When I told someone I was going to Charleston Wine + Food’s The Business of Food talk yesterday, they rolled their eyes. “Sounds kinda boring,” they said. Well, sure, if you consider hearing from some of the most influential minds in the restaurant world to be boring. I don’t. And the event held at The Sottile Theater didn’t disappoint.
Separated into three interviews, multi-restaurant owner Karalee Nielsen Fallert spoke with James Beard award winning Outstanding Chef and Joseph Bastianich and Mario Batali’s business partner at Osteria Mozza, Nancy Silverton; Charleston magazine editor Darcy Shankland interviewed restaurant critic, former Gourmet editor, and memoirist Ruth Reichl; and to close out the session, Indigo Road managing partner Steve Palmer interviewed his hero, Union Square Hospitality Group CEO and Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer.
The structure of the program was casual, like peering in on two people having a relaxed chat in their living room. But I credit the real success of the program to the fact that W+F paired just the right people to talk to each subject.
Fallert kicked things off with her discussion with Silverton and she managed to navigate the conversation from how to deal with cranky social media feedback (“We have to compete with those young tattooed chefs on Top Chef,” Silverton quipped) to the baker’s life changing cameo on Julia Child’s “Baking with Julia.” On the episode Silverton prepared a Creme Fraiche Custard Brioche Tart. After sauteing her stone fruit, Silverton served a piece to Child and the famous chef choked up.
“I though, ‘Oh my god! I’ve burnt Julia Child!” said Silverton. But no, Child was simply overwhelmed by the tart’s incredible flavor.
Wiping a tear from her eye, she said, “Its a dessert to cry over. It’s a triumph.”
How do you follow an act like that? Well you bring out acclaimed writer Ruth Reichl. This was an interview pairing made in publishing heaven. As the editor of Charleston magazine, Darcy Shankland was the perfect choice to interview Reichl who spent nine years editing Gourmet. And just as I had expected, Shankland (my former boss) had done her homework.
She began by asking Reichl, who is just about as well known today for her haiku-esque Twitter feed as she is for her four books, what medium she liked to write in best. Surprisingly, she said Twitter feels the most natural. Go figure.
Lots of interesting nuggets were revealed in this talk, like the fact that Reichl published her first cookbook, Mmmmmmm: A Feastiary, in 1972.
“No one said, ‘Can you cook? Has someone checked these recipes? Have you been published before?'” said Reichl of the experience. It seems her entire career has been the result of massive talent and impeccable timing.
But the part I found most interesting in the discussion was when Shankland asked Reichl to respond to the small but growing trend of chefs refusing to allow restaurant critics to review them. This recently happened when Chef Scott Crawford of Crawford and Son in Raleigh, N.C. refused to serve Indy Week critic Emma Laperruque.
The former New York Times restaurant critic was not impressed. “I don’t think it’s a smart move,” she said. “You have to be willing to set yourself for a bad review. What’s he scared of?”
The afternoon came to a close when a visibly giddy Steve Palmer took the stage to interview the one, the only Danny Meyer. And he didn’t waste anytime expressing what the CEO and his book “Setting the Table” meant to him.
“Do you have an awareness of the impact you’ve had on the business,” Palmer asked. Meyer responded with an anecdote. On a recent trip to South Africa with his family he stayed in Durban, a city with the largest population of people from India outside of India. At breakfast, a man approached him asking, “Are you Danny Meyer?” He loved his book and made his entire restaurant staff read it.
“That made me think, why aren’t we making our staff read it,” Meyer joked. And in that lighthearted vein the interview continued. Palmer confidently guided the talk from the book to what hospitality means to Meyer and the answer was enlightening.
“Hospitality is how we make people feel,” said Meyer. “And that means our colleagues come first.” Meyer went so far as to say the old adage “The customer is always right” is dumb. “No one is always right,” he added.
That attitude is probably why the CEO came across as so likable. There’s an honest vulnerability there which may have something to do with the fact that Meyer watched his father go bankrupt twice. After double digit Beard Awards for his restaurant and chefs, it’s clear this guy knows what he’s doing. Business savvy, of course, plays a large role in his success, but the best takeaway was what Meyer said about his employees.
“Colleagues come first. A recipe is only as good as the quality of the ingredients you put in it and the same goes for staff at a restaurant. If they’re happy at work, the customer will be happy.”