Is there a “New York” cuisine? That was the question that divided Drew Nieporent, Adam Platt, Jacqueline Raposo, David Rosengarten and Michael Whiteman, the panelists during yesterday’s “Business On A Plate” program at the New School, which was moderated by Rozanne Gold. These restaurateurs and food writers joined for some spirited conversation about the current state and future of food in NYC as part of an hour-plus session during “Gotham On A Plate” – a two day conference sponsored by the New School, the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts (which happens to be funding my current fellowship with Wine & Spirits Magazine) and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
Nieporent adamantly proclaimed: “Absolutely not.” Rosengarten and Whiteman agreed with him and felt that while there may be an American cuisine of some sort – there was not an express one that could be attributed to this melting pot of a city. Raposo felt that this diversity is what defines the food in this town, which everywhere else is called “fusion.” Despite the differing viewpoints, everyone agreed there was a distinct feel for food here – a “New York taste” was how Platt described it. Dining here is more intense than in LA, noted Whiteman, responsible for Windows on the World among other acclaimed establishments. The density of restaurants here sets it apart from other U.S. cities, as does the cost of running a business in a city of ever-rising rents.
Which is why we are seeing smaller plates, ramen, tacos, burgers, pizza and comfort food continue to dominate menus of the newer places and even appear at the older establishments. Although not directly mentioned, the undercurrent was that the profit margins were higher on many of these ingredients. And with a lower overall dining check, it helps ensure tables are filled.
It’s All About The, Ummm, Veggies
It also explains two of the biggest trends: astronomically priced roast chicken and veggies. Although Raposo is over “avocado toast and cauliflower,” she was thrilled, especially as a gluten free diner before the craze, to have so many options these days for healthier food and better quality ingredients.
This also came up in a conversation with the esteemed former Times’ critic, Mimi Sheraton, later in the day’s conference. GVSHP’s Karen Loew asked Sheraton what trend she loathed. She quickly responded: “Kale!” She’s not crazy about how it’s now served raw in a salad or as chips. But she is excited about the abundance of vegetables popping up on menus around the city. The latest fad seems to be glazed carrots, which she’s had during her last 3 times dining out at Narcissa, Upland (which I enjoyed) and Blue Hill. Although Sheraton thought the celery family might be the next root vegetable to look out for – especially celtuce (that just happened to be featured in January’s issue of Saveur).
The focus on vegetables and alternative proteins also helps deal with sustainability issues. “Crickets,” that’s what Whiteman thought were the future of food, along with other insects and 3-D printing.
The Art of Food
There also was a common theme that the business of food has changed in this town. While the theatre district used to be where the city dined, now the act of dining itself is a performance – and with audience participation. Now star chefs, like David Chang, are being created, and open kitchens are their stages.
Platt noted that food has moved to the center of the culture, which Rosengarten and others credited to the prominence of food on television and online. Everyone is now a critic, from blogging, tweeting and Instagram-ing photos of every meal, which is not likely to change. Dining has become a “sport” according to Sheraton, with chefs explaining their goals and publicists promoting new ventures even up to a year before they open. Sheraton is confused as to why anyone would need to “understand” a menu when it’s just dinner, “not like Picasso in a blue period.”
Formal dining has almost entirely disappeared. Service is more egalitarian now, said Sheraton, less “Swiss hotel.” Restaurateurs are “dinosaurs” lamented Nieporent, who continues to have success despite the trends, especially with his latest venture Batard (a favorite of mine). He has refused to “sell out,” even though he opened a new burger spot in MSG. After all, he still has to run a business.
But let’s not forget about the food workers in this equation, which was a topic brought up by one audience member – a trained chef who grew up in NYC and was struggling to survive here. Chefs are increasingly moving from the back of the house to the front of the house where they can earn more. The current focus on doing away with tipping doesn’t exactly comport with NY law, as it does in Portland, and it doesn’t necessarily mean higher wages for the kitchen staff. This is why many up and coming chefs are leaving town, finding it easier to make a living in Charleston, Nashville, Michigan and Minnesota. These chefs continue to look to NYC for inspiration, but that could change if trends continue to dominate over technique.