Fun Dining vs Fine Dining

It’s 2017, and it continues to amaze me that there are still formal fine dining restaurants in hotels. It’s such a contradiction.

Every hotel wants to project itself as forward-thinking and relevant. Yet by holding on to a fine dining restaurant and using it as your principle focus for PR and marketing, it immediately projects an image of formality and stuffiness no matter how good the food is.

I came across one last week. It averages about 45 covers a day. The food was very good – but not food you “crave.” It has a wine inventory in excess of $200K yet annual wine revenue is less than $200K. A series of wine maker dinners, some of which attract barely 20 guests, is the focus of their annual PR and marketing. And no surprise, it loses money!

Contrast that with a new concept recently launched by Toronto restaurateur Yannick Bigourdan called Union Chicken. They serve – you guessed it – chicken. But this isn’t just chicken. This is delicious chicken you can taste! They use free range organic chickens from family-run farms in Ontario.

People LOVE chicken. So if people LOVE something, build a restaurant concept around it. It’s not rocket science.

Union Chicken has 75 seats plus 30 on the patio. The investment was CAD $1.8 million, which was high as this was their first of five locations signed to open in the next 14 to 18 months. Anticipated annual revenues are $3.5M with an ROI of under 2.6 years.

Union Chicken’s chef partner, Michael Angeloni, who has a giant rooster wielding a kitchen knife tattooed on his arm, previously worked under renowned Toronto chef David Lee at Splendido, another Bigourdan success story.

Ironically, back in those days, Splendido was a bastion of fine dining. Both Angeloni and Bigourdan saw the light and have moved on. It’s time others followed suit. 

Union Chicken.jpg

'Taking a good piece of meat and making it more delicious’

These were the prophetic words of Chef David Gunawan, owner of Farmer’s Apprentice Restaurant in Vancouver. David cooked a private dinner for a group of friends in Vancouver recently. The main course was described as “Thirty Days Dried Aged Pork, Blackcurrant Jus.” It was one of the most delicious pieces of meat I’ve eaten in a long time.

The pork was from a farm in Kamloops, a town in south central British Columbia, called North Thompson. David has worked with owner Jon Klop for five years. This particular breed was a cross between Duroc and Berkshire.

Chef David explained, “Through trial and error we figure out a combination of the breed, how long till we wean them, how much whey, grains, etc.

The last time I ate pork this good was from Cumbrae's butcher in Toronto. It was called Niagara Gold, and the young pigs were reared on the whey from Niagara Gold cheese. Cumbrae’s owner, Stephen Alexander, said, “Keep in mind, I strongly believe that genetics is only half the equation. To get great results, you need a good feed program and living environment.” 

At a time when so many restaurants are trying to figure out how to be successful, it’s encouraging to know that obsessive dedication to growing and sourcing the very best meat is still practiced and is one of the key differences between a great restaurant and a good restaurant. 

It's THAT time of year.....

“Order - 1 Fillet Mignon Au Poivre, MR. Gluten allergy, celiac, corn, all nuts, potato, coconut, strawberry, bananas, honey. All severe. Egg allergy is tolerated when incorporated in recipe. Also severe pork and turkey allergy.” 

It’s that time of year, as the expression would have it, “when it rains, it pours.” The photo below was posted on Facebook by a friend who works at a resort. The hotel is running at 100% occupancy and every restaurant is jammed. When I saw it, it reminded me of the dedication of hotel and restaurant employees all around the world who give up their own Christmas holidays to take care of others.   

Some of us are lucky enough to take time off over the holidays. To those who are working – we salute you and thank you for everything you do for your guests. Happy Hanukah and Merry Christmas. 

Canadians are funny. Really funny.

"In fact, most everybody funny in America actually came from Canada” -- Anthony Bourdain. 

If I’m ever asked who I’d like to sit next to at dinner, my immediate answer is Anthony Bourdain. I covet his life. I love his sense of humor and I totally share his passion for food. I recently saw him speak in Toronto. No visual effects. No music. Just him and a bottle of beer. I was enthralled.

Asked if he could only make one more show of "Parts Unknown," what it would be, he said with Keith Richards at his home in the south of France. "We’d cook bangers and mash together and take a boat over to Italy for lunch." 

Asked which of his chef friends he most likes to travel with, he said Eric Ripert. "I love to torture him with super spicy Sichuan cuisine."

Asked what his cure for a hangover is, he said a Coke, Advil, a joint and a bowl of mapo tofu noodles.

Few people have done more to expose North Americans to the fascinating and diverse cuisines beyond our shores. And few have inspired us more to eat outside our comfort zone.

Keep doing what you do, Mr. Bourdain.

Mezcal is the new tequila!

Well, maybe not because I'm still a huge fan of tequila, but you cannot ignore the meteoric rise of Mezcal. And, it's something all bars should be paying attention to. I've said this before but people love unique experiences when it comes to food and beverage.

While dining at ACRE restaurant in San Jose del Cabo recently, I met Dani Tartarin who is operations manager for the restaurant. She is super passionate about mezcal and she presented three very unique examples for us to compare. As per tradition, the tequilas were served with orange slices sprinkled with three different house made salts, gusano (the worm that burrows in the agave plant), chapulines (grasshopper toasted on a comal with lime and garlic) and jamaica (hibiscus).

Dani's knowledge of each mezcal was impressive. She has traveled extensively around Mexico selecting unique and rare mezcal for the restaurant. What sets the restaurant apart is how she uses her knowledge to create an experience that distinguishes ACRE from its competition.

So, to repeat a message I’ve given before: Don’t just follow current trends, create a unique experience around them that defines your brand.

No, you may NOT play music from your iPhone!

I recently had a great dinner at Central Kitchen in San Francisco. Yes, the food was amazing. Yes, the service was friendly and attentive. But, the music was outstanding! On the podium at the door you can pick up the attached card which details that evening's playlist.

Investing in great music pays off. You cannot allow your restaurant manager to to play his or her "mix" from their iPhone. They may love it but most of your customers won't.

At dBar in the Four Season Toronto, F&B Director Marc Dorfman introduced Bellosound to revolutionize the music in the bar. They boldly invested CAD$150,000 to get the speakers right and they spend CAD$200,000 year on their music and DJ program. But, it's paid off. F&B revenues between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. have soared 160% since the program began. Great music talks!