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Raw Capitalism in the Restaurant World

Mises Daily: Wednesday, February 02, 2011 by

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[Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook • By Tony Bourdain • HarperCollins, 2010 • 281 pages]

Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook

If you thought the popping of the financial bubble laid waste to over-the-top, high-end dining, think again: the stock market's bounce has created curiosities like the FluerBurger 5000 offered up at the Fleur de Lys in Mandalay Bay hotel and casino in Las Vegas. The Kobe burger, containing foie gras and a special truffle sauce does come with some extras besides being served on a brioche truffle bun.

Chef Hubert Keller's creation includes a bottle of Chateau Petrus 1990 poured in Ichendorf Brunello stemware (that you keep) imported from Italy, and a certificate of authenticity will be mailed to your home so you can brag to your friends about how you spent five grand in Vegas on Keller's version of a Happy Meal.

Anyone ordering the FluerBurger 5000 would likely fall in the category of "the cream of big-city douchedom," that Tony Bourdain describes in Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. The whole Kobe-burger phenomenon is just one of the dozens of concepts and people in the world of foodies that Bourdain rails about in his follow-up to Kitchen Confidential, a bestseller and life changer for the acerbic chef and adventurer.

Bourdain has his doubts that these burgers advertised as Kobe are the product of Wagyu cattle in the first place, and if they are, the beef came only from distant cousins of the cows being fattened and pampered in Japan. And if actual Kobe beef is being used, its "an utterly pointless, supremely wasteful, and even unpleasant exercise."

For anyone who has seen Bourdain on the Travel Channel or Food Network, he writes like he talks, except the writing is peppered with the F-word and similar technical terms presumably used in commercial kitchens. The pages flow in a stream-of-consciousness way that gives one the impression that the author is almost forced to purge these thoughts from his head to the page so he can manically move on to more adventure, which is what he seems to make a living doing on the Travel Channel.

By the way, plenty of big-name chefs are doing bang-up business in high-end burgers, and Bourdain figures it's the perfect concept for these troubled economic times: "the desire for comforting, reassuring food," and a backlash against boom-time food snobbery.

The beauty of the kitchen is that credentials or degrees don't matter. "There is no lying in the kitchen," as the author says, it is "the last meritocracy." A cook can either do or not do what he or she claims. And while cranking out eggs and hash browns at the local Waffle House may not qualify as art, the food Bourdain writes about is certainly created by artists, and they look to be, as a group, just as eccentric and tortured. "The best cooks are like the pretty girl in high school. Gifted. Born to cook," young phenom David Chang tells Bourdain. "They never had to develop other skills."

Chang has built an empire on his Momofuku concept with a like-titled cookbook and all the glories of celebrity chefdom. But Chang, no longer just a cooking savant, suffers from attacks of unexplained deafness, psychosomatic paralysis and mystery headaches, brought on by the pressures of running multiple businesses and feeling responsible to an ever-growing staff he cares about. "I mean … Larry Bird was a terrible coach," Chang points out, claiming he'd just like to go back to getting drunk with his cooks, convinced he'll die before he reaches fifty.

It's exhilarating to read about working people who do their job better than anyone in the world. These people will never be wealthy or famous, but every day they do a job faster and better than anyone. Bourdain introduces readers to one of these gifted and productive people, in the kitchen at New York City's premier fish restaurant, Le Bernardin.

"If there is such a thing as dog-eat-dog capitalism, this must be it — with customers holding the leash."

Before the chefs at Le Bernardin work their magic, Justo Thomas singlehandedly cuts seven hundred pounds of fish to the exacting standards required at a restaurant that has earned 3 stars from the Michelin Guide, 4 stars from the New York Times, and was Zagat's top pick in 2007.

The delivery people call him Primo and it takes three people to do his job as fast (four to five hours) when he goes on vacation. Working in a cramped hallway, Thomas, like fictional serial killer Dexter, first covers the walls in plastic clear wrap. And then Justo's magic begins. Bourdain gives us a cut-by-cut, fish-by-fish description of how "phenomenally, amazingly and supernaturally … good" Thomas is at his job.

Chefs everywhere struggle with those tricky little rib bones in salmon that must be removed individually. Those of us at home are left to extract them from our mouths while carefully chewing each bite.

Justo moves his hand up the fillet in a literal flurry of movement; with each bone that comes out, he taps the pliers on the cutting board to release it, then, never stopping, in one continuous motion, repeats repeats repeats. It sounds like a quick, double-time snare drum beat, a staccato tap tap tap tap tap tap, and then … done.

Bourdain hasn't seen anything like it in his thirty years in the restaurant business.

Careful readers will come to understand why restaurants have the highest mortality rate of any business type. Margins are razor thin and the public is exacting and fickle. And when the Fed has its foot on the monetary gas, plenty of liquidity comes gushing into high-end restaurants, starting an expansion boom that can only lead to disaster.

Bourdain's chapter 7, "The Fear," captures the cycle perfectly. It wasn't just the price of stocks and mortgage-backed paper goulash that fell with a resounding thud. Sales at New York's finest eateries fell 30 percent overnight. But as the author explains, chefs can't admit these things publically, that would be "bad ju-ju."

What went away instantly in the fall of '08 were the "thousands of loud, over-testosteroned men flush with cash and eager to play [you'll have to read the book] — the secret-sharers, the hidden backbone of the fine-dining business — vaporized into an oily cloud, possibly/probably never to return."

But it wasn't the food sales that floated these restaurants' boats, it was the booze. That's where the margins are. Hundreds were spent on food in the good times but it was the thousands spent on liquor and wine that keep the doors open and helped the "chef be a little more generous with the truffles." Wall Streeters were spending Monopoly money on big-party, limited-menu booze-fests tucked away in back rooms, and plenty of restaurants couldn't survive without it. Suddenly, that business stopped, and half-price specials and à la carte options appeared.

For every restaurant that closes, there always seems to be another chef or cook who believes he or she can strike gold serving food, drink, and cuisine. The business, as Bourdain explains, lives and breathes dreams, delusions, and superstitions.

"And when the Fed has its foot on the monetary gas, plenty of liquidity comes gushing into high-end restaurants starting a expansion boom that can only lead to disaster."

Unlike office work, there is pressure in the restaurant business for everyone to perform at their best, from the bus boys to the bartenders to the chefs, each and every shift. One unhappy customer will tell ten friends of their spoiled experience, and those ten will each tell another ten, and soon the doors are locked. If there is such a thing as dog-eat-dog capitalism, this must be it — with customers holding the leash.

This pressure forces employees to depend upon each other and builds intense camaraderie; their livelihoods depend upon it. Bourdain says he doesn't miss working the kitchen and believes it to be a profession for the young and limber — of mind, body, and emotion.

He only misses sharing that sense of satisfaction with his staff for a job well done, long after the big spenders have all gone home. And he doesn't have to worry about getting up and doing it all over again the next day.