Thursday, July 2, 2009

In the News / Costing Beverage / Architect

Class started with a short In the News. The NY Times had a stunningly boring article detailing the details of a superior hamburger, but didn't really add much to the canon.

There was a cool article, however, on the recent state of NYC food carts. Up until the downturn in the economy, there was peace upon the streets of NYC. Food cart permits were cheap and few and far between. They were handed down within families, as well as locations and street corners. The city was not much involved -- it only gave out 3000 licenses, and the licenses can be renewed by mail every two years, forever and ever. Because of lax enforcement, many carts are not inspected, or have expired licenses, or no licenses at all.

Now people who are being laid off from white-collar jobs and speak English as a first language are investing in food carts to deliver a different level of food to the streets. They get their permits, and then go wherever they are legally allowed to go...and into direct conflict with the underground economy of the long established immigrant class. When a new truck rolls up on a corner that has been claimed by a cart family without challenge for 20 years, there is going to be conflict. Used to be when two vendors got into a tiff, one would call the cops anonymously because everyone undoubtedly were doing something illegal. These food cart trucks tend to be on the up and up, and the old economic model is turning to intimidation and violence as leverage.

The sad thing is, because of the inadequate bureaucracy, the city is losing a ton of money and has little real power over the food carts. A vendor of a new fancy ice cream cart is quoted as scoffing that he pays a few hundred dollars for a permit, when his business model would allow him to pay $5000 a month during the warm season and still be profitable.

There were small pieces on the food shows -- the Fancy Food Show had a 25% rise in attendance, while the tone of the piece on the Unfancy Food Show as equal parts snobby and dorky -- why the NY Times sucks.

Next up was an exercise in costing out a mixed drink. Unlike a recipe card, each cost card is per drink, not a batch of drinks. Most booze is in liters and recipes in ounces, which is annoying, but even more annoying is perusing the price sheets for booze vendors. For a bottle of Bombay Gin, you have about 10 different prices. Half are for NYC and half for NYS (different tax and control procedures), and within each category different prices on different size bottles and discounts depending on how many cases you purchase.

The second half of the class was a field trip to an architect's office to talk about how we, as restaurateurs, would communicate and deal with an architectural firm, from initial concept up through plans detailed enough for a contractor to build from with precision. The architect went around the room and asked each of us our concept, and teased out some details that would help a design firm get on track.

Some of us had pretty clear ideas of what we were going for, and when one didn't, the architect was pretty concise in trying to get clarity. One student kind of scattershot mentioned a lot of different things she liked that she would like to see in her operation (mosiac! bar in middle of room! stage! fountain!) and the architect basically asked what is the focus? Do you want a candyshop vibe, a restaurant vibe or something else?

I had a pretty concise statement of what I wanted (Jewish Italian Grandma style filtered through an Eames lense) and didn't get any appreciable feedback. Guess I can skip hiring a design firm and just get some hacks to have the plans drawn up and approved by the city?

Richard, a few students and I went to a pizzeria nearby the archictect's office afterwards, not very good pizza but fun to be snarky about the menu, decor and oddly-pacing owner with some like-minded fellows and fellowettes.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Fancy Food Show Recap / Restaurant Design / Wine Tasting

Class started with a discussion of the Fancy Food Show. The main issue attendees have is that it's really two shows in one. Some of the vendors there are showing off a product to sell to restaurants and food services right now, while others are there to find a distributor so they can sell at some point down the line. One of my classmates, who helps run a large family restaurant, spent a lot of time sampling wines, and when he found one that blew his mind, it turned out the wine is not available in this country yet, that they need a distributor to get them through the extensive legal hurdle of importation.

While the restaurant show during the winter was more about equipment, hardware and stuff, this show was all about the look, taste and marketability of food stuffs. Fellow students marvelled at sheer quantity in certain food categories -- how many soy-based vinaigrettes do people need? Why are there so many flavored cheddars? And how often does one have a craving for lemongrass water? The person working the booth for an Austrian sports drink (BIG on taurine, which rhymes with urine for a reason) admitted, when confronted, that it indeed did taste like ass.

