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Absentee Chefs

I’ve noticed more and more that special evenings out to destination restaurants are missing something special – the CHEF. I understand that you are taking your chances having the star cook for you on a Tuesday or Wednesday night (hey, everyone deserves some time off), but on a packed house Friday or Saturday night there is no excuse for food to be prepared by the staff.

Jamie Kennedy has let us down (more than once), but I knew he had multiple interests. I know hoping Keller would be present at the French Laundry is a long shot, but one still hopes. Most recently, Martin Picard chose not to attend Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal on a packed Friday night (which the staff told me was his only restaurant).

Are there any other paying Customers out there having my bad luck ?

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  1. This is a huge pet peeve of mine. When I was in Paris with my SO I wanted to take her out to a 3 michelin star restaurant for her bday. Looking around at all the big name places, I realized it was more likely the name brand chef wouldn't be there. We ended up going to Ledoyen, the meal was the best I've ever had, and at the end of the night, the chef, came out and greeted every table personally. It was exactly what I wanted.

    It seems when some of the chefs get big, they become entrepreneurs and minimize the "chef" part. It's a shame.

    1 Reply
    1. re: piano boy

      These days, I wouldnt really expect a famous/celebrity chef to be at the stoves at all. If you want dinner cooked by the chef/patron, visit a place where the chef hasnt looked for the limelight. There are lots of them out there.

    2. Chefs aren't allowed to take a night off?

      1. If you are going to a restaurant run by a good chef it doesn't matter one iota whether the chef is there or not. Chefs oversee the running or the organization and when they aren't on site their chefs de cuisine do what they do every night and ensure the quality of the food. If you buy a couture Armani dress by do you expect Giorgio to have sewed even an inch of the dress? Chefs are craftsman not artist and it doesn't take the chef to duplicate his efforts.

        1 Reply
        1. re: reatard

          Well-said. Furthermore, one of the signs of a great chef is that he trains his staff superbly. So the better the chef, the less important his presence.

        2. You know, I understand your disappointment, but a chef's presence isn't required in a top-flight house. (S)He will have a correctly-trained staff turning out food made to his standards and according to his recipes. I've had many fine meals in houses where I didn't see the chef nor expect to, and it was all well and good. And I've had many fine meals in mid-flight houses that do not have a "name" chef where the chef did make a few rounds, during the meal and after service was completed, which made me like it all the more.

          1 Reply
          1. re: mamachef

            Totally agree. I haven't been to all that many "name" places but when I have it never crossed my mind to be critical of the absence of the chef. They get their reputation because of their food.

          2. I also had the thought that unless you asked, how would you even know if the "chef" is there? For instance, a few years ago we ate at Babbo. The only way I knew that Batali wasn't there was because I asked. And I only asked cause I thought it would be fun to actually see one of my heroes.

            4 Replies
            1. re: c oliver

              Ah, I wish I could fine the article but it had a quote from a waitress at Babbo who thinks it's hilarious when people ask if Mario is in. She said something along the lines of "Oh yeah, he's cooking your tortellini as we speak, give me a minute and I'll go get him!"

              Why pay extra to eat at a restaurant with a big chef name when the big chef hasn't been in that kitchen for years?

              1. re: piano boy

                Er, I think you've introduced a new component into the conversation. Our dinner for two at Babbo which included aperitifs and a bottle of wine was approx. $150. Momofuku Ssam was shockingly reasonable. The high prices 'may" come from the creativity of the food, the calibre of the cooking and the excellence and rarity of the ingredients. I think it's putting the cart before the horse to say that the prices are caused by a famous chef. How did she get famous?

                BTW, I wasn't asking if Batali was cooking that night. I asked if he was on the premises. He wasn't but he is frequently. And I doubt that any "big chef" is absent from their kitchen for "years."

                1. re: piano boy

                  What most people clearly don't understand is that these chefs aren't really chefs at this point, they're restaurateurs. Del Posto is a Mario Batali restaurant, but Del Posto has its own dedicated, constantly present chef. Another example could be Savoy and Back Forty, a much smaller "empire." Chef Peter Hoffman is in and around the restaurants daily, but the majority of the work attributed to a chef is done by Ryan Tate, who is technically the chef de cuisine.

                  I have no problem at all with this set up. In fact, I think it ensures that careful attention is paid to diners and their meals. Those who genuinely expect someone like Mario Batali to be at (ALL) their restaurants are sorely misguided.

