Thursday, May 31, 2007

Chefs turn to witchcraft and sorcery in logical next step for food world

Photo Courtesy anatomist on FlickrSo you've taken Michael Pollan's advice. You replaced science with culture, and then you threw out "anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food," and your "ancestors " get to veto everything you'd like to buy in the supermarket.

Which kind of sucks, since your great ancestors were salt-of-the-earth types in East Texas and Oklahoma who mostly just fried the sort of critters you find around your yard, and you came to San Francisco to move beyond all that, but whatever. You've made the haj to Terra Madre for the Slow Food truffle-and-wine orgy, and even enthusiastically applauded the flag of Iran. Yay!

Locavore, check; organic/sustainable, check; rallied against demon corn, check.

What's next?

Well, it turns out, ritualistically stuffing excrement and chamomile into cow horns and deer bladders is next! Awesome.

It sounds weird at first, but really it makes sense if you think about it. We went organic because we didn't want to eat food with poison on it, right? And then we went sustainable because we didn't want our grandchildren to starve in a sea of fire and sand, right?

Well, now we're going to go "biodynamic" because Lucifer is a being of light that makes us creative and free and because we need "rituals, practices and formulas based on (the) study of nature and the cosmos -- for example, the making and applying of certain preparations by the lunar, solar and astrological calendars."

Wait, what??

No no, hold on, the Chronicle explains further, it starts making a lot more sense:

Two of the preparations, 501 and 500, involve stirring quartz and manure respectively into water in a way that creates a vortex in the water, reversing direction intermittently throughout one hour. The mixture is highly dilute, and often described as "homeopathic" in dosage.

Some other formulas include those injected into compost. One consists of dried chamomile flowers stuffed into intestines (natural sausage casings) and buried underground for six months. A yarrow compost preparation consists of dried yarrow blossoms stuffed into the bladder of a deer, hung from a tree for six months then buried underground for another six months. Oak bark preparation, also used in compost, must be placed in the skull of a domesticated horned animal and buried for six months before it is used.

See, it's not so bad. The whole thing was dreamed up by an Austrian esotericist named Rudolph Steiner who defenders say was quite charming, only very rarely delivering controversial lectures on race and mostly just prattling on about Anthroposophy, which is about "sense-free thinking" and "spiritual science" and other things that make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

The key thing is, biodynamics can give you an edge. That's why two-Michelin-starred Manresa chef David Kinch is doing it -- it gets him out of the undistinguished scrum of chefs shopping organic at the farmer's market and into what he called "the next level" on the "voodoo side."

Read all about it, if you haven't already:

Chronicle: Digging biodynamic / Restaurateurs look beyond organic in quest to cultivate pristine produce

(Photo Courtesy anatomist on Flickr)

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Michael Bauer gets his Izakaya

Photo courtesy SiFu RenkaWhat Michael Bauer wants, Michael Bauer gets!

Well, except for a decent table where other patrons don't brush against him a million times an hour, or a small plates restaurant with any sense of pacing, or a respectful hostess half the time, or ... well ... maybe he can't exactly snap his fingers and get whatever he wants.

But he's getting Izakaya!

And the news comes within just two months after Bauer noted on his blog that "the Japanese izakaya way of dining has largely passed us by" in the Bay Area. Izakaya is Japanese bar food.

Exhibit A: The planned Japanese restaurant and baseball lounge at O (free link, see fourth paragraph) in the Japantown Miyako Hotel, soon to be renamed Kabuki Hotel, is supposed to focus on Izakaya dishes. Supposedly they have the designer who did Bix and Myth, they had not named the chef by the time I wrote that story but supposedly were excited about a local up and comer. This is a Joie de Vivre property -- look for close to a dozen new restaurants from them over the next two years, openings overseen by their new food and beverage director David Hoemann.

Exhibit B: SF restaurant Ozumo, which is planning two distinct restaurants in Oakland, is planning an Izakaya menu (free link) at the one carrying the Ozumo name, at Broadway and Grand Ave.

(Photo courtesy SiFu Renka)

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Wine as a percentage of sales in Bay Area restaurants (chart)

Wine as a percentage of sales in Bay Area restaurants

RestaurantSales from wineAs ofSource
Village Pub, Woodside47%May 2007Business Times article
A16, San Francisco40%+May 2007Business Times article
Rubicon, San Francisco33%+May 2007Business Times article

Not a ton of info, but I hope to update this chart as with the chart on restaurant revenue.

