Chefs develop different rtecipes for success during this belt-tightening period

January 19, 1992|By Florence Fabricant | Florence Fabricant,New York Times News Service

Chefs usually hesitate to think beyond their plats du jour. But at certain times, they are willing to raise their line of vision above the morning's market basket and peer into the future.

One such time is now, at the dawn of a new year, with the economic climate uncertain and popular tastes in flux.

They say that business will improve, or that it will not. They say that customers want their plates loaded with hefty portions, or that they want tasting menus with food that is lighter than ever. So much for consensus.

They all, however, count their blessings, acknowledging that it has been a difficult year because of the recession and that they are lucky when seats in their restaurants are filled.

"I hope we can keep our heads above water in the coming year, as we have this year," said Don Pintabona of TriBeCa Grill in Manhattan. Thomas Valenti of Alison on Dominick Street said, "It's going to continue to be a matter of survival of the fittest out there, and I certainly wish the best for everyone."

At Square One in San Francisco, Joyce Goldstein predicted a rough year. "I wish I could be more cheerful and optimistic, but I believe the challenge of 1992 is to still be here in 1993," she said. "There certainly won't be any fat anywhere, especially not in the budget."

Not everyone is so pessimistic. "Things are going to get better and better," said Charlie Trotter, the chef and owner of Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. Andrew D'Amico, the chef at the Sign of the Dove, said 1991 was a great year, and he saw no reason to believe 1992 would be any different.

Many chefs acknowledge that the decade of the waiter-with-attitude is finally over. Thomas Keller, the executive chef of Checkers in Los Angeles, said people want to feel appreciated. "Friendly, caring service will be more important than ever," he said. Presentation -- the artfully arranged plate -- has lost out to flavor.

At the Sign of the Dove, Mr. D'Amico said minimalist plates are out because customers are more interested in hearty food. "In the long run, people want taste and flavor," he said. A lot of chefs talked of plates filled with meats and vegetables; there was surprisingly little mention of those foods that have been anointed with trend status over the last few years: grains and beans, chocolate and olive oil.

As for regional influences, the Mediterranean is still the favored culinary pond for many chefs. Mr. D'Amico expected to infuse his cooking with more Middle Eastern flavors in the coming year. Ms. Goldstein said she expects to serve more dishes from Turkey, Morocco and Spain. Antoine Bouterin, chef of Le Perigord in Manhattan, said that more than ever, his cooking would reflect the food of his native Provence.

Brian Whitmer, the executive chef of the Highlands Inn in Carmel, Calif., predicted that "we will all start relaxing on this obsession with lightness and look for better flavor.

"For that you need a little butter and more substantial meats," he said. "I'm not saying we should serve bigger portions, but the food should become heartier."

That's more or less the feeling of Christopher Gross, the owner of Christopher's and Christopher's Bistro in Phoenix. "Maybe this obsession with health will level off and people will understand the importance of enjoyment in moderation," he said.

Mark Strausman, the chef at Coco Pazzo, went beyond butter. "It's going to be the year of the steak," he said. "People want substantial food."

But not if you listen to David Bouley, the chef and owner of Bouley. "No dairy," he said. Or to Mr. Gerin, who said his style would continue to become lighter, with healthier food and more fish than ever on the menu. Or Mr. Trotter, who already serves all-vegetable menus.

Ms. Goldstein said she expects to serve more vegetable main courses. Mr. Kunz also hopes to sell more tasting menus, not in response to any pleas for lightness from his customers, but as a showcase for his style.

A close relationship with regional growers is integral to the insistence on flavor; great flavor is impossible without superb, fresh ingredients. Alain Ducasse, the renowned French chef from Monte Carlo, has told students at the Culinary Institute of America that 60 percent of the quality of the dish depends on the ingredients. To that end, chefs around the United States have resolved to work more closely with farmers.

Starr Boggs, the owner of Starr Boggs in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., is lucky enough to have a restaurant surrounded by farmers and fishermen. Other chefs have to reach farther afield. "I'm tired of having everything flown in, and there's no reason why some of the items can't be grown here," said Mr. Gross, who is searching for farmers around Phoenix.

Mr. Bouley, who has cultivated a long list of farmers in the New York region, said, "I want to spend as much time as possible with farmers, and I intend to look for growers in Virginia and the Carolinas who can enrich the winter season with quality produce."

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