                  1. re: suckeriove

                    Restauranteur is a good description in that many of the ventures are owned by outside investors and the celebrity chef is basically just an advisor/consultant with some kind of compensation.
                    I wouldn't even use the word CEO...the celebrity chef in many of these ventures isn't even involved in the financial aspects of the operations or calling the everyday shots.

              2. Unless you are talking about a mom-and-pop operation or a bistro, the executive chef will rarely ever cook your meal, even is she was present on site.

                Executive chefs are like CEOs of corporations. Do you think Steve Jobs put together that iPod you're using? Or that Bill Gates actually wrote all the software lines in your Windows XP?

                3 Replies
                1. re: ipsedixit

                  A guy who owns one restaurant with maybe 20 employees is hardly a CEO, let alone Steve Jobs, a founder and executive of an international company, with multi MULTI billion dollar sales, and 50,000 employees.

                  Sure there are some chefs with multiple locations and interests (Batali, Keller, ...), but having the chef present in his/her only restaurant hardly seems like an unreasonable request IMHO.

                  1. re: PoppiYYZ

                    The owner/chef with 20 employees certainly IS the CEO in my opinion. S/he runs the business including the creative side. Maybe you're more impressed with the celebrity chef status than the celebrity chef is :) If s/he creates a wonderful menu that others execute perfectly, then the CEO has truly done a good job of managing the business. CEOs who micro-manage and don't delegate frequently fail, no matter how talented they may be.

                    1. re: c oliver

                      Agree with c oliver.

                      To the OP -- have you ever actually been in or worked in a kitchen that services a dining room with >50 capacity? At peak hours (lunch or dinner crowd) the kitchen is a madhouse and the last thing an executive chef has time to do is actually cook -- he or she needs to see that the plates are plated properly, the food tastes good, there are enough ingredients, the orders are processed in the right order, etc.

                2. I'm not sure it counts as a destination restaurant, but when I ate at The Little Owl last December, Joey Campanero, the chef and co-owner, was indeed in the house. He was sitting at a corner table with friends, having dinner. I figured if he was happy to eat food prepared by the staff, so was I.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: small h

                    But, OP wants the chef to actually be cooking not just hanging out.

                    1. re: c oliver

                      It was Christmas Eve! What kind of person are you, expecting the chef to work on Christmas Eve. Seriously, though, while it would be cool to know that Thomas Keller (or whoever) actually touch my actual food with his actual hands, even if he were in the kitchen, that would likely be true of only one component of the meal. I'm guessing he doesn't bake the bread, for instance.

                  2. I don't think it's so important. Over many years I've been a big fan of Peter Kelly, an icon in the New York Hudson valley area. Lately he's spent a lot more time at his newest place in Yonkers, and less at an older place in Piermont. Personally I've enjoyed the Piermont place quite a bit more than the Yonkers place (quality and consistency of food). So it really depends on who is cooking the food, not necessarily whether the "name chef" is there or not.

                    1. The literal translation of Chef is "chief" or "leader" not "cook". Most chef/owners concentrate more on the running of the entire business, not just the running of the kitchen. Most chef/owners today have Chef de Cuisines or Executive Sous Chefs who have been by their side for years and can execute the menu just as well as the actual "Chef". Frankly, working in a busy kitchen is a young man's game. You're talking about 12 plus hours in hot kitchens while trying to coordinate hundred of plates to scores of guests at dozens of tables, at the same time.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: dominickpurnomo

                        Indeed. And I can think of several very well known chef-owned restaurants in the UK, where the kitchen has actually been overseen by a head chef who has then became a name in her/his own right, whilst still an employee of the "really big name".

                      2. I go to "name" restaurants frequently and the only time I have seen the celebrity chef on the premise was at Burger Bar in SF. Hubert Keller was there and working his butt off. Very friendly but very busy and certainly not cooking the food.

                        At Emeril's in Orlando my then 8 year old was horrified to discover that Emeril would not be personally cooking her steak. She assumed that since it was his restaurant he was the one cooking each and every meal.

                        1. i go to their restaurants for the food, not the show. if i waned a show i'd eat at a strip club.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Kitchener

                            But have you ever found one with good food? That might be the holy grail for hedonists.

                          2. I would consider it a rare thing for a celebrity chef to not only be present but cooking. Any expectation otherwise is naive or unrealistic.

