Too many chefs may spoil the broth, but can a restaurant run without its leader on the premises?
“The chef is not in tonight.’’
Hands up if this scenario sounds familiar: new restaurant opens and promotes its talented, personable, Instagrammable chef, prompting you to book. You wait patiently for the iconic figure to grace your tableside, only to be told that he or she is gallivanting around the world cooking for other people in other places. You return once, then twice, with anticipation, then, trepidation, to find that the Chef is still missing in action. Many of us are reduced to calling the restaurant if ‘the chef will happen to be there this evening’ like a jilted lover pining for an unrequited crush.
Sounds dramatic, right? Well, if we are being completely honest, this is a sentiment shared by many foodies. Apart from feeding our petty egos with a real-life encounter with the chef whose image and delectable dishes invade our social media feeds, there is a more pragmatic reason why people expect that chefs should be staying-put in their restaurants.
Nianne-Lynn Hendricks, chief sub-editor of Guru Magazine/Life Bangkok Post, who in her eighteen years experience in journalism and hospitality, has seen restaurants rocket to stardom and crash and burn, put it this way: “It is very important for a chef to be in her or his restaurant, especially in its formative years. They need to be there every day of operations. There’s a lot more that goes into a restaurant than just food on the plate and if the chef is present he can also oversee the other aspects. This is if she or he wants their restaurant to succeed—as in making sure people want to come back regularly.”
But is it really OK for diners and industry folks to expect chefs to be bound to the restaurant like kitchen captives, even if operations and services are tight and running smoothly? Even if the quality of food on the plate is just as good as when the chef is in the house?
In October 2019, Michelin dropped a bombshell when they reduced a 3-star Michelin restaurant, The Araki, a sushi restaurant in London’s Mayfair, to total omission from the Guide. From 3 to zilch! Chef Araki moved to Hong Kong in March 2019 to set up another restaurant but was replaced by his protégé Marty Lau, who had worked alongside with him since 2015 and was acknowledged by GQ magazine as ‘phenomenally capable’. Marty Lau, in a CNN Travel article response to the results, stated, “We believed it placed Michelin in a difficult position to make a decision on how to score The Araki, as the master was here during half of the inspection period for 2020’s guide.”
Although it’s been famously debunked that Michelin doesn’t ‘rate’ chefs but rather what’s on the plates, it still seems fairly obvious from the public perspective that the chef’s constant presence has influence in terms of how a restaurant is ultimately valued, unless they are, of course, grossly famous and running restaurant empires, like Gordon Ramsey, Alain Ducasse or Thomas Keller who in total, tally-up over 30 Michelin stars amongst them.
Bangkok Chef ThiTid (Ton) Tassanakajohn who has a reputation for flying around the world to embark on exciting culinary collaborations is the chef-owner of Le Du which obtained its first Michelin Star in 2019. Chef Ton told Bangkok Foodies, “From my point of view, Michelin says the star is awarded to the restaurant, not the chef. So I think it’s not about the chef being there but the question is, ‘is the chef able to manage the consistency while he/she is there or not?’ I can say my food will be the same, whether I’m here or not. I didn’t travel anywhere the first 1 and a 1/2 years after opening until I was sure I had a good enough team that I could trust.”
A senior staff member from a celebrated Michelin-starred restaurant in Bangkok who preferred to remain anonymous put it very simply, “An experience with or without the chef must be the same for the guest.” Case closed. “Of course, a chef that goes away needs to always ensure that the people taking care of the restaurant are trained as he/she wants.”
But he recognises that a stellar culinary experience may not be enough to meet the diner’s expectations. “Do we go to the restaurant to enjoy a food experience,” he asks, “or do we go to get a picture with the chef?”