In conjunction with the recent United States regional finals of the S.Pellegrino Young Chefs Academy Competition in New York City, Fine Dining Lovers hosted the competition’s judges for a roundtable forum to discuss some of the hot-button issues swirling around the restaurant industry. The event, staged in New York’s once-again-bustling Chelsea Market, was the latest in a series of Fine Dining Lovers'Brain Food Forum, held in conjunction with regional competition finals worldwide.
The panelists for the discussion constituted a who’s who of the industry in the United States: Sean Brock (Nashville’s Audrey, June, Red Bird, and Joyland); Adrienne Cheatham (currently operating the Sunday Best pop-up dinner series in Harlem); Nina Compton (New Orleans’ Compère Lapin); Ignacio Mattos (New York City’s Estella, Café Altro Paradiso, and Lodi); and Philip Tessier (of Napa Valley’s Press restaurant, and a former Bocuse d’Or competition medalist). Author and podcaster Andrew Friedman moderated.
The enthusiastic audience comprised S.Pellegrino Young Chefs Academy competitors, their coach-mentors, and New York City-area industry professionals. Prior to the panel discussion, Friedman and New York City chef Ayesha Nurdjaja of the much-lauded Shuka and Shukette restaurants, engaged in a dialogue, with Nurdjaja sharing her approach to everything from staffing and retention, to where ideas for her constant stream of new dishes originate; many of them have their roots in the home cooks she visits and spends kitchen time with on her international travels.
The forum commenced with a discussion of the ever-present tension between innovation and flavour; staying relevant and on the minds of diners and the media requires the former, while earning good reviews, not to mention self-respect, and developing a loyal customer base, demands the latter. To a person, the all-star panelists agreed that flavour is paramount. Some comments were enlightening as to the level at which accomplished chefs are able to think and adjust during the creative process, as when Ignacio Mattos shared that he factors in how a new dish makes him, and in turn the guest, feel - a consideration likely out of reach for young cooks in the formative stages of their careers, but no doubt something to which all can aspire.
Each chef then addressed a question based on their individual careers and experience. On the subject of applying creativity to enduring both Covid and a tornado that savaged the Nashville neighbourhood where his relatively new restaurants are situated, Sean Brock delineated a few of the countless adaptations to both menu and practices he and his team instituted, sometimes on a daily basis, to survive.
On the event-appropriate subject of the value of culinary competitions, Philip Tessier - the first American to be awarded a medal at the Bocuse d’Or - sited the opportunity to develop one’s sense of culinary identity, and challenge themselves in a unique and intensive way. Nina Compton spoke to how she pulls off the neat trick of incorporating myriad influences attained living, training and cooking in such far-flung locales as her native Saint Lucia, New York City, and Florida - and now operating in New Orleans, Louisiana - into a remarkably sensical and appealing menu, where pasta meets coconut braised chicken, gnocchi meets curried goat, and buttermilk biscuits are an offering. Ignacio Mattos shared where his concepts for new restaurants originate. And Adrienne Cheatham, currently successfully operating in the pop-up realm, confessed a longing for more conventional pro-kitchens (she’s an alum of Le Bernardin, where she was an executive sous chef, as well as other accomplished restaurants), to which it seems likely she will someday return.
The most solemn passage of the conversation occurred when all panelists were asked to weigh in on a question posed to the more than 10,000 respondents to the recent Front of House survey by Fine Dining Lovers. Thirty-percent of those surveyed indicated that an equity share in the restaurant for which they worked would incentivise them to remain in the industry and make their career in it. Would the panelists ever consider incorporating such a system in their restaurants, or advocate for it in the industry?
Sean Brock set the table for the ensuing discussion when he asked, with minimal irony: “Equity in what? Ten dollars?” It was a wry reference to the notoriously narrow margins most restaurants contend with. His point was reinforced by the others, whose depth of experience, most of them as chef-owners, led them to doubt the realism and payoff of such a structure. It was a powerful moment amidst much pandemic-era talk of an industry 'reset' to address long-festering institutional dysfunctions. Those dysfunctions clearly persist, even amid these accomplished chefs’ abiding passion for the work, and desire to support the next generation.
Robin Wagner has been crowned the best young chef in Australia and New Zealand, alongside other competition award winners, Alexis Belmas, Jackson Mehlhopt and Leidy Carolina Maldonado Ramirez. Find out more.