Foodie Rant: On Hype, Customer Service and the Forces Behind the Restaurant Business

By Anthony Todd in Food on Apr 12, 2011 4:20PM

2011_4_8Next22SMALL.jpg Last week, I was berated, quite aggressively, by the greatest chef in the Western world. In some circles of foodie-ism, that might be some sort of perverse claim to fame, like finding and saving Anthony Bourdain's used cigarette, but in reality, it was frightening and unpleasant. More important, it forced me to reflect on the food/media world in which I work, the hype that sustains restaurants, and the fundamental responsibilities of chefs, restaurant owners and service staff. Oh, and I got to peek inside The Aviary. Want the whole story?

After dinner at Next, my companion and I were asked if we'd like to go over to the Aviary for a preview. My ears perked right up. I'm a self-professed cocktail geek, and a chance to get inside the Aviary before it opened was too good to pass up. Keep in mind, when this invitation was offered, I had a camera around my neck - there was no question that I was taking pictures, and no one said a word.

I won't describe any of the drinks at the Aviary, because the restaurant isn't open yet. But there were plenty of cool modernist gimmicks, and I was a bit in awe of the equipment. I snapped away with my camera, as I saw many other diners doing. After a few minutes, a staff member came over. "Could you please stop taking pictures?" he asked. "This is a preview, and the glassware you see isn't the same as the glassware will be in the finished product - we don't want to give the wrong impression." This was a reasonable request, and I put my camera away in my bag, after a promise not to publish any pictures.

Then, it happened. About five minutes later, I saw The Chef across the darkened room. Unlike my companion, a prominent figure in the Chicago restaurant scene, I had never met Grant Achatz. He approached, and stood near the table. I reached out my hand to shake his, expecting a question about our recent meal, or our impressions of the new drinks.

"Don't take any more pictures!" he said. I was a bit taken aback, but immediately agreed. "Do you get it? Don't take any more pictures!" said the chef again. I agreed, again, and tried to point out that my camera was safe in my bag. I was cut off. "Are we clear? No pictures!" I was, frankly, a bit frightened - would he toss us out? This went on for another couple of cycles. Then, without a question, a kind word or an introduction, he turned around and walked away. Suddenly, all of the solicitous service was gone. After a few minutes of desultory sipping at cocktails we no longer wanted to drink, we were offered our coats and left.

As we walked out the door, my date and I turned to each other. Had that just happened? Was it possible? After paying $300 for a dinner, had we just been berated by the chef? All of the warmth left over from our wonderful dinner at Next was gone, as we trudged back to the car in the rain. During the drive home, I thought, "What a story, but I can't ever tell anyone!"

Upon reflection, this reaction was more interesting than the encounter. Why was my first thought that I couldn't tell anyone what had happened? I ate the dinner - no one could take it away from me. I had the pictures safe and sound in my camera. I had never met the chef, so annoying him wasn't a huge problem. What was I worried about? Losing access. The fear that I might not be "on the list" anymore, that I would be branded a troublemaker - a disturber of the peace, of the carefully mediated relationships between journalists, chefs and public relations managers.

In the local food media landscape, access means stories, exclusives and interviews with chefs. But it also can create a toxic feedback loop. In order to keep getting traffic, to have the latest gossip and the freshest news, writers have to cultivate relationships with those who can provide information. This creates an ethically gray area for writers, especially those of us who aren't anonymous and don't have huge budgets. Should we say what we think, and risk annoying powerful people? Or fill our pages with non-evaluative "news" coverage that, by its very existence, endorses the products that it purports not to judge? Does the hype, and the constant coverage of a few famous (and well-represented) restaurants cause us to miss hundreds of interesting, less-famous stories happening all over Chicago?

Over the last six months, restaurant hype fever in Chicago has reached new highs, and the aforementioned feedback loop is going around and around like the Daytona 500. Between the Michelin Stars and the gossip surrounding the openings of The Girl and the Goat, Paris Club, GT Fish and Oyster, Next, Aviary, and ING, sometimes it seems like food writing is about everything except actual food. Aviary and Next are a perfect example - 20,000 people had decided they wanted to be there, before a single plate came out of the kitchen. Why? Some of the answer is the genuinely-deserved fame of Chef Achatz. But a lot of it is hype, gossip and the desire to have the exclusive experience. I got caught up in it myself - a few weeks ago, I was content to wait and see as the Next saga unfolded, but as the tickets got closer to being released, and the tweets, Facebook updates and news articles started coming at a furious pace, I got more and more eager. If I didn't eat there, I'd be missing out!

What about Achatz's behavior? The world of restaurants isn't really about fame, culinary creativity, gastronomic excellence or any other highfalutin' ideals - it's about making money. Attracting paying customers who will tell their friends that they had a good time. I had just paid to eat dinner in Achatz's restaurant. I own a copy of his book. I support the Grant Achatz brand. And, when asked to keep the restaurant's trust, I agreed to do so without question. If he had asked me to keep the photos under my hat, or not to disturb anyone with my camera, I would've done so without another word - I'm a fan of his work, and I want the restaurants to succeed. But it didn't turn out that way.

It's become a more common story for chefs to be annoyed with bloggers and photographers running all over the dining room. If someone is disrupting the experience for other paying guests, by all means, make them stop. But was this incident about that? Others were taking pictures. Others have tweeted pictures. If my camera was already put away, why get angry? Why was it so important that we not take and share pictures? Despite the fact that controlling information in the age of phone cameras, Facebook and blogs is completely impossible, the impulse of the chef had been to violate every tenet of the hospitality industry in order to intimidate me into not divulging ... what, exactly? Something important, for sure. But it wasn't clear exactly what.

I cannot claim to understand how stressful it is to start up a new business, especially one with so much attention focused on it. Chef Achatz is known for being a perfectionist (a quality that enhances his work) and I don't mean to sound annoyed at him. I enjoyed my dinner at Next, and I sympathize with the situation. From his point of view, it was late at night, the restaurant wasn't open yet, and some yahoo was taking pictures of the wrong glasses. Maybe he was just caught up in the same fever that had caused me to drop everything to try to get tickets to Next.

In the end, this experience was about learning how to be comfortable with the ethics and values of what I do, and about learning to tell the real information from the hype. If I get berated by someone for no reason, it doesn't really matter. I'll try to understand why, and then I'll just go to another restaurant down the street. If I get fewer exclusive news stories because I annoy someone, I'll cook more or go back to my garden. I got into food writing because I love the creative possibilities that food offers. I don't really care about gossip, hype or getting inside of a place before anyone else. I'll do those things, because sometimes readers like to see it. But on my time? I just like to eat good food.