”. To be sure a few folks can go a little sideways emotionally in the circumstances, and that can manifest itself in some ugly ways, but the vast, vast, vast majority of folks are just out for a good time.
Love is in the air…la de dah dah dah…
Our second podcast is done-both are in post production. First one should be ready by next week.
Birdhouse-go and order the double cheeseburger with fries and onion rings, it’s not on the menu-per se-but tell them you read it here and they will get it dialed in for you-12 bucks grass fed need a nap after burger. I’m gonna fast basically today, and have one for brunch tomorrow. In honor of Mardi Gras. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Finally some media hit the Yelp story up. Hurrah for Fox 9! Eventually gravity will bring to earth the steaming pill of shit that Yelp! is.
Barack Obama is proposing to increase the minimum wage to $9 an hour. Isn’t that great? What could go wrong? After all, our hardest workers deserve a break, don’t they? Maybe that’s why our state legislature is trying to do him one better (38 cents better to be precise).
You know where I am going with this.
First of all, our hardest workers don’t make $7.50 an hour. The folks you see on the roadways pounding at concrete and such make well in excess of that. Not that they don’t stand to benefit. Union wages are tethered to the minimum wage.
But let’s not pretend there is a wide swath of experienced workers slaving away for decades at the minimum wage. For the most part, this law will impact three groups of employees: union workers, high school kids and wait staff.
As everyone who reads this blog assuredly knows, waiters and waitresses in Minnesota make minimum wage. Politicians who propose a tip credit, which would allow restaurants to count tips against wage requirements, have pennies hurled at them. Extremists, they.
Simply put, a minimum wage hike hurts restaurants, especially locally owned and operated restaurants that operate on a profit margin of approximately 0% (for the sake of discussion, let’s just talk about the successful ones). The Chipotles of the world will probably benefit from the decrease in competition.
Waiters and waitresses do not rely on the minimum wage. The good ones make at least $20 an hour, which is wholly deserved. A nominal bump in pay isn’t going to make or break them. It can certainly make or break restaurants. If a restaurant employs an average of five wait staff for 80 hours of operation per week, a $1.88 minimum wage hike will cost that restaurant $752 per week.
Make no mistake; this will force restaurants to make a hard choice. They will either fire employees or close up shop. Same rule applies to the high school kids, by the way.
Every governmental regulation has unintended consequences. It’s a fact of life. But the service industry, and restaurants in particular, are especially vulnerable to those consequences. From patio bans to stadium taxes, it seems our political leaders assume restaurants are made of money.
They aren’t, and just because an idea is popular, or scratches the back of a powerful constituency, that doesn’t make it right. Our leaders owe it to us to legislate sensibly, and regulate commerce in a way that permits, um, commerce.
This isn’t that.
Kevin Sawyer is a contributing writer to Shefzilla.com. His views represent his own, and not necessarily that of Shefzilla.
Culinary school teaches very little. Some recipes, some techniques, some approaches. Some of it will come in handy for a while, but pretty soon after graduation you’ll have to do the rest of the work.
There is no school that can teach you to wrap your hand in plastic wrap and work through the night with a gaping cut for fear that other people will steal your job from under you. No school will tell you that when you have 1st degree burns you shouldn’t get off the line, and go see a doctor. Instead you work through days and nights of pain, deep horrendous pain.
Culinary school will not teach how to avoid the rapist in the walk in, trying to grab your shit, no sir. Culinary school never taught anyone how to crawl through the mud and muck of humiliation for a chance to cook a scallop. You want to succeed in the biz at a high level you had better be willing to accept injury to your body and soul-you may the be exception you tell yourself, but that’s just your narcissism.
Culinary school can teach you how to make consomme, but it can’t teach you how to maintain your composure while you’re being yelled at, or while you’re being insulted by a customer for an honest mistake you made. Culinary school will not prepare you for the unfairness of this or that.
They teach in culinary school what they can, mostly school is about regurgitating ideas and principles, sure some basics, but it also teaches us about how to fall in line, how to be good little soldiers-most likely that’s what you’ll end up being, unless you can stomach the ascent.
In school when you burn something it goes away, and that’s the place for it. In life you don’t get second chances, sure you can say, “tomorrow I’ll get it right.” But you’ll never make it if you live for tomorrow, today. You can only live in the moment, fight for it now, so many have fallen by the way side because they could not imagine that today was their only chance, and it slipped away.
They don’t teach how to be successful in school, that’s mostly something you learn on the playground by getting picked last, by getting overlooked, by being denied entry into clubs, by being ridiculed, or rejected. It’s something you either need or don’t, success isn’t handed out, and when you have had a little of it, it only gets harder-much, much harder. All those people that pegged you wrong, pegged you for a loser, won’t suddenly be inviting you to Thanksgiving.
“He’s a good cook, he’ll make a good chef”… is the running joke of my chef’s club. You either burn to do your best work, or you don’t, you’ll either sacrifice, and starve, or you won’t.
