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Are chefs spending too much time and effort staging special dinners?

During the recent Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, I attended one of the many dinners being staged around town. I luckily ended up at the Optimist — Ford Fry’s slapping fresh new seafood restaurant and oyster bar on the Westside. Fry and his chef de cuisine, Adam Evans, along with a handful of the South’s best and most famous seafood chefs, prepared an all-fish meal. Bryan Caswell of Houston’s Reef served sustainably raised Gulf snapper, cooked and seasoned with miraculous delicacy considering he needed to get 100 or so plates of it served.

Such dinners are now commonplace, and you don’t have to participate in a food festival to attend one. On a smaller scale, visiting winemakers and beer brewers often get welcomed to town with open arms and a fixed-price dinner at one of the town’s better restaurants where six or seven courses will meet their pairings.

Food writers and historians often get feted at Restaurant Eugene, which hosts periodic author dinners. Guests come to hear the writer speak, get their books autographed and consume an expensive multicourse meal.

Chefs, being naturally gregarious souls, invite each other into their kitchens. One Midtown Kitchen ran a memorable series of monthly dinners featuring the efforts of well-known toques from around town.

Le Cirque, a classic New York eatery that wants to keep its brand flying as high as a trapeze in the national foodie consciousness, has been trotting new chef Olivier Reginesi (as well as crates of the restaurant’s signature china) across the country for a series of “pop-up” dinners. The Atlanta stopover was at the Buckhead Club, and those who popped in after paying $150 were treated to a multicourse meal with matching wines.

Members of the press and bloggers find themselves invited to any number of complimentary dinners, staged at many of the town’s best restaurants. They happen to promote brands of liquor, food festivals, tourist destinations and trade organizations that represent, say, Alaskan seafood or Italian viticultural regions. These dinners are often long affairs with many courses and, natch, matching wines.

Chefs like to host dinners because they get to play. Maybe they can’t sell enough rabbit to keep it on their standing menus. But if it’s one small course between the fish and beef, their guests might enjoy it. Restaurateurs like the dinners, because even those that don’t sell out bring in revenue on slower weekday nights. Customers like the dinners because they get to eat, drink and be very merry, with plenty of flavors to taste.

If you follow chefs, food writers and other gastro-obsessives on Twitter, you’ll begin to notice a lot of their “oh my God, this is the most amazing dish” tweets come not from typical restaurant meals, but from blowout dinners where chefs are putting on the dog.

I do sometimes worry this intensive focus on special meals and experiences takes a chef’s attention away from his bread-and-butter product — namely bread, butter and the two or three courses their restaurant customers order after looking at the menu.

I almost never go to dinners because I think I should assess restaurants solely on the quality of food they serve from their standing menus, not from the prix fixe extravaganzas they stage for groups large and small. But I do sometimes worry I’m only seeing half the picture.

Think about some of Atlanta’s better known chefs. Do you really get the full measure of Linton Hopkins by walking into Restaurant Eugene on a Tuesday night? Now that Richard Blais has opened the Spence in Midtown, will we get anything like the experience of the dinners he prepares to raves across the country?

That’s not to say I didn’t love my dinner at the Optimist, which was a lot of fun. But, man, six courses with matching wines! You’ve got to have a steel gut to go to a lot of these.

- by John Kessler for the Food and More blog

6 comments Add your comment

jimmy

June 4th, 2012
10:54 am

I attend on occasion, though it now seems almost rare to find one of these dinners at a cost of less than $100-125, before tax and tip.

HotlantaHobo

June 4th, 2012
11:09 am

This is similar to the two-menu Chinese restaurant, an authentic one for the Chinese patrons written in Chinese and another dumbed-down one for everyone else written in English.

The standing menu has to deal with the realities of the market and what the typical customer wants and frequently that is at odd with the chef’s capabilities. It may be a menu that’s within the capabilities of the line cooks on an everyday basis, but the special menus could not be consistently produced by the typical cook available in this labor pool.

I think maybe a once a month special coursed dinner that’s open to the public might fill the needs of the two markets. So many places gear their menus for the urban hipsters that don’t do tablecloths and old-fashioned coursed meals, substituting “small plates” that can be easily dropped all at once for sharing with a lot of expensive cocktails that provide the profit centers these days. There are still some old fogeys around (like me) that really would like to have a traditionally served meal, but with the chef’s new ideas on display.

M.Johnson

June 4th, 2012
11:59 am

Great points, John. I would love to see Atlanta chefs offer more creative approaches during restaurant week events each year. Currently, they focus only on two signature dishes. Mix it up!

Most people who take advantage of restaurant week events tend to frequent their favorite spots, and it would be a good opportunity to introduce something new.

Otherwise, those special dinners are too expensive. Convincing friends to check out my favorite spot during restaurant week is a much easier sell than a $150 meal.

art

June 4th, 2012
5:39 pm

I’ll go to one of these if: a. it’s open to the public and b. it’s something that piques my interest. Spending $150pp in hopes of getting a chef’s very best, and wines pairings as well, is worth the splurge every now and then. Heck, you can easily spend that at Bacchanalia on any given night. JK, I think that you should make a point of attending as many of these as you can stomach because: a. they’re FREE for you; and b. and more importantly, they allow you to taste a chef’s dishes when he’s supposedly at his very best and compare and contrast that with his or her Tuesday night’s fare.

Grasshopper

June 5th, 2012
10:13 am

“Do you really get the full measure of Linton Hopkins by walking into Restaurant Eugene on a Tuesday night? Now that Richard Blais has opened the Spence in Midtown, will we get anything like the experience of the dinners he prepares to raves across the country?”

What good is reviewing a meal that no one else will get a chance to taste? I mean, I can cook some pretty good piccata and Marsala dishes and my meatballs are better than any I have ever had at a restaurant (not to mention my shrimp and grits) but really, who cares? I am not in the business of feeding others.

Chefs should be reviewed on what they offer to everyone, not just a few specially chosen critics and writers.

LizR

June 5th, 2012
12:18 pm

You know, it is funny that you bring up this topic right now. Just a couple of weeks ago we had a celebratory dinner with a group of 6 at a neighborhood restaurant. They happened to be having a special dinner for a winery and had a long table of at least 30 set up on their patio when we arrived. We hoped for the best but the evening was pretty much a disaster. Once the wine folks started eating, our orders, and our table in general, were badly neglected. Overcooked items, incorrect items served to the wrong person, huge waits between courses, etc. They knew it too, as they apologized several times and ended up giving us comped desserts (which we really did not want). So, I’ve been wondering if they should have given us a heads-up when we made our reservation? Is that reasonable? Or if they just thought that they could handle it? Or if maybe a restaurant shouldn’t have these kinds of dinners without extra help or shutting the regular dining room down? I didn’t end up posting about it at the time because I didn’t think it was fair to name the restaurant, but there has to be a better way to handle this sort of thing. The special wine dinner pretty much ruined our special dinner.