The Covid Diaries – Vol. 8 – The Shape of Things to Come

robot serving GIF by The Venture Brothers

Day 31, Wednesday, April 15, – What’s Next?

Assuming any are around a month from now, restaurants surviving this coronapocalypse will face a strange new world of less customers. freaked out diners, intense public health scrutiny, and a depleted workforce.

All this while trying to resurrect their economic lifelines and deal with supply chains in ruins.

When it comes to Las Vegas, there’s really two conversations to have here: one about off-Strip dining scene (You remember it don’t you? The scene that was starting to boom over the past three years?), and the Strip, with its hundreds of food outlets serving (primarily) our tourist economy.

For purpose of these predictions, let us concentrate (mostly) on trends which will affect both.

There are no crystal balls at work here, and some of these are beyond obvious, but they bear reminding to brace yourself for the brave new world in eating out that’s right around the corner.

And for the record, it would please us no end if we are proved totally wrong on all of them. Well, almost all of them.

Fewer Diners

Everything’s about to shrink: customer base, restaurant seating, booze consumption, and profits. Those people you see dancing in the streets? Bankruptcy lawyers.

Shorter Menus

Every menu in America that isn’t a Chick-Fil-A has just been cut in half. Many will stay that way. Shorter menus are great for many reasons, but mainly because you can spend less time ordering and more time worrying about that cough from four tables away.

Close tables

Cheek-by-jowl jostling with strangers over a plate of steak frites has gone from good to gauche. Huge Strip restaurants will reduce capacity (e.g. 300 seat places (like Mon Ami Gabi) will suddenly find themselves with a third less tables. Tiny neighborhood joints will feel the pressure too. Guess which ones will be hurt the most?  A fifty seat mom and pop cracker box can’t make a profit if it’s cut in half. No word yet from the epidemiologists on the disease-catching horrors lurking in back-to-back booths.

Buffets

MGM to temporarily close Vegas buffets as virus precaution

Put a fork in them, they’re done. Deader than Julius Caesar. Forget about sanitary masks and table-spacing — after this world-wide freakout, no one’s going to want to stand in line with hundreds of strangers while waiting to eat….much less handle a serving spoon that’s been touched by fifty filthy kids.

Opposing view: Death by calories will not dissuade these eager over-eaters from their orgies of excess. Buffets and Covid19 have a lot in common: both are vaccine-proof and impervious to common sense — always ready to stealthily reinsert themselves into our defenseless body politic as soon as our sneeze guards are down. The same credulous fraidycats  who bought the coronavirus scare wholesale will be only too eager to resume shoveling AYCE into their pie holes, as soon as some authority figure says it’s “okay”. Catching a virus may have terrified them in the short-term, but government can stand only so long between a man and his third dessert.

Loud and Crowded Goes Kaput

A corollary to “close tables” above. Three-deep bars and people screaming to be heard will be seen as toxic. In well-spaced, too-quiet places, expect people to start yelling across tables just for old time’s sake. Baby Boomers, mostly.

Communal tables

No one will want to dine next to strangers anymore. From now on, people will let public health doctors tell them how they should sit and socialize —  in the same way we let dentists tell us what food to chew, and gynecologists dictate who we should sleep with.

Smaller Plates

Here’s one we’re on the fence about.  Will portions shrink to reflect tougher times? Or will the good old “blue plate special/meat and three” make a comeback? In other words, will gutsy food replace preciousness? One thing’s for sure though, there will no longer be restaurants centered around…

Share Plates

Shared plates (and/or everyone picking off a central platter) will NOT be a theme of most menus coming out of this. You might as well ask your friends, “Let’s go infect each other over dinner.” Even though it’s not true, you’ll get a lot of “Ewwww” at the very thought. If you want to eat communally, you’ll have to go Chinese. Possibly in a private room. Probably with a bureaucrat standing over your shoulder.

Tweezer Food

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Can’t die a moment too soon. As Julia Child once said (when looking at a nouvelle cuisine creation): “You can just tell someone’s fingers have been all over it.” The absurdity of molecular cuisine will also perish in a sea of silly foam.

Unfeasibly Long Tasting Menus

Once the dust settles, the 1% will start flocking back to destination restaurants. Or will they? Something tells us all the “chef’s vision” malarkey — which has powered the World’s 50 Best for the past decade — will henceforth be seen as decadent. Simple, local cooking with good ingredients will replace three hour slogs through some overpraised, hipster chef’s fever dream.