This is not a dress rehearsal, this life is the big game, right here and now, tomorrow is a fantasy, a fool’s mirage, yes the hope of it can be used to endure the sacrifice, but nothing more.
“Stick to a task, ’til it sticks to you. Beginners are many, finishers are few.” Annonymous
One of the best food critics in the history of human kind Ruth Riechl just got real in the whole foods parking lot…the Fix, THANK G-D SOMEONE FINALLY CALLED OUT THE CRAP THAT IS THE NEW YORK BAGEL!!!! I love you Ruth…zilla.
Here are some highlights from this must read article.
We’re guessing you’re not a big Yelper.
Anybody who believes Yelp is an idiot. Most people on Yelp have no idea what they’re talking about.
What about Zagat?
I’ve always hated Zagat. If I’m going to listen to someone else’s opinions on restaurants, I don’t care if I agree or not. I just want to know who they are. If you follow critics, you know whether they’re Francophiles, or if they like a lot of spice. I know what [Times critic] Pete Wells’s biases are.We mostly agree. He’s not a snob, which is rare among critics. He loves food and has been brave with
You used to have his job. What was that like?
As a critic, I really hated the star system. It’s stupid and insulting to readers. I’d sometimes give a restaurant a lower rating so people would leave a restaurant saying I wrote a three-star review, but only gave two stars. But as an editor, I would never get rid of it. When you run a four-star review, it gets talked about all over the world.
Which reviews were more fun to write: the raves or the takedowns?
One-star reviews are especially hard, actually, and most readers aren’t interested in reading them. I never wanted to give anything one star, but readers love no-star reviews because they’re nasty. And when it’s about Guy Fieri, it’s funny! No one reading the Times is going to that restaurant, anyway. If you gave a
restaurant like Barbuto a poor or satisfactory review, though, it would probably close in a few months, so it’s a big responsibility.
Did you ever feel guilty?
Of course! When I was on book tour, a guy came to a signing with his eight-year-old son and told me he’d been the chef at this restaurant I’d given a bad review to and that he hadn’t worked since. So it better be a really bad meal that makes you mad enough to give it a terrible review.
What are you completely sick of seeing on menus?
Pastrami! Enough! It’s the new bacon.
What’s missing in New York? Good bagels! They suck. H&H’s? They’re too soft. Bagels should be small and dense.
RUTH FOR PRESIDENT OF THE MONTREAL BAGEL SOCIETY!!!!
Barb Sletten is a sales person for Bix Produce Company who recently retired.
One day, shortly before the opening of Levain. We met Barb Sletten. The same day we met a fella from Roots & Fruits, who was still the major purveyor for produce in town, Bix played second fiddle. The little weasel that was fronting for Roots & Fruits explained the lay of the land when he told me, “When I bring special stuff into the market, after it gets the thumbs up from the fellows in Stillwater, you’ll get a crack at it, honestly you’re an outsider, not a local, and you’ll get things in that order, I can’t be seen taking care of you-you understand.”
Barb Sletten saw an opportunity, and was determined to do what all great sales people do, find a way to fulfill a need. She ran to the store for us Saturdays afternoons, she answered her phone at midnight, she made every effort to make things happen. When we asked for this obscure ingredient, or that, she would find it.
The kitchen opening staff of Levain comprised of Heidi, David, Glenn Miller, Lori, and myself-Glenn was the first hire ever in Minneapolis, and still works with us to this day. When Nelson awarded it four stars no mention was made of Barb Sletten. In fact in all my years here, I have never read her name next to any review. In fact I don’t think I have ever seen Barb’s name in print, but that does not diminish the fact that Bara Sletten did more to make this a great food town by by believing in, and supporting the dreams of a generation of chefs, than any one person. Period.
Barb and I had one fight in all those years-I remember it as clear as day. One afternoon before Five opened we were chatting about the menu when she said, “I heard something that someone said about you.” I cut her off. ”I could give a flying fuck about gossip, or what some fuck face says about me behind my back, I never, never want you to share anything about me, or anything about them to me. Further I will never talk to you again if you gossip to me” Silence. I had gone to far, and I had hurt the feelings of one of the few dyed in the wool supporters I had in those days. I had been harboring resentments about rumors, and it was unfair to take it out on her. To this day I regret stating things so harshly to Barb in that conversation. I was a lesser man for it, and though we never spoke of it again, I vowed to myself in the moments after that conversation to use my disappointment in my own actions to forge a new way of working with folks. It’s taken years, but it was in that conversation, that I realized the need to change my professional demeanor.
When I’m old and in the way, and look back on the first few years here in Minneapolis, it’s a smile that I will remember most, Barb’s smile. A smile and a heart that would open up possibilities to us as cooks, to me as a man, and to our future in this city.
Barb, thank you, I am humbled to have had the honor to call you a friend. I am inspired by your example, and I will continue in the quest for excellence, and when I feel weak, when I feel tired, when I feel burdened, I’ll remember your example to me, how you toiled and worked so that we could shine. I promise that I’ll carry on better in the knowledge of you by my side and at my back the whole way.