                            1. I guess I wouldn't automatically expect it. For example at Wolfgang Puck's fairly new restaurant in Tulsa, I wouldn't expect to see him here unless there was a FB message that he was going to be in town specifically. (Which they are good about doing). If I was going to a destination restaurant (for me anyway ... I'd love to fly out and go to French Laundry) I know it would make my experience perfect to see Keller (regardless of if he was cooking or not) and despite knowing he has other restaurants I'd be a little disappointed not to see him, but I'm sure the food would be excellent. So, I can see both sides.

                              1. It is definitely a better experience for me when the chef is in house, whether or not they are cooking. The time I ate at Lotus back in the late 90s, Susur was cooking with, if I remember correctly, one other person. When a diner's chair collapsed, it was Susur who, with apologies and a certain amount of amusement (nobody was hurt, and it was a bit slapstick) carried the broken chair away. The times I ate at his restaurant, Susur, he was always in house, watching what was happening and ensuring everything was going as he expected. Once he had two restaurants in Toronto, plus another in New York City, I knew chances of encountering him in Toronto were slim, and he was certainly nowhere in sight when I ate at Lee.

                                People definitely have a different experience dining at Stadtlander's Eigensinn Farm where he and his wife are indispensable... without them and their presence, there would be no food, service, whatever. But, Stadtlander isn't cooking from the same recipes each night...

                                While Stadtlander has chosen one path, many chefs have their fingers in a number of pies (multiple restaurants, farms, wineries, tv shows, etc.), and they have moved away from the hands-on cooking they built their name on. Nonetheless, it is always fun to see the star, and it's confidence-building to know that they are keeping an eye on things.

                                Did you feel your meals suffered due to the absence of the chef?

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Full tummy

                                  Thanks FT, Great story. It's that type of interaction, minus the "gravity event", that I'm looking for ;).

                                  Hard to answer your question though. Had some bad meals when the chef was not there and can't help feeling things might have been different if they were. Only had one terrible experience WITH the chef there, though. Swearing from the chef, kitchen out of control (all within sight of the Patrons), and an incredibly boring meal. Chef is still there and we've never returned.

                                2. Thank you all for your feed back.

                                  It seems the consensus is that most feel the absence of the name chef is not unusual and in fact should be expected. Perhaps I should have been more specific and clearly stated that I don’t expect Mario to be boiling the pasta water and if the chef has multiple locations / interests, then I too understand the chances of them being there are low.

                                  However, I have had the pleasure of having name chefs present during my visit and I'll continue to seek restaurants where the creative genius behind the creations is directly involved.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: PoppiYYZ

                                    Not being argumentative but I'm curious about the logistics of achieving your goal. Will you first call a restaurant and see if the top dog actually cooks and, if s/he does, would you then request/require a reservation only for those days and times that TD is going to be working? Would you ask them then to call you if the cooking schedule changes? I see that this is clearly important to you, even if not to many others, but it seems like you're going to miss a lot of great food by pursuing it that way. There are some restaurants where one is lucky to score a reservation a month or two in advance. If I start adding more limitations, I'd feel like I was trying really hard to shoot myself in the foot. But for me the food is #1 (and probably #2 and maybe #3). We're all different.

                                    1. re: PoppiYYZ

                                      Definitely give Ruby Watchco a try, then, as Lynn Crawford is generally on site. My sister went recently and said the food was good (high end comfort food) but it was the service, atmosphere, and overall enthusiastic and energetic vibe that made her experience fantastic. All this included hearty welcomes from the big names behind the venture, who are all still at the forefront of the restaurant.

                                      1. Funny watching Charlie Rose last night as an obviously uncomfortable Mario Batali explained that he visits his NY restaurants 2-3 times a week to a surprised and laughing Charlie. Mario pointed out that he does stay for a few hours each visit...

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: PoppiYYZ

                                          Saw a recent interview of artist Jeff Koons on Charlie Rose. Seems much of "his" art is created by the 100+ staff working in his studio. I guess claiming ownership of delegated work isn't just limited to restaurants.

                                          Meanwhile experts still debate furiously whether certain paintings are "real" da Vinci's or just created by others who worked in his studio.

                                        2. I'm sure Emeril Lagasse rarely makes an appearance at his restaurant at Universal Studios Orlando.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: PotatoHouse

                                            Never been there. Don't plan on going there either.