Linens? Sanitary or Un-?

Personally, many who dine out often long for the days of real cotton napery and tablecloths. We prefer them to wet, slimy, cold, hard surfaces where who-knows-what has been smeared on it. Unfortunately, it’s a cinch the health Gestapo will mandate the constant wiping down of tables, and human comfort and civilized dining will one of the casualties….at least in America. We can’t imagine the old-school, haute cuisine palaces of France serving dinner on bare-bones tables…although some already do. The smart set will bring their own cleaning supplies….because nothing says “night on the town” like handi-wipes and a personalized spray bottle.

Sommeliers

Sad to say, but somms will be an endangered species in this new economy. Wine lists will shrink; prices will come down; and choosing a bottle will be between you and your wine app. This will save you money (on tips), and gallons of self-esteem points by no longer being humiliated because you don’t know the difference between a Malagousia and a Moscofilero. Idiot.

Wine/Bars

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Expect wine in general to take a hit, especially the expensive stuff. Especially in America. The health nuts will try (and fail) to turn bars into fully automated spaces with all the charm of a DMV waiting room.

Celebrity Chefs

Their popularity has been shrinking for a while now. Is anyone dying to go to a Bobby Flay restaurant anymore? Even if Shark in The Palms is pretty good? El Gordo’s shtick will start (start?) looking stagey and superficial in the culture of asceticism to come. Not to mention the idiocy of $$$s being thrown at him/them by clueless casino accountants, just to see a famous name on a door. And because the cache of chefs has shrunk…

Bad Boy Chefs

…are probably a thing of the past, too. Ditto their tattoos…and tatts on waitstaff and barkeeps. In this hyper-hygienic, monochromatic, new world order, anything that smacks of personal expression and pirate rituals will not be a good look when it comes to selling vittles. Imagine a world where everyone looks like Barbie and Ken, right down to the lack of genitals, and you’ll get the idea. Sexy.

Asian food

Specifically Chinese food. Face it: America is racist, and many blame the Chinese government for this debacle. While the blame may be justified, this isn’t fair to Chinese-Americans or Chinese restaurants in America. But fairness has no place in post-Covid society. Once the tail starts wagging the dog, don’t expect the bull to go easy on the China shop.

More Plastic!

The world’s fear of viral infection will make clean freaks out of everyone. And this means more single-use plastic: gloves, Styrofoam, containers, take-home boxes, utensils, etc.. Germaphobes are going to have a field day “protecting” us from cooties….even if it means ruining our long term health and the environment. This is known in public health circles as saving your life by killing everything around you.

Take-out food 

Every operator thinks this whole pick-up/delivery thing is here to stay.  Doesn’t matter that all food tastes better when eaten right after it’s prepared. (The only exceptions are cold sandwiches and burgers…and even fast food burgers suffer from remaining too long in the sack.) Good food doesn’t travel well. Good food needs to be eaten as soon as it’s done. Human beings have known this for thousands of years. But because of this shutdown, restaurants will try in vain to prove otherwise. Eating take-out from a good restaurant is like watching a blockbuster movie on an iPhone.

Automated food prep – robot chefs!

robots cook GIF

To those promoting AI cooking, conveyor belt sushi, automaton waiters, and  computerized everything, this Covid crisis has been manna from heaven. The only thing that will suffer from this automation will be your dignity and good taste.

Home Cooking….

…will NOT have a resurgence, Neither will bread baking. Why? Because cooking is hard and bread baking is even harder. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Less late night/less bars/less luxury spending

Bottle service > dead. Ginormous nightclubs > toast. Dayclubs > history. Lounge acts and supper clubs (circa 1975) will be replacing them. You heard it here first: Once  Mel Tormé impersonators get rolling, Elvis imitators will seem cheesier than a Velveeta fondue.

Hygiene Obsession

MUCH GREATER EMPHASIS ON HYGIENE – of customers,  restaurants, and their staffs. Will everyone have to be tested before entering? Will your waiter be wearing a mask? Will all of these ruin your enjoyment of eating out by turning restaurants into the equivalent of hospital food being served by prison guards in a boarding school mess hall? Does the Pope wear a beanie?

Coffee and Cocktails Will Conquer

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The first businesses to revive after this nonsense subsides will be coffee houses and cocktail bars. They will be the easiest businesses to ramp back up, and will provide a quick, cheerful respite from the misery that has enveloped society. Restaurants, especially mid-tier, independently-owned restaurants will have the hardest time of it. The catchwords will be comfort over creativity. And nothing is more comforting in trying times than a good cocktail…or a cup of coffee.

