The Squander Logs: A series of anonymous interviews/conversations specific to food production, cooking and service. The identity of an interview subject is something I do not plan to intentionally reveal at any point, and the acquisition of an interviewee falls into one of three categories that will also not be revealed but are meant to minimize my influence in the acquisition and promote diversity within the subject pool. Anonymity serves various purposes that include but are not limited to:
1- To keep the dialogue as honest, spontaneous and unedited as possible.
2- To avoid some of the complexities inherent to self-promotion, cross-promotion, gratuitous social media competition, shark-jumping, over-saturation and various agendas/coalitions geared towards monetizing every aspect of the food community.
3- To squander what would otherwise be a perfectly great opportunity to capitalize on my connections within the food community and drive traffic to this blog, just because I thought it sounded like a good way to follow a path through the Kansas City food community that creates itself without the same predictable and well-worn stops along the way.
Category: Type 1
ME: It’s a Saturday night, you’re on the line, Friday was exceptionally brutal, you’re hungover and down a person. It’s around 7:30. A server comes up to you and looks a little pissed off and they’re like “I just had a table of eight insist that I come and tell the chef WE’RE FOODIES!!!”. What’s your thought process?
001: Well, first of all I don’t like that term. I do not like that term. To me it’s a dead term. Cause anyone who watches food network these days is a fucking foodie. Anybody. Anybody who goes and critiques Applebees on Yelp is a fucking foodie.
001: So with that being said, I would say alright, I’m glad they’re here to enjoy the food I’m going to make, but at the same time I’m not going to go out of my way to do anything special for them. I mean, I think you should treat everyone the same that comes in that door. Regardless if it’s someone who has saved for 2 months to go eat at the restaurant or someone who says “let’s go get some snacks”. I don’t think anybody deserves any special treatment. I mean, if Thomas Keller came in today I’d be like “Wow, You’re Awesome!”, but I’ve got to get back to doing my job.
ME: I’d agree, I think your reputation isn’t built on treating anyone special, it’s consistency in everything you do.
ME: As far as foodies go, and I’m not a fan of that term, but it’s kind of a default term to use. But being in that group, as someone who is not a professional, I’m curious to hear where YOU think the line is between someone who has a genuine love for food and somebody who just has a weird, OCD-like compulsion to collect food related data, compete for blog readership…
001: I think the main difference is that if someone is truly into food and someone who loves food, they’re not going to go around saying “this was complete shit”, they’re not looking for attention for themselves they’re simply going to try what this person is doing. And if they’re going to truly call themselves a foodie, in my mind, that means they should like everything….and not just say “I don’t eat there because the drinks are just okay”, I mean, you go for the whole atmosphere. Someone who truly appreciates and knows where the food comes from.
ME: Not China Star Buffet Yelp reviewers.
001: Exactly. Exactly! Knowing where your food comes from is key in my mind. And you can call yourself a foodie all you want to, but deep down if you don’t even know who’s cooking your food….
ME: With that in mind…Bourdain, love him or hate him, he’s done a lot to communicate about the mad brigade of cooks back in the kitchen, and there is that clique of people in the industry who work the opposite hours of everyone else in close quarters and the camaraderie that that creates….and you have a lot of foodies who may try to seek legitimacy via the people they know at a restaurant, the amount of money they spend, or knowing pieces of industry, or gossip, but they “Never served in Vietnam”, so when it comes to their input, thoughts and opinions on how you do, or should do, your job, how much weight do they carry?
001: I take everyone’s opinion to heart. I am a firm believer that you can learn from everyone. So if one person comes up and says “You know what? I think it would be better like THIS”, I will think about it. Off the cuff I may be like “okay, you’re cute, just move along…unless you do this everyday you’re just a guest.” I appreciate that, but you may not necessarily know everything that goes into it, so how are you going to tell me it would be better like this?
