Greg Baker, chef-owner of the Refinery and Fodder & Shine in Tampa, Florida, is a 20-year kitchen veteran, having worked in Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, before opening his James Beard Award–nominated restaurant in 2010.
It’s time for me to ascend my bully pulpit once again and bloviate upon those things that make me happy and those that I wish would die a spectacular, speedy, fiery death, for I’ve been asked to share my thoughts as a chef/restaurateur on trends from 2015 that I loved and hated.
As I do with many things in my life, I’ve separated these into a list of friends and enemies (Enemies of the Realm, if you wish). First, the enemies:
Charcuterie, Cheese and Oysters
Why does the first third of almost every new restaurant menu have to be taken up with these three things? I love all of these things, but it seems like someone is out there selling an inflatable restaurant starter kit with a predesigned menu that leaves a few blanks for the restaurant’s own dishes.
I’m a fan of charcuterie and salumi, and am guilty of making my own. But come on, people, a charcuterie board is a European bar snack, not a meal. And after all of the work and patience that it takes to create these fine pieces of cured, smoked or otherwise preserved meats, how does it do justice to put an assortment of disparate textures and flavors on a board with one or two types of mustard that may or may not accent the meat and some piles of pickled things? Could there not be a more specific pairing for just one type of meat and really make it sing?
Same thing with cheese boards — it speaks nothing of a chef to simply lay out their well-curated list of cheeses paired with the ubiquitous Marcona almonds and blob of quince jelly.
Oysters have been shucked, slurped, or roasted by natives for centuries. In my part of the world, they were such a staple of the native diet that great heaps of shells were created, largely because these natives were too lazy to take out the trash. When explorers arrived, they were sure these piles contained unimaginable sums of gold. Lacking any true natives to tell them differently (as true natives had essentially died out or assimilated with some Northerners to form what’s now known as the Seminoles), these diehard gold fiends spent a lot of time digging through someone else’s garbage.
The point of this didactic interlude is that raw oysters on a shell ain’t fancy — never have been. When I was growing up, a pile of oysters was meant to go with a pitcher of cheap-ass shitty beer and some crackers and cocktail sauce. Just because you made a mignonette and serve them with cloth napkins doesn’t mean that a raw oyster is anything more than an oyster, delicious as it may be.
So here’s a challenge: Take these beautiful ingredients and actually compose a dish from them that showcases their beauty, rather than just slapping them on a board, mirror or pile of ice. It is possible to have all three of these items on a menu to placate the curious expectation of the masses and step one’s game up a bit.
Let’s just call ’em fish, okay? I’m lucky enough to be 20 miles from the Gulf of Mexico and 100 miles from the Atlantic. There is plenty of local fish to be had. Does this mean that I’m selling grouper (regarded as a trash fish when I first started cooking) or American red snapper constantly? No, I’m always looking for the less-utilized, underappreciated fish to put on my menu. Mullet, trigger fish, sheep’s head, mackerel and hog fish are all delicious and often looked down on as lowly species. These are also generally more sustainable populations, and we’d be well served by cooking more of these and less farm-raised salmon. These fish deserve a place at the table, so let’s ditch the label and put them in a place of proper respect.
Cooks and dishwashers as servers
I’m sorry, but back of house (BOH) and front of house (FOH) functions are completely different disciplines. In that, I’m of the firm belief that customers are not receiving the level of service that they could, or should, by sending the dishwasher out to explain the specials and take orders. It’s novelty, plain and simple, and I’m curious to see metrics on customer retention from places that use this model.
I suck at FOH duties, which I’ve done in the distant past and am sometimes called upon to perform as an owner. Doing table visits is like pulling teeth for me. Like most of the rest of BOH staff in the world, I’m socially stunted, ill-mannered and can’t hold a fake conversation with guests composed of much more than, “Hey, how was everything tonight? So glad you enjoyed, thanks for coming in.” Good talk, chef!
One experience I had a while back was a quasi–dim sum situation, in which the person from the kitchen who had created a dish for that night came out with a cart, explained the dish, and also served it off of that cart. I felt horrible for the clumsy delivery of the spiel and also felt that I was being shamed into taking the dish because, I mean, the poor guy is standing right there in front of the customer, putting his everything on the line. I couldn’t possibly react with “Really? Yeah, no thanks,” and retain my standing in the world as a moderately decent human being. My bill was bordering on ridiculously high, simply because I couldn’t be a dick.
Build your own
Also known as “the Chipotle Effect” (the phrase “the Chipotle Effect“ belongs on this list as well). “I’ve got a great idea! Customers are going to come in and look at this really confusing list on the wall, pick their base of one thing that costs one price or six other items at varyingly, increasingly more expensive items, then do the same with a protein from a similarly skewed list, a sauce and a bunch of add-ons. It’ll be great!”
Yeah, unless you’re a food truck or used to be a food truck, this model is infuriating to me. How about you build some dishes and put those on the menu instead, kay?
Not everything needs to go away. Believe it or not, there are a few things that I’ve enjoyed in 2015. While not all are trends, these are Allies of the Realm — things that I’m actually quite excited about.
All that is old will be new again. A staple of colonial pantries, Craig Rogers and Sam Edwards have put their particularly fantastic talents at raising grass-fed lamb and curing and smoking, respectively, to create one of the most unique, yet familiar, cured meats that I’ve ever tasted.
New Gulf oyster farming techniques
Having grown up in Florida, I feel there is only one king oyster: the Apalachicola. This opinion has been supported by The New York Times, Garden & Gun and Field & Stream. For a variety of reasons, the truth lying with the perspective of whomever is wagging their finger at the time, I’m not hopeful that I’m ever going to eat a true Apalachicola oyster again. Other Gulf oysters are good, unless we’re talking about Texas (just don’t like ’em), but they are not the same by any means.
But looking a bit to the west, just across the state line into Alabama, some folks are farming oysters utilizing Australian techniques more commonly applied to Atlantic oyster operations. The end result is a smaller oyster than normal for the Gulf, but creamy, slightly metallic and a little buttery — all of the qualities that I miss in an Apalachicola.
The end of fussy plating
I got my first “fine-dining” job in 1988. Plating at that time was the dreaded Three Point Landing of protein and sauce, vegetable and starch or just a protein on a plate with side plates of accompaniments — one vegetable and starch for each dish, of course. Hope you enjoy potato croquettes and green beans with everything.
I regard ’90s cooking as the culinary equivalent of Caesar haircuts and band collars, which brought us architectural nightmares tortured into ring molds (and more often than not containing sun-dried tomatoes), then piled at least four inches high and secured with a skewer of some totally unrelated herb to ensure the integrity of the American Pile while it made its way from pass to table.
In the 2000s, plating got really curious: huge plates with tiny piles of food placed as far apart as possible with sauces or powders carefully placed in order to draw direction lines between the components so that the diner might possibly make sense of how to eat this geographically diverse dish.
Recently I (and, much to my relief, a growing number of other chefs) have eschewed stuffy, fussy presentation and started to let the simple beauty of the ingredients take prominence over how they are arranged on a plate. This is not to be mistaken for lack of care, but rather an extension of my cooking philosophy of stepping out of the way of the food and letting it speak for itself.
It’s now time to stop this installment of my Peter Griffin “You Know What Grinds My Gears?” rant and wish y’all a great end of the year and an even greater start to the new one. Let’s see what pisses me off next.