We introduced ourselves to restaurant design. One has to take into consideration level of concept (fast food/pub, casual, luxury) and location (urban, non-urban) to really determine how many square feet per customer one will need to provide. Urban fast food, 8squft no prob, non-urban luxury, you can start at 25 sqft and go up. Based on the size and concept, one can work out budgets for monthly rent as well as how much it will cost to build out.

Building out a restaurant depends on a variety of factors, whether it's a raw space or an old restaurant, depends on what equipment is needed to cook everything on the menu, and, well, real estate markets.

At the restaurant I've been working at, the build out was from raw space, and quite ornate. As time has gone on, the corners cut came into strong contrast. For example, there is a stage for a piano and there has been live music played...but no more. The neighbors in the condo upstairs complained. Why did they hear it enough to complain? Because no sound proofing was installed between the ceiling and the bottom of the floor foundation of the apartments directly above. To install sound proofing after the fact would be a huge job that would shut the restaurant down, so the music is out.

The final part of the class was a wine tasting, preceded by a short documentary about the history of Burgundy, home of the vineyards that make the most expensive wines in the world. The monks of the medieval ages owned all the land and studied it, tailoring the wine to the soil. When Napoleon came in and took the land away, it got broken up into many different plots with many different owners. Unlike some regions, the local government decided instead of trying to make a standardized, blended product to stand in for the region, in Burgundy only one grape would be planted everywhere (pinot noir), and each vineyard would have a product which reflected it's own soil. Now the wines of the region can be priced out practically by where the vineyard lays in the valley. Towards the top, the good whites, the middle the good reds, and the bottom the 2ndary reds where the drainage isn't too hot.

The tasting was a wide variety of whites, from a tepid young pinot grigio to a sweet, thick Sauternes. Richard clearly gets off on this stuff, and the class ran 30 minutes long for the first time.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Fancy Food Show

What I ate, between 10-11:30am this morning: various chocolates, cookies, small moz and tomato panini, brownies, 5 shots of various Manhattan Special products, 2 little cheese cake cups, a bit of duck sausage, 2 little wedges of Batali pizza, some things I forget...

Spent the morning at the Fancy Food Show at Jacob Javits, officially on school business for the second year, but I hope to be able to swing this every year -- all the new products, some established products, different countries showing off their culture, all on overload, most wanting you to taste a sample or talk about what they do.

Highlights: Manhattan Special had a booth, a company really hard to wrangle as a product buyer at the restaurant. I had some words with them, they promise to make some calls. Low and behold they have a whole line of different sodas, but I would of never known because no one ever tried to sell me on them.

Then there was the Metromint people from last year, which was quite shocking -- various mint-flavored mildly-sweetened waters. I almost barfed last year when I tried it, because I thought I was drinking someones toothpaste backwash. I was sure they would be out of business by now.

Batali's brand was hawking a new pizza sauce, which tasted exactly like a thousand other jarred sauces. They were making pizzas on soft pita-like shells and baking them in a toaster oven. The only good thing about the sample is that it was heavy on the sauce, usually shitty pizza is heavy on the cheese.

In other pizza-related things there, there was a booth for a horrible nightmare some company is trying to bring to the freezer aisle:

Pizza in a cone, baked in your microwave in a box that keeps it upright. In the literature, one of the selling points is "acceptable taste and aroma", I kid you not. Yikes!

It was nice to see a booth/pavilion for Fage yogurt, what I call the "good" yogurt. I was happy to see it, and felt compelled to take a picture not because I'm a huge fan, but because it's one of the few foods me and B eat and love (though she eats the crappy fat-free version), and I remember when I was wooing her, we'd go food shopping in her neighborhood, like a trial run as a real couple. When ever we'd go, we'd always end up buying some Fage, and also talking about the prices of the stuff in various markets in the neighborhood. The foundation of my marriage was cemented thanks to Fage!