Punk Versus Classical Fine Dining

Allison Austin Scheff’s used her review of Restaurant Marche (Bainbridge Island) as an opportunity to dismiss what she considers the “punk rock era of food” as a tired trend.  First two paragraphs of her review:

“Congratulations: You’ve survived the punk rock era of food. In the decade just past, we saw the demise of the entrée; instead, we’ve pieced together meals by sharing a slew of side dishes and small plates (tapas of every ilk!). We bid adieu to careful, precise service and, instead, bussed our own tables or poured our own water from jugs left on the table. Table linens disappeared, wine glasses were sometimes replaced by canning jars, “unsightly” soundproofing was pooh-poohed in favor of exposed ductwork and cement floors. And we embraced (well, OK, we resigned ourselves to) sitting at communal tables with strangers. If the chef wants to blast Rage Against the Machine through the dining-room speakers, who are we to complain? It’s not like we’re squares!

Oh, but I am so tired. Eating in such a way can be exhausting. I admit that I get as caught up in what’s newest/coolest/hippest as the next impossible food obsessive. But isn’t it time for at least some of the restaurants to go back to treating diners like guests, creating environments where we might rejuvenate and converse without it feeling like work? A proper, well-cooked meal enjoyed at a leisurely pace in a lively, comfortable dining room is one of life’s finest pleasures—and such a meal can be had at Bainbridge Island’s Restaurant Marché.”

Which means Schiff prefers contrived environments, fussiness, and a medley of ridiculous middle-class manners.  I’m not calling for the death of the entree, as some have, or the total demise of “traditional” neo-classical French style fine dining (which the French care little about).  The entree  is still relevant and in some instances, the most practical option.  Likewise with traditional fine dining.  I’m taking issue with Scheff’s glib dismissal of all the work those “punks” have put into getting Americans to re-think how they eat, making available a greater variety of dining experiences to the public, and challenging the supremacy of the entree, a course that may be the source of American health problems and an expression of the notoriously fussy and limited American palate and mindset.  She suggests that the “punk era” is just a reactive rebellion against timeless style and substance, an era where unpolished and inexperienced kids have gone wild and unchecked, their efforts resulting in fads rather than

“Eating in such a way can be exhausting,” says Scheff of these “punk” restaurants.  Yet the reason these “punk” restaurants have become popular is because a lot of people find traditional fine dining exhausting, stifling, boring, and impractical.  These “punk” restaurants — I take it she means establishments such as Harvest Vine (tapas tapas tapas), Sitka and Spruce (get your own water and silverware), Art of the Table (encouraged to lick your plate), The Corson Building (communal tables), Elemental (mystery meals) — are for many, liberating.  The servers at such restaurants are sincere, charming, and authentic, not polite, stiff, and pretentious. These restaurants make it easy to sample a lot of dishes, not just the three found on most entrees. Nobody has to worry about spilling wine because there isn’t white table cloth (clean up is a quick wipe and not a major interruption). The beautiful table is the “white table cloth.” With small plates, guests can play musical chairs throughout the meal. There’s a different sense of intimacy that comes from sharing each dish family style. There’s that sense of adventure in trying new dishes and meeting new people.  These restaurants aim to make the experience of “fine dining” less fussy and more fun and accessible.

So it hasn’t been fun for everyone.  Fine, but personal preference alone doesn’t give a thoughtful reviewer enough ammo to casually dismiss a culturally significant movement.  Scheff doesn’t have to like exposed ductwork, or Rage Against the Machine, or the constant shuffling and passing of plates, or pouring her own water, or sassy servers. Scheff can critique the intentions of the “punk era” movement, but it’s not appropriate for her to belittle them, to consider their intentions and efforts as — without explanation — lacking in good taste and unable to produce “proper, well cooked meals.”  By doing so, Scheff has branded herself, at best, as someone more comfortable with the familiar, and at worst as an unreflective traditionalist rather than an open-minded and thoughtful conservative restaurant reviewer.

Our Work Culture

A customer mentioned how she admired my Asian (Confucian) work ethic.  I corrected her and explained that my work ethic is primarily informed by New England Puritan values rather than Chinese Confucian ideals.  I deliberately work toward getting employees to internalize the  Puritan work ethic (also known as Protestant work ethic), and not the Confucian work ethic.  While I don’t expect employees to fully express Puritan values — most employees arrive adhering to a variant of Southern aristocratic values — I would demand that my business partner be a quintessential Puritan.