If you work at a restaurant, send me your wine sales percentage info!

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One table, $50,000 in wine. Happens monthly at the French Laundry.

Campton Place sommelier Michael Scaffidi this month revealed that when he was a somm at the French Laundry from 2004-2007, he would personally serve at least one diner per month dropping $50,000 on wine in one meal.

That nugget of information comes from a package on sommeliers from this past week's Business Times, assembled by editor Emily Fancher.

Also from that issue, here's a handful of stats on what portion of sales is from wine at various restaurants. I hope to update that table from time to time. If you work for a restaurant, send me your wine sales percentage!

Here are the stories from the sommelier package:


New hotel and restaurant in old Pac Bell tower will be nicer than St. Regis, says architect

When the St. Regis hotel opened in San Francisco in 2005, its general manager said it would be more luxurious than anything else in town -- past the Four Seasons, past the Ritz, "top top ... really superior."

The hotel has been charging $400-500 a night and, from what I hear, not negotiating that rate down significantly for anyone.

Now there's another contender -- the "Jazz Era" Pac Bell building, which will become a hotel and condos under a plan from Wilson Meany Sullivan, which is about to pay $118 million for it (free link).

The architect for the building says the 70-80 hotel rooms will be "more intimate than the St. Regis with an even higher level of service." Perhaps they already have a hotel operator lined up, then, since there are a only a handful of companies that would fit that bill.

This is a Biz Times scoop but not by me: real estate reporter JK Dineen gets the credit.

Full story: S.F. tower to become luxe hotel / Wilson Meany Sullivan recasts AT&T building
(free link)

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

No, Thomas Keller does not run Per Se and did not write the Bouchon cookbook. Next question.

Speaking in San Francisco Thursday, French Laundry executive chef Thomas Keller was especially blunt about his detachment from his New York restaurant Per Se and his second cookbook Bouchon.

Keller spoke in San Francisco last Thursday at the Commonwealth Club, fielding a variety of questions from the audience and moderator Tara Duggan from the Chronicle.

The topic of celebrity chefs came up, and Keller said he basically has five restaurants to provide opportunities to his staff. In the way of explaining how great his staff is at running things, he put some significant distance between himself and some of his projects:
[Bouchon founding chef Jeffrey Cerciello] wrote an extraordinary book -- that's his book. I know my name is on the cover -- that's a publishing house thing.

[At Per Se,] I wanted to make sure our developers who built the buildings really understood what a commitment building a restaurant was. I say that as someone who is somewhat detached from it because it is a Jonathan Benno restaurant.

It's not breaking news that celebrity chefs are not heavily involved in each of the several restaurants they typically run, and Cerciello was mentioned in the cover flap for Bouchon cookbook. But it was interesting to hear Keller really emphasizing the point, because it swims against the marketing that emphasizes Keller's role in the restaurant and book.

By the way, there didn't seem to be any question that Keller is still firmly in control at the flagship restaurant, the French Laundry in Yountville, and he was clear about his intense involvement in the French Laundry Coobook, published in 1999.

Keller also talked about the prices at his restaurant, molecular gastronomy and French Laundry's recent purchase of a ... well, of a laundry. The whole thing is supposed to air on KQED at some point.

More in my Business Times update: French Laundry chef talks about celebrity life (free link)

This event was also blogged by Laura Froelich, who has some additional quotes.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The future of restaurant finance is here: Oakland man pre-pays for $1000 of beer

Two restaurant groups -- one for hippies, the other for hipsters -- are raising money by selling pre-paid gift cards in advance of opening, with a face vale 25 percent above the price, the Oakland Tribune reports.

The pioneer of the trend was Cafe Gratitude of SF and Berkeley, the vegan restaurant where the waiters tell you how wonderful and empowered your aura is but sometimes need to just bring the damned food, already.

Now Oakland's Awaken Cafe is copying the business model, hoping to raise $125,000 toward the $495,000 they need to open a coffee-by-day, beer-by-night abode at the former Golden Bull, which was known as a great place to buy a 40 oz container of Budweiser and listen to NWA on the jukebox.

The kicker is, they have only sold $14,000 in gift cards so far, and 19 of the 22 cards were to friends and family,

But what redeems the whole story and saves it from being a free advertisement for Awaken Cafe Investor Relations is one "Larry Biggie" of Adams Point, who allegedly bought $1,000 in gift cards.

That's a lot of organic beer, Larry.