Critics get Cashiered

Reports of critics’ demise have been greatly exaggerated for over a decade, but this could be the final nail. The last straw. The icing on the funeral potatoes, if you will.

Image(You got what you wanted, restaurants: no more critics! But just think of the cost. Cheers!)

 

It’s Not You, Jose Andres, It’s Me

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The hottest love has the coldest end. – Socrates

We’re done, José.

It’s over.

It’s not you; it’s me.

Time to move on.

I’m not good enough for you.

I need space. (So do my trousers.)

Breakups can be sad, but sometimes tears are the price we pay for the freedom we need. (And boy do I need my freedom from the tyranny of tasting menus.)

Breaking up can make you a better person. This might be good for both of us.

Before we go into why this is necessary, a little history is in order.

What we now call tasting menus, used to be called degustation menus. They were the province of a certain level of high-falutin’ French restaurants, and they usually came on a little insert to the menu offering to let the chef decide what special courses he would feed you that night.

Tasting menus were an adjunct to the main, a la carte selections, and were of interest to mainly the most dedicated gourmands. You knew you weren’t in for the usual starter-main-dessert meal, and that the courses would be smaller, and there might be a couple more of them. Mainly though, you went the degustation route because it promised to show the kitchen strutting its best stuff.

This is the way things were from the late 1970s (when yours truly became seriously involved with cooking/food/restaurants), until the late 1990s.

Then, Tom “Call Me Thomas” Keller and Ferran Adrià came along and ruined everything.

Image result for French Laundry menu(This looks like 10 courses, but at the end of the evening, it was more like 15)

Gastronomy historians might have another take on this, but from my perch, the whole “you will be eating/swooning over 15 small plates of chef’s creations” really took off when Keller got soooo much press for his (mandatory, multi-course) feast at The French Laundry.

In 1997, I was in Napa Valley at a writer’s conference with Ruth Reichl, Colman Andrews, Corby Kummer, Barbara Kafka, and a host of others, and that’s all they could talk about. This talking eventually morphed into a gazillion raving/fawning articles about Keller in every major food ‘zine. Soon enough, the copycat race was on.

When Adrià made his big splash with El Bulli around the same time, the die was cast and high-end restaurants from Lima to London adopted the formula of wowing their customers with “techniques” over taste. A chef friend told me of going to El Bulli fifteen years ago and throwing in the towel….after the 44th course with more on the way.

No longer were a half-dozen specialties of the house enough, as you might find at Paul Bocuse or Le Cirque.  Instead, Keller and Adria started an arms race of escalating courses…where mutually-assured palate destruction was the result if not the goal.

These days, almost every restaurant in the World’s 50 Best centers its cooking around a bill of particular, itty bitty ingredients done by the biteful.

 

Image result for el bulli menu degustacion

It’s time to stop the madness.

Who really wants to eat like this? Answer: no one.

Watching chefs piece together teeny tiny pieces of food into dish after dish of edible mosaics no longer holds any fascination for anyone but jaded critics who constantly need to be dazzled while “discovering” the next big thing.

As Robert Brown elucidates in his excellent evisceration of the form, tasting menus have debased cuisine by turning it into an exercise in solipsism for chefs:

By tailoring his operation around it (essentially turning it into a glorified catering hall since most, if not all customers eat the same meal), a chef is able to run his restaurant with a smaller kitchen staff, determine with precision his food purchases, and enhance his revenue by manipulating, if not exploiting, his clients by exercising near-complete control over them.

Conceptually, the tasting menu is a losing proposition for the client even in the happenstance of an enjoyable dish. If and when you get such a dish, it is usually never enough, thus making you desirous of something you cannot have; i.e. more of the dish. When you have a dish that is less than stellar or just plain bad, the chef has foisted on you a dish you did not bargain for, thus debasing your meal in the process. The perfect or near-perfect meal is all but unattainable when your waiter brings you six or eight or twelve, sometimes even many more, tastes. Given the intrinsic hit-and-miss nature of tasting menus, I have never come close to having such a meal. As with great dramas, musicals, concertos, or operas, culinary perfection is almost always found in divisions of two, three or four.

I read this essay two years ago and agreed with it, but it took that much time (and several more marathon meals) for the lessons to sink in. (You might remember that I was also bored out of my gourd by Meadowood and Alinea a couple of years ago.)

