Wednesday 2/28 – I’m starting this post the morning after Susie Davidson Powell came into The Wine Bar to review us for the Times Union. It’s written a bit at a time as the process went from the visit to the printed results. I don’t know how the review will turn out, but I have a pretty good idea. My goal here is to give you an intimate view of being the subject of a critical examination by the local press. As chefs, we put our names on the menu and open ourselves up to critical review by both the press and by the dining public through internet review sites and as blog comments. Most people have occupations that keep them hidden from public reviews yet have no problem being critical of those of us that make our living behind a stove. Furthermore, they do it anonymously. I’m all for speaking your mind, but it takes a bit of courage to do it as yourself rather than under a screen name.
We chefs who have culinary freedom speak our mind through our menus. Those of us that take some chances run the risk of uninformed scrutiny by those who have a less than adventurous or educated palate. The people who write reviews, restaurant blogs, or anyone who puts their name on products that will be seen or consumed by the public also expose themselves to examination. That takes guts, and we understand the game before we play. I can take it just fine as long as I’m judged fairly by a competent and non-biased assessor.
I’ll start at the beginning of the process and take you through the whole way, concluding with my thoughts once I see the results and digest what is said about The Wine Bar and my food. I will write as things unfold, and you’ll see that being reviewed by the most-read local media outlet can be more than a visit and an article. There’s a build-up and waiting period, there’s a first reading, there’s an initial reaction, a thinking period, then reaction from the public, friends, and co-workers. It’s a lot to digest, as what I do is not only my livelihood, but it’s my life’s passion.
When I returned to The Wine Bar after a two-year absence I had a strong feeling that the Times Union would want to see how I was doing given my experiences and reporting of them over recent months. That feeling certainly did not change the way I go about my business, but it did keep me on the lookout.
On Tuesday night I got an order in from a table of two ladies. Three starters, a pizza, and four half-size entrées. That’s a lot of food, so I was a bit suspicious. I asked the server if one of the women had an English accent. She did, so I knew what was happening. No big deal, we just do what we do and see what shakes out. I felt pretty good about the food I sent out, and I didn’t do anything extra or out of character for each of the plates because I think it’s important to get an accurate gauge of how we’re doing here. Not only does it let me know our level of work, it lets me know how we compare to other restaurants that have been reviewed.
Thursday 3/1 – I got a call here at work from Steve Barnes looking to set up a photo shoot for the upcoming printing of the review. We settled on the following Wednesday. It’s difficult to choose three or four items from your menu that you want to feature. The easiest thing to do is start eliminating some items that you know won’t photograph well and decide from the remaining things. Steve also gave me a couple of suggestions which I followed.
On Saturday evening during dinner service, Susie Davidson Powell called the restaurant to interview the owner.
Wednesday 3/7 – I woke up and saw all the snow this morning I was worried that we’d have to cancel. Not a big concern really, but I do like to stick to plans, otherwise I get a bit thrown off. It’s like when my wife and I are at Target for glassware and she decides that we should get new shower sponges. That’s a little jolting since I didn’t plan on getting a new shower sponge on that particular trip. Well, the roads were fine, and we put out some nice dishes to be photographed.
Props to our garde manger, Gavin, for making an excellent chorizo, shishito pepper, and manchego pizza.
I’ve been thinking over the past week about the times SDP and I crossed paths and that two of those times that were not particularly positive. First, I called her out on this blog for her not knowing what bruschetta is. Secondly, just before the Summer of 2016 I was hired for an eight-week stint as a consulting chef for The Inn at Saratoga. Between the time I was hired and the time I started my work, the restaurant was reviewed and there was a vagueness about the timeline of events surrounding her visit, my input, and the future success of the dinner service there. While the comments on Table Hopping were minimal, it was clear there was a misunderstanding which she decided not to clear up as requested by the Inn through email correspondence.
Friday 3/9 – A couple of days before the printed review, but I read the piece on the interwebs. It wasn’t what I expected, since I was confident that the level of food I sent out was excellent. What struck me right away was that the things that she seemed to like were simply mentioned, almost glossed over. The things she didn’t like were described in detail with her often-used flowery, non-food related analogies and descriptions.
I see a general lack of sharp culinary knowledge in her reviews and that includes the evaluation of my cooking. One example is the yogurt with the lamb dish. She describes a “pungent swoosh of lemon yogurt.” She also indicates that it’s like “finding lamb in your dessert.” Interestingly enough, there is absolutely no lemon and no sweetener in that yogurt. It’s plain yogurt with orange zest. That’s it. Most food savvy people can distinguish between citrus fruits.
“What chefs should accept is that the people judging them have less knowledge that they have.” ~ Marco Pierre White
The more I read the review, the more I realize that it’s not too bad. There are a lot of positives pointed out, and I’m confident any issues can be rectified.
I will take full responsibility for the tasteless pizza crust. This is actually an issue I addressed shortly after I returned to the job. During my two-year absence some bad habits had been developed, like not following my dough recipe accurately. This is something I will not only have to reinforce, but follow up on more closely.
The pâté will be checked and the procedure reviewed with the staff. Again, I will need to follow up more closely.
The apparently over sweet tangerine sauce on the duck will be evaluated but unlikely changed. The small portion gets a tablespoon of sauce, even if you think it’s too sweet it won’t “break the dish.” As far as the lamb dish goes, I was told by a former sous chef with 15 solid years in the business who was dining at WB a few weeks ago that dish is possibly the best thing I’ve ever done. I’ll take his well-informed opinion as a better gauge of the quality of the preparation. A quarter-inch fully cooked piece of eggplant will be floppy. Sweet and savory go together in many Mediterranean cuisines. There’s sometimes a difference between not liking a dish and not understanding a dish.
One of the things I’ve been doing in my cooking upon my return to the stove is paying too much attention to how my food might look on Instagram. I mean not consciously, but modern presentation has been part of my thinking. Just look at the picture of the beef tartare accompanying the review. I takes a lot of time during service, and some extra prep time. When I examined the article for what seemed to be the 20th time I realized that having flaws in my flavors is unacceptable and I need to pay more attention to taste as I have always done in the past. In fact, I’m deleting my Instagram account and not worrying what my food looks like on social media. If you want to see it, come to The Wine Bar for some tasty but ugly food.
All reviews have merit and I learned some things from this one. It will cause me to improve as a chef and will encourage me to keep a closer eye on the kitchen staff and the overall preparation of the food we put out. I appreciate the effort of the writer, the editor, the photographer, and anyone who helped highlight The Wine Bar. I think it showed us in a positive light, and it will help my job performance. The winners here will be our customers who will see a marked improvement in an already great organization.