Full story: Cafe's patrons hold key for capital


Your nightlife does not impress Sean Penn or the lady who runs Tosca. Nor does your 'physical fitness.'

If paying a $500 table charge, $300 for bottle service and your human dignity for admission to the latest and greatest in San Francisco nightlife all makes you throw up in your mouth a little bit, you are in the good company of Sean Penn and Tosca Cafe proprietor Jeannette Etherdge.

Both sound off in an engaging article on Tosca by Burr Snider in the May issue of San Francisco magazine. (Not online, sadly, so no linky.)

And Jeanette, man, she has had it:
It's not Herb Caen's town anymore, that's for sure ... This city used to be a party every night. There were the Beats and the hippies and the jazz clubs -- Chet Baker at the Jazz Workshop, Thelonious Monk at the Blackhawk -- and everybody mixed it up. I mean, you'd see Saroyan and those guys and all the Pacific Heights people out in the clubs. They all jog now or go to the gym. Instead of a shot of Jack, it's a shot of wheat germ. Maybe there's a whole new life with this generation south of Market and other places, but I'm not a part of it. I'm definitely nostalgic.

... If I didn't have my own place, I'd probably live in Chicago.
Sean Penn has also apparently had it with the kids and their overpriced yuppie meat markets where everyone looks like they are posing for a slot in a reality TV show:
I can go in there (to Tosca) and not feel like a part of the generation that comes up behind me, and I'm talking about everything, from the floor to the ceiling to the cushions on the booths.
The article calls Etheredge a "sublime presence on the stool by the cappuccino machine at the far end of the bar."
"I've never been in a bar that so much reflected the personality of the person who ran it," [former Examiner editor David McCumber] said. "Jeanette's smart and wickedly funny, and she collects great people who love her madly. And of course she was shrewd enough to retain the amazing look of th place, the dim lighting, the jukebox that plays Caruso and Patsy Cline. I don't know how she does it, but to me the place just glows."
The list of Tosca celebrities in the article alone is staggeringly long. Consider that Robin Williams and Hunter S. Thompson not only drink/drank there but actually worked as employees, running the bar for a night each.

Other people tied to Tosca over the years, according to the story:
  • Francis Coppola
  • Peter Fonda
  • Juliette Binoche drinking with ...
  • Gerard Dépardieu
  • David Byrne
  • Winona Rider riding on the shoulders of ...
  • Lawrence Ferlinghetti
  • Tom Cruise hanging with
  • Matt Dillon
  • Chuck Yeager and
  • Dennis Quaid
And then there's this interesting nugget about the Chronicle:
Just a couple of years ago, a nasty scuffle erupted during a party thrown by the San Francisco Chronicle to honor its Pulitzer-winning photohrapher Deanne Fitzmaurice. Apparently, one of the paper's top female editors got a little too unwound and leaped onto the pool table to dance. This didn't sit well with a very senior male executive who saw fit to yank the editor down by her hair. Much unseemly pushing and shoving ensued, and the incident caused quite the little scandal at the paper. For Etheredge, it was just another night's work, but she got a huge kick out of the profusion of flowers and gifts and abject notes of apology sent by the remorseful miscreants to get back in her favor.
I'm trying to think of a VERY senior Chronicle guy (emphasis in the original), maybe one with close ties to Hollywood and Sean Penn and thus inclined to gallantly defend Tosca's and thus his possible, coveted back-room access, and am coming up totally blank. Completely.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Daniel Patterson hates and detests visiting you; hired waiter with paranoid schizophrenia; has investors who are a little slow (if you catch my drift)

Daniel Patterson, a prolific magazine writer who apparently has his own restaurant, wrote today on Chez Pim about the burning shame of coming out of the kitchen to visit customer tables, where he feels like some kind of awkward mental case, which is not at all how any of us expect chefs to be, since they are known for their social graces.

Patterson much prefers the warm comfort of his kitchen, where a psychotic waiter almost killed everyone.

At least there he doesn't have to spend for-EVER at an investor's table and explain very slowly for the millionth time why the food keeps changing, as he did in his dining room on opening night.

The kitchen also keeps him away from what he calls his "bitchy neighbor," an architect who drives a baby blue BMW. (So best!)

Pim scored quite a coup by luring Patterson to her site. He normally writes for the New York Times' various magazines and glossy publications like San Francisco. When he wasn't writing articles or dodging Alice Waters' narco death squads he ran the restaurant Elisabeth Daniel (RIP) and the kitchen at Frisson.