The Chinese Confucian work ethic (very different from Japanese Confucian work ethic), as I understand and define it (I’m not a scholar of East Asia), emphasizes work as an expression of filial piety.  Put simply, one works for family and for the respect of the elders.  (Family, to many Chinese, is the extension of one self — a mini Leviathan — and not an accidental gathering of individuals).  One does not work for the greater good of humanity and there is little sense of public stewardship.  This is why I have a difficult time talking business with Chinese friends.  For them, business is about identifying a need and meeting that need as efficiently as possible.  It’s silly to create a need for something new, as Steve Jobs had.  And you’re judged based on your ability to provide security and status for your family.  It’s silly to worry about humanity, as Bill Gates does.  Are you beginning to understand why a tainted milk scandal can occur over and over again in China, despite executions of those involved?  Or why there’s so much emotional manipulation in Chinese families, “your mother is sick and crying because of your poor grades.”

The Puritan work ethic emphasizes work for the sake of working — work as an expression of one’s salvation and dedication to God — and  public stewardship, where the individual is, at the behest of God, responsible for everything and everyone.  That’s why there’s been so much private funding for public parks and schools and cultural amenities, especially throughout New England and New York.  That’s why so many New England boarding schools cram student days with school and activities, to get students used to non-stop work, to teach them to become intolerant of idleness and boredom and accustomed to serving their house, team, school, and community.  Puritanism may also be why Americans are so nosy, intrusive, and intolerant and why Google/Apple/Microsoft/X think of ways to get you to unknowingly download their app so that you do things the way they want you to do it because they’re convinced that their way is the best way.

A key distinction between Chinese Confucian work ethic and the Puritan work ethic is that, for the former, there’s a clear distinction between work and leisure, while the latter blurs the line between work and leisure.  For Chinese, idleness is encouraged once obligations are met, and vacations are filled with idleness and novelties.  Idleness is never acceptable to the Puritan.  That’s why Puritans like to lose a toe climbing Mount Everest or sit in a bus with 4 goats, 6 chickens, a donkey, and 20 peasants for 8 hours while they’re on vacation.  The Puritan vacation is just work in a different setting.  Chinese work to someday not work, to no longer have to “swallow bitterness.”  Puritans can’t imagine life without work, life without divine mission.  That’s why wealthy Chinese can’t understand how gardening and landscaping can be a fun use of leisure time (it’s something done out of necessity), while the Puritan looks forward to such an activity after paid work.  It’s why Chinese would rather lounge in a yacht than go sailing, because sailing requires too much work.  It’s why sailing is the quintessential puritan, preppy sport — Puritans love to work with nature.

It’s important to define our workplace culture, not only to set expectations and goals, but to attract and develop competent and dedicated employees.  I bet 99 percent of parents tell their kids to “work hard.”  Well, why do some work “harder” and have a greater sense of responsibility than others?  Parents have told me they “don’t know what happened, how did my kid turn out this way.” that they thought they said the right things.  What these parents don’t understand is that those who “work hard” (whatever that means) do so either out of obedience (rarely) or because they have a compelling reason to do so.  Parents (and employers) forget that they have to give their kids a compelling reason to work.  Some — chefs like Marco Pierre White, musicians like Eminem – realized their higher calling on their own.  Too many kids and young adults, bereft of philosophical self-reflection, do not and will probably never figure out why they can’t push themselves harder, why they toil for survival and vacation and purchase of novelties and status items. These are people who have little reason to live and thus, live out of habit and for sustenance.

We can’t force employees, especially those accustomed to the paternalistic and self-indulgent Southern aristocratic values (think high maintenance princess types, the Southern Belle, the chivalrous Southern gentleman) to internalize Puritan work ethic.  But we can provide the philosophical underpinnings for them to reflect on their purpose in life and to get them to understand that they’re working not so much for sustenance, but for a greater goal, something more important than themselves.  Maybe it doesn’t have to be for God or family — French existentialists managed to work for humanity in a godless universe — but it has to be for something other than themselves.  We don’t work with an employee who feels responsible only for himself and will only work for himself.

Signature Salad Dressing Recipe

You can save a lot of money by making your own salad dressing, especially a vinaigrette, which is quick and easy to make.  A vinaigrette consists of oil and vinegar, usually proportioned at 3:1 (I adjust it based on type of oil, as this ratio doesn’t work well, for instance, with a strong heavy oil like sesame).  I’m guessing that oil acts as a softener, making it easier to chew and swallow the salad.  The vinegar I’m guessing adds a tangy flavor, acts as a preservative, and activates enzymes that break down nutrients.  Seasoning can be added as desired.  An emulsifier — something to bind oil with water — such as mustard can be added.

Anyway, we start with making the sauce used in collard green wraps.

Olive Oil
Parsley (or anything that makes sauce greenish).

Miso to Onion ratio is 1:1.  Onion to garlic ratio is 5:1.  Enough oil to get ingredients to mix in the blender.  It’s important to place the onion in the blender first, followed by the miso.  Won’t mix if you put something as pasty as miso in blender first.  Oh, quartering the onions will help the blending process.  Add enough parsley to turn sauce into an attractive green color.  (We use kale if we run out of parsley).