If New York restaurants are any indication, the next big thing is a return to sanity: the classic catechism of appetizer-entree-dessert. The way you eat in good French restaurants and homey Italian trattoria; the way the human body was meant to digest food.

When I go to Spain in a couple of months, it’s going to be a challenge — since the Spaniards invented (or have at least expanded and exploited) this unnatural way of eating more than any other culture. One of my solutions will be to go at lunch (like I do in Paris and Italy), where the meals are shorter, more focused and more fun. Plus, you then have the rest of the afternoon/evening to walk off the calories.

As for my recent meal at é by José Andrés, below you will find the list of dishes, along with some tasty snaps.

For the record: almost every bite was a testament to intense flavors and culinary skill. It was my third meal at é in as many years, and the best of the bunch. Chef de Cuisine Eric Suniga and his crew orchestrate a perfectly-timed concert where everything harmonizes — with a staff busting their asses while never missing a beat or hurrying the customers.

It’s dinner and a tweezer show, a plating performance if you will (the actual cooking takes place out of sight), which almost makes you forget you’re paying $400/pp for a meal with strangers.

The only trouble is there’s both too much and too little going on. Too many dishes and not enough time to reflect and contemplate them, and not that enjoyable if you really want to savor the cooking, the techniques, or the food and wine matches (which are excellent).

Even with those criticisms, though, there probably aren’t five other restaurants in America that can match it.

Image(Suniga and crew are on it like a bonnet)

But for me, no màs. Never again.

I don’t want to eat 20 different things at a sitting. I realized some time ago that you quickly hit a point of diminishing returns with these slogs — your satisfaction being inversely proportional to the number of fireworks going off in front of you.

Three to six courses is all one’s brain and palate can absorb. Everything else is just cartwheels in the kitchen, the chef as baton twirler.

To be brutally honest about it, this type of meal isn’t about the food, or the wine, or the conversation. The point is to have you ohh and ahh over the production. There isn’t much time between courses to do anything else.

The great joy of going to a restaurant is deciding at the very last minute what you want to eat, not what the chef insists you eat. Tasting menus rob you of that singular pleasure, and for that reason alone, I must bid them adieu.

Here are the dishes:

Truffle Tree

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Morning Dew

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Beet Rose

It was small and and tasty but not that photogenic; let’s move on.

Stone

Image(The black and white thingees are actually cheese; the things that look like stones are stones. Don’t eat those.)

Spanish Pizza

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Wonderbread

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Pan Con Tomate

This was a small piece of the world’s greatest ham on an almost-not-there puff of bread. The only thing wrong was there should have been more of it.

Uni Y Lardo

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Vermut

Image(This dish fomented much mussel love)

Edible Sangria

Image(The description doesn’t lie)

 

Esparragos en Escabeche

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Txangurro a la Donastiarra

Crab served in its shell — deliciously crabby but unremarkable.

Foie Royal

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Platija

Image(Steak for 8? No problemo!)

Chuleta

A block of fluke that was no fluke…even if it was a bit boring. FYI: fluke is always boring. Sorta surprised they used it.

Empanada

Image(This started out as a ball of cotton candy the size of a small child)

Menjar Blanc

Image(White food, aerated)

Winter in Vegas

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Intxausaltsa

Image(Your guess is as good as mine)

Cherry Bomb

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More things…

By the time you get to “more things”, only the heartiest of soldiers is still ready for combat. Most have run up the white flag as they’re being politely herded off to make room for more cannon fodder.

That’s when it hit me and I mumbled, “I still love you, José; I’m just not in love with you anymore. Certainly not with this dining concept. Whatever flame you may have ignited in me 20 years ago with your wacky Spanish molecular manipulation is now but a smoldering ash — the charred remnant of a fiery passion that once had no bounds (or course or calorie counts), and is now as worn out as bacon-wrapped dates.”

You’re better off without me. You’ll be happier with someone who appreciates you more than I do.

And I’ll be happier dating your sexy siblings: the smoking-hot Jaleo or the bodacious Bazaar Meat.

You wouldn’t mind, would you?

I hope we can still be friends.

Our meal for 2 came to around $800, including tax, tip, and $120 worth of wines by the glass. Notably absent above is any consideration of price-to-value ratio. For aspiring gourmets, globe-trotting gastronauts, and culinary show-offs, it’s probably worth it. For a one-time splurge it’s absolutely worth it. There’s no more convivial way to experience the glories(?) of molecular gastronomy, accompanied by a great steak.