ME: It’s funny you bring that up, because I have the tendency to be TOO protective. If someone came up and said “So and so should do THIS to a dish”, depending on how they came across I’d have the tendency to react worse than the cook in question. It’s stupidly protective, and I guess that’s not really a question, more just me wanting to hear my own rambling on the topic.
001: And that’s fine, being loyal to somewhere, that’s all that we work for. There’s a reason why someone works 70 hours and only gets paid for 45 or 50. We work a lot of hours off the clock, because we’re loyal to that person that’s above us. If someone says something about that person, I’m super, super defensive. If someone says something about the food, of course I’m going to be super defensive. We kill ourselves for a reason.
ME: In your experience, have you worked for chefs that have your back when it comes to a critic or customer coming after you, and have you worked for some that have leaned on the side of kissing ass?
001: Well, anymore nowadays it’s so fickle with Facebook and Yelp and Opentable. Anyone is a reviewer today. Everyone has an opinion, and they should, I get that. But, I think people are using the internet TOO much now. The same person that gives said restaurant a 2 star Yelp review will give the gas station a five star because the oil service was fantastic. FANTASTIC! And so I’ve been fortunate to work for people that will always stick up for the gentlemen that work for them, because I’ve always worked for people who have been there and done that and know how hard it is, you know? And that means a lot. I know that I may mess up sending out something horrible, and I get that, and I”ll probably get my ass chewed for it. But at the end of the day, if anything is ever sent back it’s never automatically, “what in the fuck did you do?” it’s “what didn’t they like about it?”. Tell me that so I can fix it.
ME: I think that is something that’s created by reality tv, like fuckin’ Gordon Ramsay screaming and throwing shit at people, going nuts. I think a lot of foodies have the assumption that is the way kitchens are. It’s like they are expecting a show.
ME: Speaking of social media…with as much as I try to visit restaurants, and the number of people I meet and blogs and reviews I read, I see what I perceive as a lot of people who are pretty picky and humorless who just want to say “this makes me a foodie”….do you think there is a percentage of people these days that you run into that don’t really LIKE food?
001: It’s more of a social status, so that they can check into their favorite place on Facebook and everbody goes , “Oh WOW! Glad to see THEM there!”.
ME: Speaking of that, I don’t want to call it a parasitic relationship because that’s way too harsh and doesn’t fit, but helpful vs. annoying…social media helps you but at the same time it curses you.
001: Oh, absolutely it helps you! If you think you’re doing something to the best of your ability, that this is fucking phenomenal…”I’m sending this out great every time!”…and five, six, seven bad reviews come in on either Yelp or Opentable, you kind of have to take that to heart because that means that you’re doing something wrong. You’re not cooking that properly. Or, maybe my dining room IS fucking gross. You know, something like that. Okay, there’s something I didn’t see. And that goes back to the fact that I take everyone’s opinion to heart.
(Redacted rambling where I bemoan the fact that I really need to work on my interview skills)
ME: There is kind of a push towards monetization of every aspect of the food industry specific to the social media we’ve been talking about, and it seems to lean towards people with near zero practical experience within the industry who wake up and reinvent themselves as a foodie or a chef….”Hey, I’ve got a background in PR or marketing, ba-da-BOOM, there you go, there’s money to be made!”. How do you see that type of phenomenon benefitting or hurting the industry?
001: Regardless of social media having an impact on that or not, there’s always people out there who go “You know what, I think I’m going to open up a restaurant”, and they could be in marketing as you said, and they just don’t get it. I’ve definitely worked for people like that, who have no idea, they have no restaurant experience. They may have been a bartender years ago, but they think they get it. And so, they don’t take the time to realize that if you’re a well oiled machine you make a nickel off of every dollar. Profit. If you are really, reeallly good, you make a nickel off of every dollar that comes in, after lights, employee costs, insurance, a nickel. And those are the types of restaurants that usually kind of fail out and die because they get frustrated and they don’t see the return so quickly, so they don’t try to build value and build a reputation. I mean, for the first years you’re going to lose money. You’re going to.
ME: In the best case scenario.