Use the sauce in sandwiches, with roasted chicken, veggies…the possibilities are endless.

Don’t wash out the blender, as there’s still a lot of sauce in the container.  Add olive oil, vinegar and fruit juice (we usually use the fruit juices that collect in our bins) to blender.  How  much vinegar and fruit juice depends on your palate.  We tend to use very little vinegar — 1:1 oil to vinegar ratio — as we aim for a heavy, somewhat creamy vinaigrette that’s sweet, savory, and salty instead of tangy.  Mix and that’s our signature kale salad dressing.  If we were working with more delicate greens, like arugula, we’d go with a lighter dressing.  If you’re using this dressing on kale, let it “cook, ” soak through the kale for like 2-24 hours, longer if you like your kale really soft.  There shouldn’t be any trace of bitterness from the kale, and kale should be soft and easy to chew.

That’s it.  More importantly, note how we keep costs down.

Don’t hesitate to ask questions or set up an appointment to see how we make it.



How to cook a steak.

Variation of Nathan Myhrvold’s “Modernist Cuisine” steak.  (click link for demonstration).

Assume 1.25 inch thick steak, defrosted.

Grind pepper on steak.
Place in oven at 160 degrees.  Thirty minutes at 160 degrees for rare/medium rare.  Sear steak with blow torch until outer layer is crispy.  Seriously.  We’ve received steak orders and that’s how we do it in the store.  Can also do a quick sear (as hot as you can get it, till outside is crispy) on grill or frying pan.

The rareness will be evenly distributed throughout the steak, somewhat similar to what you get with a steak cooked sous vide.  That is, there won’t be a red middle surrounded by a layer of pink, surrounded by a layer of well done tissue.  Low heat ensures steak is moist and tender throughout because heat isn’t high enough for meat protein to denature to degree that texture toughens and moisture disappears.  In fact, this is the only way to cook a steak well-done without making it leathery.  This is also the easiest way to cook steak.  Grills are fun and macho, but most suck at it because they can’t control the temperature properly.  Better to use grill for quick sear, then lower temperature to slow grill veggies (lots of them), which are not as easy to mess up when cooked on an unpredictable grill.

I prefer a well marbled Strip Steak (New York). Not as flavorful or fatty as ribeye, but firmer and thus, easier to cut.  I avoid tenderloin because it lacks flavor and fat and the level of tenderness achieved using this method is perfect for me.

Dipping Sauce
Juice onion and garlic, and something sweet, maybe apple or an orange, whatever suits you.
Add something salty, like salt or soy sauce to dip.

How to Pick Out a Steak

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on beef.

Part II of How to Eat Less Meat series.

I’ve noticed most Americans choosing lean cuts of steak, probably because they’ve been told by doctors and dieticians that fat is bad for them.  So they tend to pick steaks that look like the ones below:

Bright red and lean.  It’ll likely taste dry and bland if it’s overcooked (anything over medium rare).  Guaranteed to be leathery if it’s cooked medium well.  Many medical experts recommend beef of this kind because it contains less calories and fat per ounce.  Top steakhouses and great chefs, however, avoid such cuts.  They instead recommend well-marbled steaks, like the one below.

This will be a juicy and satisfying steak, especially if slow-cooked rare and quickly seared with high heat.

I’m convinced that those who pick lean cuts end up taking in more calories.  Lean cuts aren’t satisfying and fulfilling to most people.  There’s no point — other than participating in what some consider a quintessential American activity, grilling and eating steak — to eating a lean steak.  Those eating lean steak will likely eat more of it and/or drench it in high calorie sauces like A1 to give it more flavor and moisture.  Or they add more butter to their bread.  Or they eat more desert.  Again, people want to feel satisfied when they eat.  Fat is satisfying (and good for you in moderation) and many people will continue eating until they get enough of it.

If the steak is well marbled, people will eat less of it.  If they don’t overcook it, they’ll be less likely to drench it in high calorie sauce (as Koreans do with kalbi and bulgogi).  I’m not able to eat more than 5 oz of New York cut Kobe beef (20 -40 percent fat) because eating any more than that is like eating butter.  Our bodies will tell us when we get enough fat, whether it be at the 5oz or at the 20oz mark.

Not saying that we should only eat Kobe beef quality steak.  That gets expensive for many of us.  But I’m often able to find prime grade beef (10-20 percent fat) at Select grade prices.  If I can’t find a well marbled steak, I don’t eat it steak.  Not a big deal.  For me, steak is a special treat, something I indulge in on occasion.   So if I’m going to eat steak, I’m going to do it right and without guilt.  Doing it this way may improve health and the environment.