Whether it’s in a dining review or article about a new opening, the label “chef-driven” has often been unceremoniously attached to signature ingredients, dishes, menus and restaurants themselves.
Without an official definition, the adjective has permeated fine dining establishments, laidback bistros and cafes, fast-casual settings and corporate chains alike. In 2013, Thrillist included “chef-driven” on its list of “14 Foodie Phrases that have Lost all Meaning,” adding, “Who the hell else would be driving? The busboy?”
“The term is ubiquitous, meaningless,” says Bobby Stuckey, James Beard Award-winning master sommelier and part owner in three Colorado restaurants. “Sure, a chef should be driving part of the restaurant.”
And yet, as foodies, chefs and restaurant business folks pontificate on what makes a restaurant successful, it’s worth asking how this phraseology has shaken the industry–and why some say it has been a detriment to the service side of restaurant work.
“A chef-driven restaurant is one with fewer boundaries conceptually, fewer inherent boundaries to creativity by design,” says chef Matthew Accarrino of San Francisco Italian restaurant SPQR.
He noticed this model take off in the midst of several shifting dynamics in the 1990s.
“Chefs had bachelor and business degrees,” Accarrino says. “From that point, chefs became restaurateurs. The consumer also became more interested in chefs’ personal style and what they bring to the cuisine in the restaurant as an indicator of their interest.”
‘A chef-driven restaurant is one with fewer boundaries’ – @mattaccarrino
Emily Schwartz, chef and chief operating officer of Bonanno Concepts, a Denver-based restaurant group with a portfolio of 10 area eateries, says her kitchen team is encouraged to get creative and passionate about their menus.
“All chefs at Bonanno Concepts are empowered to utilize products and preparations that they love and are excited about,” Schwartz says.
She says that this philosophy has “nurtured positive relationships between the front and back-of-house,” and that “the division seems to be less and less and more servers; bartenders and chefs are able to collaborate and talk about specific items or dishes.”
However, according to Restaurant Data, “High-end restaurants are chef-focused and not customer focused. … The proliferation of all the chef-driven TV shows has hurt the landscape and casual and upscale restaurants.”
As it relates to the dance and details of the front of the house, Stuckey seems concerned with what the chef-driven movement has achieved.
“I have a really brilliant employee who came to stag at Frasca from one of the hottest restaurants on the East Coast,” Stuckey recalls. “He was a wine director there. Now he comes to work for me and he started as a food runner.”
Why the demotion?
“He said, ‘I don’t understand the finesse of what you guys do,’” Stuckey says. “’I’m quitting my job and I want to come here.’ What has happened is great service has diminished. The craft of service gets chiseled away.”
He points to the David Chang movement in the late 2000s that de-emphasized service and sites Drew Nieporent, Keith McNally, Nick Valenti and Danny Meyer as distinguished front-of-house men who defined the basics and brilliance of hospitality.
But there is tension between these characters and the chef drivers that have earned fame and fan clubs.
A New York Times article describes Nieporent as “cantankerous. … The Manhattan restaurateur as arbiter of everything culinary – has diminished drastically with the rise of the superstar chef.” To which, Nieporent says, “Today, chefs are all Clint Eastwoods. They consider themselves directors/restaurateurs. They don’t want to take direction from people like me.”
Stuckey doesn’t view the entire chef-driven philosophy as disastrous. He maintains that food has improved dramatically in the U.S. throughout the last two decades, though the hospitality part of the industry has deteriorated.
“I went to a restaurant not long ago, because I’m a restaurant geek first and I have one night off a week,” Stuckey says. “We go out…to a Denver restaurant at the top of its game, and [my wife and I] sat at the bar. It was date night. We ordered two bottles of wine: a great, dry Riesling and a burgundy. The waiter is trained to say the food comes out when it comes out, based on what the kitchen wants. I asked, ‘Can we have these courses first?’ and he responded, ‘It doesn’t work that way.’ Now, really, that’s not the fault of the front of the house. That’s just how they’ve been trained.”
Stuckey sites Meyer’s enlightened hospitality and Eleven Madison Park as “the exact opposite of the [chef-driven] movement.
Indeed, when asked to comment on the topic, Erin Carron, Union Square Hospitality Group’s senior public relations manager said: “USHG’s restaurants aren’t necessarily chef-driven, so I’m not sure we’d be able to add much texture to that conversation.”
That doesn’t mean the food at those restaurants receives anything less than stellar reviews. It’s not a question of whether food or service should be prioritized higher.
Knoxville chef Matt Gallagher says his Blackberry Farm maintains its pristine reputation because of its service. Their mantra, “Yes is the answer. What is the question,” allows the food to rise to the level of service and vice versa.
So what’s to come?
“I believe this is really just the beginning,” Schwartz says. “We will continue to see more people wanting to go into culinary arts because the options for careers and growth just keep getting better and better.”
Recently, Stuckey recounted an average day at the restaurant during which he was training a new server how to walk at his acclaimed Boulder restaurant Frasca. He paused and realized during this experience that great service occurs when you don’t know it’s happening. It’s based on so many nuances that you don’t know – great service is more a sum of the parts.