I'm in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for a few book-related events this week. Yesterday, I cooked with the folks at Lantern, a nationally acclaimed restaurant that's been featured in publications such as Gourmet and Saveur. Chef/owner Andrea Reusing's smart, local, sustainable take on Asian cooking is a model for such types of restaurants all over. I met a local farmer who delivered her luscious lettuces and leafy greens, the shrimp were from Georgia and the crab were lively blue crabs full of roe and tomalley.
Our sold-out dinner for 60 (ahem, that's 1 seating folks) with Spanish sherry and wine pairings by Andre Tamers of De Maison Selections went exceptionally well because Andrea has an amazing, tight staff. Theirs is a small operation and the kitchen is comfortable, not huge, just right. Restaurant cooking is teamwork and you laugh while prepping and picking a good 50 pounds of blue crab and you holler and follow orders like as if you're in a battle zone once service begins.
A good restaurant experience is at core about the food, but also about the management, kitchen staff and the wait staff, who know to bring out the food at the right moment, and to pace things for diners. Guests at a restaurant have no clue what goes on behind those waving kitchen doors because they're great sound insulators. But lots of conversation and strategic management goes into a fabulous meal. At the end of the day, dining at this caliber nurtures the belly and soul and entertains on many levels too.
So as a restaurateur, can you replicate that in other locales for the sake of making more money? Or do you stick to your roots and make good food for your community?
Alice Waters doesn't want cookie-cutter Chez Panisses. Andrea Reusing, who has a family, doesn't have designs on expanding to other cities with mini Lanterns. Charles Phan has Slanted Door and takeout versions called Out the Door -- all in San Francisco. Sophie and Eric Banh of Monsoon happily succeed and are satisfied with their eateries in Seattle. David Chang keeps his Momofukus tight and small in Manhattan.
In our little Vietnamese food and restaurant world, we have Michael Bao Huynh -- a Saigon native who's had restaurants in New York City (Bao 111, Bao Noodles, Mai House), Los Angeles, and the latest is in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I'd read that he was looking into opening in Saigon too. Most chefs stay in their cities (e.g. Joachim Splichal) while others with well-honed management teams go domestic (e.g. Wolfgang Puck and Tom Colicchio). But going international is another level of ambition altogether.
You can't be all over the place to keep quality and standards up. Many things can go wrong on a regular moment-by-moment basis in a restaurant. HOWEVER, demand for Vietnamese food is so high these days that someone has to fill the void.
With exception to Pho 24 from Vietnam, which serves a tiny limited menu dedicated to you know what, I've not been to a [good] successful Vietnamese chain restaurant. Is that possible? What do you think that takes? Let me know your thoughts...