Patterson says his opening day was "boring," but it's not so bad when you selectively quote his story out of context!!:
6:30 AM
Wake up. My blood has been siphoned off and replaced with barely molten lead.

The mechanical tech failed to start the [f--ing air conditioning]. This inspired me to leave a brief but colorful [explitive-laden and physically-threatening-to-the-point-of-illegality ] message with the contractor, encouraging them to pay a visit in the morning to finish the job [or, alternatively, take part in an impromptu seminar on what a well-sharpened chef's knife can do to human fingers]. There are excuses, which I break off [like so many sauteed contractor digits].

Our [a--hole neighbor] is a[n] architect of indeterminate ability [-- though his office is next to a strip club in a seedy part of town, if that tells you anything --] who owns a building in the back of the alley that abuts the restaurant. It'€™s a nice alley ... [considering the] two residential hotel buildings ... [and] Centerfolds[, which is exactly as classy as it sounds].

What is Mr. Architect most concerned about? [The strippers? The drug-addict-filled hovels next door?] Our garbage cans, which cannot remain outside during the day. It is a major obstacle in his grand scheme to turn the alley into the charming, tree-lined ... lane of someone'€s youth. [OK, of my youth. But you get the point.]

Our first sin had been ... forcing him to sit on many occasions for minutes at a time in his baby blue BMW M3 [(license plate: 'JERKOFF')], cartoon smoke rising from his ears, while a worker moved his truck.

9:30 AM
Having learned the painful way that an overly ambitious opening menu is the root of most quality and timing disasters, this time I'€™m playing it safe. This, as [so-called] friends noted rather sharply the previous evening, leaves the "€œinnovation" level a little light, but [they are jerks, and will not got invited to future preview dinners. I think I'll take that guy from Covers just to spite them].

I have ... voodoo ... we will ritually sacrifice innocent[s], ... invoking the devil. Of modernity, [but whatever.]

I stood on the top step of a ten foot ladder, reaching forward three feet while twisting to the left to apply another layer of matte medium to a corner pane. The fact that I have no health insurance is weighing heavily on my mind at this moment.

I make a horrible line cook ... pulled in a dozen directions, peripatetically moving around the kitchen in an attempt to see and taste everything. I would hate working with me.

One of the servers, who had never been involved in a restaurant opening before, and is used to more corporate environs, [thanks to the Department of Corrections' "work-release" program,] is becoming increasingly enraged by the chaos. He insists on keeping a list that he titles – I kid not – “Mental Notes,” of all of the things that are going wrong around him, everything from clutter in the service station to the other servers who jostle him as he works. Midway through the night there are two pages of increasingly scrawling and disjointed handwriting posted in the service station, which by the last line looks to be the work of either an anguished six year old or a long-term resident in a psychiatric ward. He decides to leave mid-service. With our blessing.

[Because having all our patrons physically murdered on opening night is not exactly good press. And the Chronicle automatically shaves half a star off the "ambiance" rating for each mass-murder killing spree in the dining room, as Chez Panisse learned the hard way.]

There’s a lull in the action, and I head into the dining room to say hi to our first guests, who are just finishing up their meal. I normally hate, hate, hate visiting the dining room, unless it’s someone that I know well. I feel nervous and out of place, standing awkwardly in front of the table muttering inanities. But it’s opening night and I feel obligated, so I trudge out.

Our first guests are from Sonoma, where I opened my first restaurant, Babette’s. I thank them for coming in, say hi to a few of my fiancées co-workers and head back to the kitchen.

A little longer of a visit at the investor’s table. He is surprised that the food is better than the pre-opening meal yesterday [, sort of like a small child is surprised by his own image in a mirror, or by the setting of the sun]. I explain, again, [, since my explanation to Smarty McMoneypants didn't seem to stick the first 10 times,] that it will keep improving at a rapid pace for months, and then slow to small incremental improvements – it will take at least a year until it achieves a level of performance I find remotely satisfactory.

Patterson's full articles at Chez Pim:
Opening Day, by Daniel Patterson
Opening Day (Part II)

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Deal I hyped falls through

Back in December I wrote that PBS chef Nick Stellino would "probably" take over the kitchen at the Argent/Westin hotel.

Strictly speaking this was true, and I was right about the hotel investing in a new Italian restaurant as part of a trend toward better hotel dining.

