Tony and Kevin. Two Chefs Gone Too Soon.

When I think of Anthony Bourdain, I can’t help but thinking of my friend, Kevin Weeks. Both chefs and both lost to this world too soon, each harbored some of the same qualities: an unquenchable and unyielding appetite for life, a passion for what they did and a similar passion to share it, and a deep and tireless curiosity to learn more about the world and its people. They were also two very influential people on my career and in my life.

I first read Kitchen Confidential two years into my life in the restaurants, right as I was deciding if this was going to in fact be my life, and I was going to abandon whatever my earlier plan had been—law school, journalism…cubicles. I was working for Kevin–a chef with wild red hair, chili pepper tattoos, a love for music, photography, painting, books, anything interesting really, and the sensibility that sleep was optional.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I loved being in this business. With Bourdain’s book in my hand, I nestled myself under Kevin’s wing, and I figured this path was sure as Hell good as any other I was considering.

From there, the wild ride began, and it continues to this day. I struggled mightily, I failed repeatedly, but I pressed on. I remember thinking early on with a mix of fear and excitement, “Holy shit. Is this what it is like?” Kevin basically responded, “Yes. And no. Now get back to work. And you’re buying tonight.”

I did it because I loved the heat and the salt and the night and the noise. I did it because I felt, even then, that I only had once chance on the ride, and I wouldn’t take the path well-traveled because I was supposed to. But I also did it because I wanted to be like Kevin. And in a way, like Anthony Bourdain.

Anthony Bourdain pushed himself out of his comfort zone in so many ways. He wrote his story beautifully, and then he spent years telling other people’s stories. He went where many others had not—across borders and onto the backstreets, down the alleys and through the dark doors without fear or prejudice. And then he left the comfort zone of his new famous life and owned up to his past, supporting the #metoo movement in our business and becoming a leader when our industry needed them the most.

It was remarkable to watch Bourdain’s career evolve. He was to me, a good chef, a brilliant writer, and a preternatural connector. Rarely can someone meander their way to match their career with their true talent. He brought the secret pain and joy of the professional kitchen to the masses, and then he went further to connect the world to itself. I don’t think we will know the significance of his loss for some time.

Kevin died in a car crash, the result of a negligent driver, over 11 years ago. He was 35. My wife was seven months pregnant with our daughter. At the time, we were planning a restaurant together that would become Eventide. He never got to see it, and he never got to meet Evelyn. Many of us that were lucky to be in his orbit have never forgotten that awful night, never forgotten the impact he had on us and never stopped missing him.

I gave a eulogy for Kevin—one of many given—where I tried to sum up what it meant when I said we should all wake in the morning and “Do something Kevin today.” Essentially it means at least for a moment, go and grab life into your hands. Inhale deeply, taste it all, slurp up every drop and then…go back in for more. Break out of your mold, free yourself from your rut, and seek and savor something new. Kevin was a chef, but he was also so much more. He could do it all, and he would try anything.

Anthony Bourdain did that over and over. It makes me so sad to see how that was possible for someone so similar to my friend, and to wonder just what Kevin could have done if he had more time to grow. I have no doubt it would have been special, and I don’t think anyone who ever met him would doubt it either.

And yet here we are, and the world pushes on without the benefit of these two extraordinary people. There is nothing we can do about it, and they would surely not want us to linger in our loneliness. For more than 10 years, I have been trying to do that, and I am buoyed by the thought—the hope, really—that Kevin would be proud of me. I don’t know how else to do it.

I imagine that Anthony would have liked Kevin, and that Kevin would have liked Anthony. I like to think they would have loved to sit together, slurping noodles, slamming back shots and laughing and singing. I would have liked to be there as well; sitting there being grateful to know them and trying not to say anything stupid.

I don’t believe in God, and I don’t believe in Heaven. But the idea that maybe the two of them could be sharing that meal together now makes me pause–and smile. And in another 40 years or so, if there is an extra chair, and I get to sit down, I would be grateful.

Kevin with a huge striped bass he caught off Martha’s Vineyard before he cleaned it and cooked it for us, and Kevin and I headed to or from (can’t remember) or friend’s wedding.

Nashville

It is not just hot chicken and country music.