ME: Okay, you have fans, you have the people who love you, and you have people with money, notoriety, either real or imagined…friends, customers, regulars….I’m always curious to what level people try to lay claim to a chef or a restaurant. I have a tendency to hang back, that’s just my personal rule. On a Saturday night, no matter how much I know or love a chef, I will never approach the kitchen, that is bad form. You see people come in who do not live by that code…..the first place they head for is the kitchen.
001: They want to go and say hi so they can look cool. Now, I can see if it’s a legitimate friend and you haven’t seen this dude in forever. At the same time, you need to realize it’s a Saturday night and you probably shouldn’t be bothering them. BUT, everyone does it. I recently went on a little vacation. Went and visited a friend. Me and two other people, we went to a GOOD restaurant, and we were all pretty drunk. I hadn’t seen this person in probably six months, so we went and tied one on before we went to a really well known and respected restaurant.We sat down, the waiter came over and we ordered drinks, the waiter came back and asked if we had time to look at a menu. I was like “No, haven’t really had time yet”, and one of my friends goes “Three Chefs! Impress us!”. And right then I’m like “You have got to be fucking kidding me. You have GOT to be kidding me.”
ME: (laughter) Oh my god, that is painful!
001: The server just goes “heh”. And like I said, this is a nationally known restaurant, they are getting to be big time now, so…
ME: “Gee, we’ve never had chefs!”
001: They’re thinking..you’re cute! You guys are cute!
ME: That kind of goes back to my WE’RE FOODIES”
001: Exactly, yeah! I’m just sitting there going OH MY GOD….no, don’t do that….that’s the one thing you don’t do.
ME: That brings up a side point…how careful are you of the people you go to eat with? Do you have a set group you’ll go to a nice restaurant with, or when you’re travelling?
001: Most of my friends aren’t in the industry. They don’t know about it. They’re nurses or carpenters, just regular hard working people, and so they are at a point where Houlihan’s is a great meal out. And you know what, that’s fine.
ME: It’s familiar.
001: It’s familiar, it’s easy, for the most part, it’s okay…it’s a step up from Applebees that’s for damn sure. Being a cook, I don’t get that much time off, so when I do spend my time of I usually don’t go out to eat. If I do I go to a bar I get bar food. Because that’s what I want when I go out. I’m usually drinking.
ME: That seems to be the norm as far as that goes.
001: It’s one of those things….we deal with food every day…so nine times out of ten I’m not going to want go spend 150 dollars because I know damn good and well that food didn’t cost 150 dollars.
ME: The only reason I brought that up is because I’m really weird about vetting people. When I go out to a nice dinner, the people are as important to the experience as the food.
001: Absolutely, and along those lines I can’t remember a time when I went out with more than three people. I mean, I don’t have that many friends on the given Tuesday I have off where we’re going to sit down at an eight top. I don’t have that many friends, I don’t, I work in a kitchen and most of my friends I see once every six months…found out a friend of mine had a baby Didn’t know that!
ME: That’s funny because I’m having a birthday party at a restaurant here in town and was coming up with a guest list going “Holy shit, do I even have enough friends to have a party?”.
001: I get that!
ME: Okay, we’ve already covered all the foodie shit, but I had this long thing written down about whether foodie is a relevant term or is it kind of like someone just now discovering “That’s what she said” and you’re torn between lighting a candle or cursing their darkness.
001: Yeah, and like I said, I’m not a fan of the term, but I’m not a fan of the term “chef” either. I think it’s a derogatory term because, in my opinion, six out of ten chefs are non-working chefs. I’m lucky and have been fortunate enough to have worked for very hard working and very good cooks who are there every freakin’ day and love what they do, and that makes my job so much easier. But, most chefs, in my opinion, don’t work. They leave it to the guys in the kitchen and they’re like “I’ve done my due…I’ll come in at two! See you guys at two!”
