Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Food for thought

I'm currently reading two books. One is historical fiction, and the other is Anthony Bourdain's new book, Medium Raw. Guess which one I'm going to talk about in this post.

Whether you like Anthony Bourdain or not. Whether you think he's a washed up used-to-be-chef or a great personality with a vast knowledge of cuisine. One thing is for sure. He spent the early part of his life in restaurant kitchens, and as of late he's been brought into the inner sanctum of celebrity chefs, high end restaurants and food-in-general the world round. It's safe to say he knows some things.

This book, unlike Kitchen Confidential which focuses on the down and dirty behind the scenes goings on in restaurant kitchens, seems to focus(so far anyway...I'm only a few chapters in) on the greater scheme of all things culinary. He's talking about profit margins and markup on wine. He's talking about how, prior to this nation's recent economic decline, so many big shots were willing to pay wayyyyy too much for mediocre food, but now trends seem to be shifting to more affordable cuisine . I's eye opening.

I've heard it said that the rule of thumb for markup on restaurant wine is 3 to 1. And Anthony Bourdain says, and it's not hard to believe, that liquor is basically the only place that restaurants make any substantial profit. But with people not willing to shell out 3 times as much for a bottle of vino, what are restaurants to do? How will they stay afloat? It seems, from what I've been reading in books and online, that good, honest food, sometimes prepared imaginatively, but always prepared well, seems to be making it's way to the forefront of what's-important-in-a-restaurant. It may mean putting the Kobe beef on the back burner and moving the hanger steak to the front, but hey, hanger steak is friggin' delicious.

The idea of overpaying for food is something I think about constantly, and so must everyone else, because in the past few weeks I've read countless articles about an affordable new shift in food trends. CNN's Eatocracy is featuring an article called Vegas takes off its fancy pants, and explains how the high end restaurants in the city of excess are failing and visitors are looking for reasonably priced food (the last time Nick and I were in Vegas we found high prices everywhere we looked and really had to dig deep to find those diamonds in the rough).

Food & Wine listed "foodie courts", which would basically be high quality food stands in a food court type atmosphere, as one of their "Food trends for 2011". Countries all across the globe have massive "foodie courts"...they're lining the sidewalks...they're street food vendors, and they certainly aren't just serving hot dogs. They've been doing this for ages and they're beloved by the upper class, lower class and everyone in between. Street food vendors are experiencing a renaissance in the states as well. What more sign do you need that Americans are growing weary of overpaying for hackneyed food?

And closer to home...the thing that makes me smile from ear to ear, is the feedback I've been getting about lots of modest looking and inexpensive(yet completely delicious) restaurants in Louisville, like Pho Binh Minh. I've had comments and emails saying how much they loved the food, the "dining at someone's home" atmosphere and of course the price.

It seems that whether dining in Manhattan, London, Las Vegas or Louisville, people want the same thing.

Now, I'm not saying there's not a place for extremely high end restaurants, or even moderately high-end places. I have eaten at some pretty pricey establishments and have had some mind blowing meals. I'm talking food that years later I still bring up at dinner parties. But for the average American diner (like ME) these places are only accessible as treats and not as the norm.

If you eat dinner out just once a week that's 52 times a year. If you're paying $30 or more a plate and buying a bottle of wine for the same price...add in a $12 starter, tax, tip, and a cocktail...and dinner for two once a week could end up costing almost $8,000.00 a year(and this isn't even in the same ballpark price wise as the type of high-end restaurant Anthony Bourdain is talking about).

Cut the price per plate down to around $18 with a $6 starter and $5 drinks and you're only spending around $4,000.00 a year. (note...I didn't just make these figures up...I took average prices from two price tiers of restaurants I've visited in the past year or so).

And when I look closer and compare meal by meal at the higher priced restaurant versus the lower priced place one thing seems to stand out. The lower priced places are taking more seasonal and less high-end cuts of meat and ingredients and transforming them into things that, often, are much more flavorful and restaurant worthy than that piece of filet mignon. I can cook a filet...and I do...I would never think, however, of braising pork ribs in sauerkraut(Eiderdown $16) or deconstructing a peasant dish like cassoulet to transform it into something out of the box amazing(Wiltshire on Market $18). That's why I go out to eat.

So it looks like Nick and I aren't out-of-style after all. Our love of un-stuffy, cozy and casual places that serve inventive and even amazing food at reasonable prices isn't uncommon, or for that matter, impossible to find. I can think of about a half dozen places I've blogged about here in Louisville right off the bat that fit the bill, and I look for more every single day.

So lets hope Louisville keeps up with this budding worldwide food trend of high quality food that people can actually afford. I think this town would love a "foodie court" where the ever so popular food-truck-type-food can come together in a comfortable indoor market(and you don't have to sit on a curb to enjoy it). Or how about more gastro-pub type places? There's room for them both!

I know I'll support this trend whole heartily...and bite by bite...heck...I already do.

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