In fact, if I never have hot chicken again, that would be fine with me. Sorry to be a hater, but I didn’t get it. I felt like the heat and discomfort was just making it impossible to enjoy a good plate of fried chicken. But hey, that’s me.

As to country music, I could care less about the pop country crap, but Nashville is inseparable from the real stuff—The Ryman, Ernest Tubb’s record shop and so on. I wanted to be near that history, and I could go see all that again. And again. However, it was great to see some music from other genres which Nashville is full of. I got to see Elise Davis at The High Watt. Great stuff, and thanks to Brooklyn Brewery for putting on the show and supporting great music. And for the old stuff, Robert’s Western World was just as described—and the grilled cheese was a nice bonus.

But, I was mostly there for the beer. And man, was there a lot of it. Thousands descended on the Music City Center to talk craft beer at the annual Craft Brewer’s Conference. I was struck by how focused, motivated and friendly the crowds were. The seminars, whether on bacteria in brewhouses or raising capital, were packed daily. The expansive floor was full of suppliers and brewers all trying to figure out where the industry was going next.

For a nascent brewery like our partner, City-State Brewing Company, this was an invaluable opportunity, and founder James Warner made the most of it. We were up, down and all around, trying to soak up as much as we can (and yes, drinking up a fair amount as well).

We left with the sense that the brewery we are building—a robust taproom in a great area with an eye towards a strong local distribution presence—is exactly the right spot for us to be in. For an entrepreneur, feeling like you are on the right rack is one of the most helpful things that can ever happen.

Thank you to the Brewer’s Association for an incredible conference, and to the dozens of helpful colleagues we met. We hope to see you all next year in Denver.

For Mothersauce, this was also a chance to see Nashville, and hear its story about what food and beverage means down there these days. I spent the mornings and the evenings learning about the city, and I enjoyed nearly every minute.

Nashville gets compared to Austin a lot, and while I can see that is irritating to proud locals, as a native of neither, I get it. From the surrounding hills, the heat, the river cutting through the middle, its easy manner, and most of all the explosive growth, it is easy to see a parallel.

As far as food culture, there is a kinship as well. Both cities have a very powerful, historical food tradition (tex-mex & barbecue in Austin, hot chicken & southern meat-and-three in Nashville), and yet with their growth has come a burgeoning food scene that often is completely outside the tradition.

So where will they go?

To me, coffee is always a marker. If a city has a vibrant coffee culture—independent shops, high quality local roasting—that is always a good sign. Nashville certainly has that. Regional chain Revelator Coffee is great, but my favorites were Barista Parlor (most stunning setting I can recall) and Crema (perched high above the river with the whole city to stare at). Great coffee at all, friendly people, and a clear devotion to the craft.

Next, the top end of the dining scene (yes, in price, but also in commitment to ingredients and skill) can say a lot. Is it all steakhouses? Is it “high-end” barbecue (why people try that I will never understand)? Is it national chains planting flags to tell a city what they should like? All those things are bad indicators.

I confess I was disappointed that a number of people recommended some steak and chop houses when I asked where to go to eat, but coming from DC where I sometimes think we invented the concept, or at least are responsible for keeping it alive, it isn’t really fair for me to judge too harshly.

That aside, what I found were some extraordinary concepts that would sit right at home in DC or anywhere. My favorite meal was easily Rolf & Daughters. Great service, excellent cocktails and wine, and one of the best pasta dishes I can recall. They have the benefit, along with honorable mention City House, of being in Germantown, a very charming neighborhood that I could see living in and being right at home.

The company in town to talk about is definitely Strategic Hospitality. It seemed half my list of recommended places were under their umbrella. They are doing a fantastic job bringing original, fun and unique concepts to Nashville. I love seeing a company working to elevate the dining scene of an entire city.

Since we are about to open a bowling concept, their multi-purpose spot Pinewood Social was a must. We bowled, we drank, we ate and it was all a blast. It was great to see that you can have the most proletariat of pastimes combined with elevated food and drink, and it just works. Again, nothing makes the terror of entrepreneurship easier to take than when you feel you are on the right track. Look for our version, The Eleanor, in NoMa this June, by the way.