ME: Or, they have a bunch of restaurants…Mall of America, Las Vegas…
001: Exactly! If you’ think you’re going to see Gordon Ramsay at one of his restaurants, you’re freaking insane. You’re insane. That man is too busy with all of his publicity bullshit…don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the guy’s a great cook. There’s a reason why he’s gotten this far. But I think, in MY own opinion, I think people get away from that and think “I’m a good fuckin’ cook”…well, you were a good cook fifteen years ago, NOW you’ve just been riding on your name. And you still have the ideas, but can you do them on a day to day basis? No. And this is a hard enough business as it is, you don’t need to get the egos involved.
ME: That brings up another foodie trend….I know people who if they had the chance wouldn’t eat at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant because you’re either not guaranteed a Gordon sighting, or it’s no longer a COOL place because he’s on tv. But, to your point, he got popular for a reason.
001: He’s a Michelin star chef, absolutely.
ME: I had some hesitation a few years ago about whether or not to eat at Gary Danko when I was in San Francisco, until a good friend of mine was like “Hey dumbass, yeah, I know it’s popular and stuff, but the food is phenomenal”. And it was.
001: And just because it’s popular doesn’t mean the food is going to be BAD. Places like The Big Biscuit and Houlihan’s are packed every day.
ME: Yeah they are.
001: Every day….it doesn’t mean their food is phenomenal, it doesn’t mean it’s shit either. It just means it’s close to where you live, they have great prices, and anymore nowadays it’s hard to feed a family of four.
ME: Even if you cook mediocre food, if you’re consistent with that mediocre food you’ll get a following to some degree. I mean, I’m unashamed about my love for Red Lobster. Once a year, I’ve gotta have it. Is it great? No, but it’s consistent. It tastes exactly like it did when I was twelve years old.
001: And the thing is, people legitimately love mediocre food.
001: They legitimately love mediocre food. Or else we wouldn’t have restaurants like Applebee’s.
ME: To your point from earlier, are you gonna go out and eat a fuckin’ foie gras terrine on a Monday, on your day off? Fuck no, you’re going to go have a burger.
001: I went to Blue Koi today. Good dumplings.
ME: Vietnam Café is like a standard. Boom.
ME: And to me it’s just as legitimate, just as good, and I look just as forward to going there as a lot of the higher end places in town.
001: And I would much rather go there, because I’m not going to spend 150 when I could spend twenty. And just enjoy yourself.
ME: Everything about it is good.
001: And you know you’re going to go there and have a good time.
ME: Okay, all that shit was just a lead up, I wouldn’t have you here unless I was going to get into some juicier aspects of this industry of yours. Setting up the theme for the next segment…..I’m not out to use anonymity as a platform for personal attacks or to talk about who is fucking who’s wife and where you can find photos….one less scandalous but still interesting tale of late in this town has to do with a chef who has been accused of selling choice beef as prime in an earlier restaurant. If that is true, is there any type of gentleman’s agreement among cooks and restaurateurs not to out them and blow them out of the water?
001: Well…I think as a cook, for a diner who like I mentioned may have saved for two months to eat at your restaurant, you have to say what is on your menu. And with the fickle social media out there, you cannot be caught publicly outing another restaurant. You can’t. That makes your place look absolutely horrible. HORRIBLE! So, it would be one of those things where IN-house, absolutely, it would be like…”Are you fucking kidding me? Did you hear about that motherfucker? Are you serious? Seriously? Why don’t they just up and buy it if they’re going to charge people for it? Just buy it.”
ME: Is there a point at which the disdain for a local chef is going to start to bleed out, either from a restaurant directly or via emissaries who have a blog and can do the dirty work for you?
001: Well, it’s one of those things that isn’t really talked about, but is just common knowledge. There are definitely things out there, and I’m not calling out names, but…there’s a James Beard award winning chef in town that no cook would be caught dead at this person’s restaurant. Because WE know, and if anyone on the street were to ask me? Absolutely. But would I ever say, at the place that I work, F THAT place? No. Because that’s just bad.
