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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Book Review: "Dining Out" by Dornenburg & Page

Over the course of a recent vacation, I finally had a chance to read several books that had been collecting dust on my shelf for far too long.   One of these was Dining Out by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, the third in a series of books about the restaurant industry written by the same authors.   (Their first two are Becoming a Chef and Culinary Artistry.)   In Dining Out, Dornenburg and Page examine the role of the restaurant critic, interviewing dozens of leading chefs, restaurateurs and critics from around the country in order to gain their perspectives on the techniques, qualifications, power and value of the modern restaurant reviewer.   The book also ventures into subjects such as the definition of a great restaurant and the evolving role of the diner.

On balance, I have to say that I found Dining Out to be only mildly interesting.   The main problem with the book is that most of the information that it contains will probably be known already by anybody who has a serious appreciation for dining out and who reads restaurant reviews regularly.   For example, the authors spend an inordinate amount of time on basic concepts such as the importance of anonymity for a critic, the limitations inherent in any system that awards "stars," and the hallmarks of good restaurant service.   Moreover, Dornenburg and Page do not do a particularly good job of synthesizing and organizing the results of their numerous interviews with food industry professionals.   Instead, the book comes across as little more than a series of snippets and quotes, only loosely bound together by transition phrases and headings supplied by the authors.

That said, Dining Out is not entirely without some interesting tidbits.   Here are a few of them:
  • For quite some time, Patricia Unterman has regularly written restaurant reviews for the San Francisco Examiner while simultaneously owning and running Hayes Street Grill.   In order to avoid the obvious conflict of interest, Unterman "recuses" herself from reviewing any restaurant that competes with her own – which she defines as any fish restaurant at all or any restaurant in the geographical neighborhood of Hayes Street Grill.   I have to say that, notwithstanding the "self-policing" arrangement, this setup strikes me as rather troubling – particularly when notice of Unterman's dual role is not, to my knowledge, clearly provided at the top of her reviews.

  • Alice Waters, chef and owner of Berkeley's Chez Panisse, offers her views on what makes a successful dish:
    "There's a lot that goes into the creation of a dish, and it begins in the ground.   First of all, it's what variety of vegetable you're going to be planting, or what strain of chicken you're going to be raising.   Then it's how you're going to be doing this, hopefully without herbicides and pesticides and in a way that naturally fertilizes the plants or feeds the animals.   It's when this is being picked, and then, ultimately, how quickly that gets to the table because, for me, food is about aliveness.   Cooking is a very small part of it."   While I wholeheartedly agree with Waters' emphasis on the value of fresh, organic ingredients, I think she grossly underestimates the importance of a chef's ability to treat the ingredients with care and respect and to coax out their flavors in the context of an integrated dish.

  • ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
    There's more...
  • Several chefs provide interesting information about the lengths to which they go in order to ensure personalized and outstanding service for their diners.   Daniel Boulud, chef and owner of Restaurant Daniel in New York, personally watches all of the action in his dining room through video monitors installed in the back, and he posts a copy of each evening's guest list at multiple locations throughout the kitchen.   Gray Kunz, formerly the executive chef at Lespinasse in New York, provided recipes for all of his dishes to his entire staff, so that he could sell them on the food before they went out and "sold" it to diners.
    Hubert Keller, chef and owner of Fleur de Lys in San Francisco, keeps a file for each of his regular customers, noting every dish that they have been served for the past 15 years so that he can be sure they never receive the same dish twice.   In my view, it is paying attention to these "little" things that separates the spectacular restaurants from the merely excellent ones.

  • Surprisingly, restaurateurs from around the country – including Hubert Keller – report that positive mentions in the New York Times have a greater impact on their businesses than do similarly positive reviews in their hometown papers.   Jeremiah Tower, former chef and owner of Stars in San Francisco, notes that a positive review in Gourmet magazine used to fill the dining room at Chez Panisse (where he once worked), and that the Pink Pages section of the San Francisco Chronicle – in which restaurant reviews used to appear – could make or break a place.   And Terrance Brennan, chef and owner of Picholine in New York, states that a positive New York Times review had a discernible effect for about three weeks, while a positive story in Gourmet magazine had an impact for six months.

  • Several critics note that a great review can just as easily kill a restaurant as a bad one, if the restaurant being reviewed is not prepared for a major influx of customers.   For this reason, critics are often somewhat cautious before they give a glowing review of smaller family-run establishments.
Finally, there were a few quotes in Dining Out that I thought were useful and/or insightful.   Here are some of them:
  • Some advice for chefs, from former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl:   "I take real exception with restaurants that won't cook food to a certain doneness.   I hate overcooked anything, but I really disapprove of chefs who insist on serving rare fish to people who find it offensive because you've got them sitting captive at that moment at your table.   So, if they want an overcooked piece of tuna, you ought to give it to them."   I couldn't agree more.   The chef should certainly advise the customer if a requested preparation is likely to be bad, but the diner should ultimately be permitted to make an educated mistake if that is what he/she wants to do.

  • Some advice for restaurateurs, from former Lespinasse Executive Chef Gray Kunz:   "I judge the restaurant on the critiques that we get, and I want to know what happened with anyone who is not satisfied.   With the unsatisfied customer, all they really want is to know that someone cares.   When I call, there is almost a 99.9 percent chance of turning them around.   Those criticisms are very often justified.   But even when they're not, they're still the customers.   I know it is more detrimental to have one unhappy customer walking out of here than it is beneficial to have fifty satisfied ones leaving.   Word travels fast." (emphasis added)   This, to me, is probably the best quote in the book.   A chef/restaurateur who takes the time to read complaints and then calls the customers himself will always have diners' respect, loyalty, and business.   And Kunz's statement about the adverse impact of even a single unhappy customer is a truism that far too few in the industry understand.

  • Some advice for diners, from Ruth Reichl:   "Smart diners find a few restaurants they like and cultivate them because the experience is so much nicer when you get to be known."   I think that this is excellent advice.   While it is always exciting to get out and try new restaurants, there is something even better about being warmly welcomed back to a place at which you have become a regular.
In the final analysis, Dining Out certainly imparts some interesting information - perhaps even enough to make it worth reading if you're thinking about becoming a critic, you're interested in hearing the specific thoughts of the particular professionals interviewed by the authors, or you're just beginning the process of learning the pleasures of dining out.   But for everybody else - especially those who are conversant in the restaurant experience and who have given even the slightest amount of thought to the concept of restaurant reviews - tbere are undoubtedly better ways to spend both your time and your money.


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