From wandering in East Nashville to hanging out down in the Gulch, from Vanderbilt to Germantown, there were many more places that I enjoyed. It isn’t a walkable city, really, but it isn’t big, and you can hop from area to area very easily. I think I could easily fill another few days with more research. I am already scouring the tours of my favorite artists to see if I can catch one at the Ryman next time I am down there.

dining-trends-restaurant

New Year, New Food Trends, No Poke

As Mothersauce wraps up its first calendar year of operations, I am looking back with pride at all that we have done, but I am mostly looking ahead to what we are going to do. Our future is very bright, and I will soon announce some incredible projects for 2018.

In the meantime, I get asked a lot about trends—what is the next one, which one is a fad, what’s my favorite. Occasionally, I get asked a better question—where do I see the food and beverage business going? While that question is mostly tailored to DC, it is always valuable to think more broadly and ask also where is the business going nationally?

This seems like the perfect topic for my end of the year blog post.

Thinking about where the food and beverage business is going is critical to deciding where to invest my company’s resources.

There are trends that I don’t think have any staying power (I love poke, but…), and there are trends that seem to be holding on and even growing (cider). Instead of exploring them all, l am looking at one that will continue to have a major impact:

Food halls.

Not food courts, of course. A food court is the place in Pentagon City where I get my hair cut and NEVER, EVER go to Panda Express. Especially not for beef with broccoli.

Dammit.

A food hall, or sometimes a food market, is a curated collection of vendors under one roof that eschews the traditional one building, one concept model. The key is a multitude of offerings, but not too much overlap (think of an all hamburger joint food hall. Overkill. And, gross). Like many things, the model is simple but not easy.

In our area, we are fortunate to be punching above our weight class (like we always do in food) by having two food halls in the nation’s top 20, Eastern Market and Union Market. Union Market, in fact, is in Bon Apetit’s top 5.

Newcomers like The Block have added more flavor and penetrated the suburbs, and there are so many more variations on the theme on the way, it is hard to count. Mike Isabella is claiming 40,000 square feet in Tyson’s (it is in a mall, but it is NOT a food court—got it?). Notable chef Jose Garces is opening a 20,000 square foot Latin-themed food hall around the corner from Union Market, and developers know that to offer the latest to their tenants, they need to get in on this—Forest City is planning to open “Quarter Market” as a part of their remodeling of the Ballston neighborhood in Arlington. Will Ballston finally be a cool place to go? Doubt it, but it’s a start.

There are many more, and there are some interesting twists. Incorporating retail not just for F&B, but clothing and home goods is an interesting way to create stickiness and offer vendors a platform other than a traditional shop. This winter, The Block borrowed from an Asian tradition, huge in LA, to open a “night market.”

What is consistent is the customer’s desire to access many different options in a setting that is cool, informal and easy. Everyone gets what they want, the experience is seamless and fun, and you want to go back.

But, how do they work for the partners involved? The landlord, the management company, and the vendors themselves? Hard to say, but what seems like an amazing thing from the customer’s perspective is rarely as clean and smooth behind the scenes. The logistics and the economics are far more complicated than with a traditional restaurant setup. Figuring that out will be the key to long term success for all the partners involved.

And if they do figure it out and pack the places, will they kill restaurants? No, not at all. But it is already having an impact on the food and drink scene, and it will continue to do so.

The real interesting question is how will they evolve. Right now, a food hall is basically a mixed-use development with tenants paying rent and sharing some amenities. Simple.

What more could it be? Is there an evolution that truly creates a win-win-win for the property owner, the customer AND the vendors? Perhaps someone out there is already working hard on that model…

Ahem.

The New Grandmothers

Last night I had the great honor to meet world-renowned Chef Massimo Bottura. Chef Bottura is much more than a perennial winner of Michelin stars, best restaurant awards and every other accolade that can be awarded in our business. He is in fact a transcendent figure with a vision that goes far beyond his restaurant in Modena. I encourage everyone to watch his episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix to see what I am talking about.

Chef was in town at American University to promote his new book, Bread is Gold, a collaboration with other chefs of great renown. It is a recipe book, but it is also a vision for the future. In Chef’s eyes, the key to providing food for those who need it lies not in increased production, but in decreased waste.

As part of a panel discussion with local thought leader Chef Spike Mendelsohn, the notion that culinary traditions—and guidance on how to appreciate and not waste food—is less and less a thing passed down from grandmothers or others in our families. Our society, particularly in America, lacks that generational connection in many ways. And so, who is there to replace them? Who can carry on the legacy of appreciating that food comes from effort, from the earth, and it must be savored when eaten, cared for with love, and least of all, wasted?