ME: I guess there is a standard that you set for yourself because A) you look like a bigger douche than the person doing the deed if you out them, and B) the damage you would do in bursting people’s bubbles…because these chefs have a following, and one person who comes to mind, possibly the same one you’re talking about, has a VERY large and loyal following and has for a very long time. SO to say something about them in a public arena….you’re going to lose business by proxy.
001: You’re going to look like a jackass…like HOW DARE YOU? Mountain out of a mole hill.
ME: With blogs and whatnot, there are a lot of people who die for that type information….because we’re turning everything into a KC Confidential type thing…I mean, how cool would it be to become the Kansas City Perez Hilton of the food community? Granted, that would NOT be a cool thing to be…but how much of THAT annoyance do you guard against…..keeping your mouth shut around people who may try to gain contrived readership?
001: Luckily, the position I’m in, nobody really listens to me or talks to me, I just happen to be there. So my opinion isn’t shit, and that’s kind of where I want to keep it. Because I do believe…loose lips sink ships, I’m a firm believer in that. Now, I have been known to talk some shit every now and again, but I keep it in-house.
ME: And I respect that, I mean, I know chefs who have gone out of their way to blast other chefs and I basically lose respect….
001: It just makes them look bad! Oh, look at THAT! TATTLING! TATTLING! TATTLING! Just realize that you’re better than the other place…and maybe it goes back to people liking mediocre food. You’re never going to get them away from going to said restaurant just because you say something, they’re just going to look at you and go “I guess I’m not eating at your fucking spot!”
ME: It kind of goes back to your point about consistency in treating everyone the same and not kissing specific asses…the same can be said for the consistency in not taking advantage of opportunities to do damage. The loudest critics seem to have the shortest shelf lives, some of the same people fall multiple times and don’t learn.
001: And this is public knowledge….Michael and Debbie….they are both VERY good about not saying anything about each other, but will they be caught dead in the same room? Noooo. They do that for a reason. THEY know that they are people that their opinion matters and people look forward to them. And they are both great cooks.
ME: I think there is a term for that….it’s called mutually assured destruction!
001: Absolutely! I mean, if one person starts the fire, burn that motherfucker DOWN!
ME: And even if the reason for peace is selfish to some degree, the result is something I really, really respect.
ME: Okay, I’m new at this whole thing without much of an idea how to switch things up, so as far as discussion I kind of just have to say, NEXT UP, going to go with stuff worthy of the most mundane blogs that I’ll probably just call GRATUITOUS SHIT! So……FOOD ALLERGIES! Real, or just another way to be a controlling asshole who should probably eat somewhere else?
001: (Laughing) Umm…I fully understand food allergies, but a lot of times I think it is just another reason for people to say they don’t like something. “I’m allergic to garlic!”…you eat onions, right? Well…..now, shellfish, people die from that. Unless you are absolutely sure you have an allergy, just say you don’t want any.
ME: I talked to a chef last night who had someone tell him they were allergic to black pepper…after eating at the restaurant for years and eating black pepper.
001: Yeah, see, that’s bullshit.
ME: Exactly, and it’s just an annoyance to me, when I talk about my vetting process, picky people….
001: Oh, they’re annoying as fuck.
ME: I’m not saying you gotta eat all the offal, I’m just saying don’t sit here and recreate a fucking dish on a Saturday night.
001: And that’s my thing, I understand people’s preferences, but say someone puts up a menu item and the guest comes in and says “That sounds great, but I can I put broccoli and mashed potatoes on it?”….go fuck yourself, eat at home.
ME: Next gratuitous thing…Is there anything you get tired of cooking and wish would go away, or a trend?
001: As far as that goes, I’m not really tired of cooking anything yet. There are definitely techniquest I don’t agree with…..I think over-manipulated food is something that NEEDS to be there, but do I want to go and have a spoonful of air? No, I’d rather have a spoon of mashed potatoes.
ME: Deconstruction is the first thing that comes to mind.