é by Jose Andres

The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino

3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.698.7950

There Was a Chef

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There was a chef who once lived in Las Vegas.

By happenstance, I came into all of this chef’s possessions. All he had in the world when he died, as a very old man, back in the early 1990s.

From these I eked out the barest outline of his career.

German he was, at a time when German lots of chefs were.

Or maybe he was Swiss, as several postcards came to him from Reigoldswil, Switzerland. Only four cards, survived him, all in German, all of them showing the same, sad, sepia-toned building in a faraway hamlet.

Regardless, he as either German or Swiss or Swiss-German at a time when lots of chefs came from there.

He lived and worked here long before anyone thought celebrity and chef belonged in the same sentence…much less the same description.

When he lived and worked in Las Vegas, no one cared who the chef was. The only people who knew a chef’s name was their family and their employer.

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How he came to Las Vegas is anyone’s guess, but from pictures it appears he first landed in Philadelphia as a young man, and then went to San Francisco, where, by 1946, he was being described as a “famous chef of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.” His “fame” allowed him to appear in a advertisement for a gas-fueled ceramic broiler sponsored by The Pacific Coast Gas Association.

He was very proud of this grainy, b/w photo in the corner of a west coast magazine few probably ever read. Proud enough to keep the cut-out page with him his entire life.

For whatever reason (money? a girl? health?), our “famous chef” wound up in Vegas in the 1950s (like a lot of my relatives), where he worked at the Last Frontier and then the El Rancho Vegas, before moving on to the Desert Inn and the Flamingo.

He ended up being a room service chef at the Flamingo in the 1960s. This feels like quite a drop from being a famous chef in San Francisco, but I think he was proud of being the room service chef at the Flamingo.

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If the 8X10 glossies are any clue, he was a big fan of some movie stars — Ann Sothern, Dorothy “Dottie” Lamour, Gloria DeHaven — lights as dim as the memory of Swiss-German chefs who once came to this desert to run our kitchens and make food for hungry gamblers in the middle of the last century.

All he had when he died were those clippings, postcards, a snuff bottle, brass knuckles(?), some menus, and picture of himself as a very young man, and a few more of him as a working chef standing beside a wall of food he helped to create.

There were also two small, identical pins sporting narrow ribbons of bleu-blanc-rouge — no doubt some small honor accorded to him for mastering something French — he was proud enough of those to keep them with him his entire life.

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That’s it; that was his life. Or all that is left of it.

Nothing is especially sad about these things, but they emit a profound sadness all their own. So few scraps. Such little evidence of a life — pieces of paper, pictures, and a handful of trinkets for a fellow who spent his entire adult life in professional kitchens — who learned a trade and traveled an ocean, and then a continent, to ply a trade when there was nothing star-studded about it, just hard work.

Work that started in Europe, then advanced to a fancy hotel in a major city, and ended in the banquet rooms and coffee shops of a desert casino. The work is what gave his life meaning, I think, and perhaps what gave it joy, I hope.

Max Weber was our chef’s name.

He never married, nor had any kids.

His last years were spent in bed, in the middle of a room, in a small house in Las Vegas, being cared for by the family of a woman he had worked with. They were all he had.

At the end of his life, all of his possessions could fit in the bottom of shoe box.

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Does anyone remember him? Probably not. Now only me, not for the work he did, but for what he represents: a life spent feeding other people for a paycheck, because that is what he was good at and was trained to do. There was no glory in it then, and what little there was, Max tasted if only for a moment.

And then the vitality of fame fleeted, and Max had to get back to work.

Chefs like Max were the culinary backbone of Las Vegas — the spine and blood and sinews of hundreds, thousands of bent bodies, frazzled nerves and tired hands who fed tourists well, and kept them coming to Las Vegas again and again, until what you were eating mattered just as much as what you won. They built this town as surely as any game of chance, but no one knew their names then and no one cared.

But Max cared. You can tell from his shoe-box that he cared.

And he had his memories. Of posing with movie stars, and of long groaning tables filled with heroic proteins, miles of steam, architectural ice, and trenches of vegetables. Of midnight buffets and ceramic stoves he stood at at and advertisements with his picture in them. Of a little town in Switzerland he escaped, and a desert town where he landed. Where he ended up making sandwiches for people who knew nothing of this famous San Francisco chef who was somebody once — a man who traveled so far to feed so many….until at last the flame on the stove flickered no more.

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