Perhaps chefs?

Moderator Mitchell Davis from the James Beard Foundation threw out that notion acknowledging that concurrent with the decline in family traditions, there is a rise in the celebrity status of chefs. No longer in the back of the house, they are now front and center on panels, at the White House, on TV and in every conceivable venue for influence that exists.

They wield great power in influencing our culture, especially the younger generations, on how to treat food. They can act as thought leaders and shape generations and perhaps solve this great problem in our world as we race towards a more crowded—and hungry—planet.

Quite a responsibility indeed. Especially when many of these men and women have responsibilities to their businesses and families. However, what an extraordinary opportunity. And it can be done in a granular level by showing people how to prepare food for themselves, in their homes, with love and care for the ingredients. Just like your grandmother might have shown you.

Chef Bottura’s career has been defined by bold—and perhaps reckless—visions that he makes into reality through a singular combination of passion, drive and savvy. And of course, with a tremendous team to support him. This latest vision represents just the latest move for a man who seems hellbent on leading the way and creating change. From Parmesan 5 Ways to making Cacio e Pepe a rallying cry for earthquake victims to driving our world to think differently about how it eats—and wastes—food.

Just another crazy idea. One that may be gold.

Grazie, Chef.

Help Wanted

What makes DC a great food city is not just the food, but the media that cover it. We are lucky to have a collection of passionate and hardworking journalists in DC who do more than just review the new poke place. Or the new poke place. Or the new…For real, what the Hell with poke?

To understand this business, you must look past the fabricated drama of openings and closings and what pop-up theme bar has the longest line. This is a business with many determiners of success existing behind the scenes. Recently, one of DC’s best food writers, Jessica Sidman at the Washingtonian, drew attention to what might be the single most critical factor in the success or failure of restaurants over the next couple of years.

Staff.

This piece draws attention to what is being considered a crisis. I have written that talk of a bubble is hyperbole, but this issue is very real, and while I don’t think it will deflate the industry, I do think that many restaurants that might otherwise have the pieces in place to be successful, will not be.

As the article points out, every operator in town is acutely aware of this issue, and it is not a new one. However, what makes this piece helpful is that it singles out the Wharf as particularly exacerbating the problem.

No doubt, the Wharf will be a good thing for the city. Growing up here, the SW waterfront was good for buying seafood, and that was it. It is certainly underutilized, and I look forward to seeing it succeed. I also look forward to someone inviting me to see the Foo Fighters opening night at The Anthem. Hello? Anyone? Sigh.

As the excitement builds towards the opening of the Wharf, residents are excited, and no thought at all is given to how many customers it will take to support these businesses. That should be a concern. There are simply too many places for everyone to do well. And with the prices these places have paid, they will need every customer they can get.

Reports are already out that several places will not meet the required opening deadline. That is expected but nonetheless troubling.

But again, that is not the real worry. Sidman’s article states that the Wharf will need nearly 900 employees just for the restaurants. And she rightly theorizes that those employees will certainly come from other restaurants. That of course is nothing new—staff routinely hop to the newer spots.

But there is still a gap.

There simply aren’t enough competent and well-trained employees to staff all these new places and all the other places that are continuously opening around the city.

The solution to that problem is complicated, but workforce development is key. There are solid jobs at every skill level to be had in restaurants, and there is substantial opportunity for growth. Whether it is local non-profits focusing on culinary specific job training (plug for my non-profit, La Cocina VA), or broader initiatives by local and national government, more needs to be done.

There is always talk about America needing better jobs, but that is not true here in DC. The jobs are here–we need the people to work them.

And to be clear, I do believe that our industry needs to do more. The antiquated ways in which we treat staff need to continue to evolve. The idea that long hours, low pay and tough conditions are part of the job is ridiculous.

If we want to attract the best and the brightest—and occasionally just get a warm body in there to fill a shift—then we need to do more ourselves to attract that talent.

I have had a lot of conversations of late with smart people in the business who are trying to figure this out. We are way past realizing there is a problem, but we also don’t have all the solutions in hand. Articles like this help to make the broader community aware of the crisis, and perhaps allow for outside solutions we haven’t thought of. I think that would be welcome.