001: Yeah, “I’ve got a deconstructed Caesar salad!”….so you’ve got a whole egg, an anchovy, lemon, garlic on a plate? Now THAT’S a fucking deconstructed salad. Do I want that? Noooo……
ME: I’ve got a deconstructed Caprese salad at home…the shit is still growing on my deck.
001: DECONSTRUCTED! I do think that those places are there for a reason, I mean, El Bulli was amazing….I never got to EAT there…
ME: Me neither.
001: But, those places, that guy was THE top chef in the world for years because he had a team of scientists breaking shit down and he was at the forefront….because he’s that crazy….he can just sit there and think of shit. And god bless him for that, but fuck ME, do I want to go and have 39 one bite courses? No.
ME: Even with that level of popularity, you are talking about the most impractical business model on the planet, you gotta be pretty liquid….”Okay! Gonna shut down for nine months every year to retool…then I’ll let forty people in every night for three months, and then fuck all y’all, see you next year!”
Ah, here we go, word association…I’ll say a word and you tell me the first thing that comes to mind……YELP!
001: Fuck it.
ME: Good answer. Here’s one that I thought of on the way over actually…I’m a big believer in loyalty to people who cook my food, serve my food….and because I interface with them the most- my server. I will live and die with the same server as long as they work there, and I like to tip well. Now, different interview for a different day, don’t want to get into front vs. back of house issues, but what is a good gesture for the back of the house? 715 in Lawrence lets you buy a six pack for the kitchen….what’s a good gesture?
001: Honestly, that is a GREAT idea, I like that idea. There is a restaurant in Canada, can’t remember the name but there’s a dvd where I work and we were watching it, having some beers, and it’s a restaurant where at any given time during service a guest can buy a round of shots for the kitchen. They ding a bell, the kitchen has to stop, doesn’t matter if it’s 8pm on a Saturday, they stop service, take a shot, get back to work.
001: That’s intense.
ME: Is there a limit? I mean, if Richie Rich comes in…..
001: I’m sure they’re allowed two per night or something…
ME: I would want to hit that limit. I would want to have the deep pockets to cause mayhem.
001: I guarantee…no chef wants his kitchen staff drunk.
ME: I’d like to see it!
ME: Alright, right now in Kansas City….one dish, one place, what’s good and what do you recommend?
001: Extra Virgin had some duck tongue tacos. I haven’t been there in a while, but they were fucking good.
ME: Good and seasoned.
001: They were fucking GOOD! That’s one thing that was legitimately one of the best things I’ve had in a very long time. So simple it’s stupid, duck tongue tacos!
ME: They’re great. A lot of people say they’re too salty, but I say fuck you, I come from the Mario Batali school of salt the shit out of everything.
001: I smoke, so they were just dandy to me!
ME: OKAY last thing I have for you….we’re starting to get into the good stuff at the markets this time of year, so….is there one type of produce you’d pick to be in season year-round if you had one wish?
ME: Ramps? Yeah, they aren’t available long and they’re so good.
001: They’re SO good.
ME: And there’s so much you can do with them.
001: Absolutely, you can pickle them, roast them, grill them, they’re awesome. One thing I know everyone wants is morels. I personally don’t like morels.
ME: I like them, but you know, come on man. How much can you eat? It’s kind of like truffles. I like them, but unless you’re going to have a whole goddamn shaved truffle on top of something, what’s the point?
001: To me a truffle tastes like cardboard. I don’t like truffles, I don’t like truffle oil…it’s so overused, truffle FRIES piss me OFF.
ME: I don’t like truffle oil, to me it has a chemical aftertaste.
001: IT’s because on the ingredient list it says “truffle essence”…what the fuck is truffle essence?
ME: They probably created it at El Bulli. Truffle essence….it didn’t make the menu. That’s where all their money comes from now!
001: Fucking truffle oil!
ME: They sell the shittiest truffle oil.
001: God bless them for doing that!
ME: Ferran Adria sells the shittiest truffle oil in the world! And that’s how he bankrolls his enterprise.
001: Can’t blame him for that!