But I was way wrong about Stellino: Inside Scoop reported that Marta Cristina Causone of Osteria Laguna in New York will run the new kitchen.

So now I place blame for my false hype squarely where it belongs: With you, the reader. For shame!

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Friday, May 04, 2007

SF hotel fixes customer impatience

The excellent website Joel On Software relates the story of how one San Francisco hotel used guest vanity to improve the customer experience. It's a very short but worthwhile read!

(If you enjoy that link, check out this one on the same site. Not entirely about hospitality but interesting nevertheless.)

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Scrappy hotelier starts green hotel chain

Remember the name Wen-I Chang; I think he's going to leave a mark. He's the first hotelier I met who brought art and poetry to our initial meeting, bound into a book he had published himself.

Originally from Taiwan, Wen made his money on Central Valley franchise hotels, and did battle with franchisers like Holiday Inn, who he said wanted to charge him more than $150,000 to install their hotel management software (he bought one for $18,000), and Hilton, who said (according to Wen) the conference facilities at his Garden Inn were twice as large as allowed. Wen suspected Hilton wanted to keep Garden Inn from competing with his other brands.

He put in the large, along with a second entrance (also verboten) and within a year was named a model property. He also claims to have started a trend toward putting three flagpoles out in front of a hotel, since psychologically many customers associate that with four-star properties.

Wen's company, based in South San Francisco, has opened what it hopes will become the first LEED-Gold certified hotel in the U.S. in American Canyone (an application is in with the US Green Building Council, which makes its rulings only after construction is done).

There are two more of these green "Gaia" hotels in the works, in Merced and Anderson, and the chain should have eight properties within four years.

Business Times: Hotel owner envisions string of eco-hostelries (free link)

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Larry Ellison would like to see other cities. It's not us, it's him.

San Francisco's most financially lucrative convention is called OpenWorld and is run by Oracle, a massive business software company that could buy and sell you like, well, like all the people they have already bought and sold.

OpenWorld has been in San Francisco every year for at least five years, but city officials believe the company is shopping around, looking at younger, "trophy" convention centers (with bigger exhibit spaces, naturally) in places like Las Vegas and Chicago, where CEO Larry Ellison grew up.

Oracle kinda sorta denies it, and San Francisco is totally not impressed.

The good news is, Mayor Newsom led 70 people down to Redwood City to win Oracle back for 2008. The bad news is that there is a significant chance they will leave in the next several years, as I was told by both the CEO of the convention and visitors bureau and the city's head of convention facilities.

The trouble is, the show has grown so large it fills up hotel rooms in the city and they have to put people in rooms as far north as Petaluma and as far south a Santa Cruz and then bus them in. We're close to Oracle HQ and a great lure for attendees, but it would be nice to fit the whole thing in one or two cities, apparently.

I broke this Oracle story (free link) last Friday in the Business Times, and on Saturday it was picked up by that Chronicle column, I think it's called Matier & Ross & What We Read in The Business Times This Morning.

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Hilton's new GM likes to watch travelers degenerate into terrifying savagery, and also the TV show 'Lost'

San Francisco's downtown Hilton, a 1,900-room hotel that has become ominously self aware, has had three general managers since November, and the latest is named Michael Dunne and everyone is nervously hoping he survives.

The monster hotel is the largest on the West Coast and it dispatches its "managers" for sport. A tough German named Holger Gantz kept the giant hotel in check for 17 years before retiring. His successor, John Mazzoni, lasted about three and a half years, a rough feat of endurance sufficiently impressive that his superiors gave him a job at corporate negotiating with the unions.

Karima Zaki came in to replace Mazzoni, but left after nine months to return to Southern California and open a new manager-feasting giant Hilton in San Diego.

Mazzoni replaced Zaki and lasted less than two months before accepting a promotion to a corporate job.

Now comes Dunne. Let's figure his tenure based on trends:
  • Gantz: 17 years
  • Mazzoni: 3.5 years
  • Zaki: 9 months
  • Mazzoni again: 2 months
  • Dunne: Three weeks (projected)
Dunne comes from the San Jose Doubletree but was hotel manager for the downtown Hilton for three years.

I was invited to meet Dunne at a special screening, in a special Hilton "home theater" room, of the network television series Lost, in which stranded tourists fight mysterious forces and disappear only to sometimes reappear on their beastly island, which apparently has a voracious appetite for human panic.


Business Times: S.F.'s downtown Hilton gets its third GM since November (free link)

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