Pre-ICC: Location, Location, LocationRestaurateur Rick Camac of Fatty Crew – New York, NY
Chef Joanne Chang of Myers + Chang – New York, NY
Restaurateur Peter Kelly of Xaviars Restaurant Group – Piermont, NY
Chief Operating Officer Brett Traussi of Dinex Group – New York, NY
Culinary Instructor Steve Zagor of the Institute of Culinary Education – New York, NY
Restaurants live and die by their margins, but sometimes a restaurateur (especially one looking to expand) just has to turn away money. Or so said Rick Camac of Fatty Crew. In the first seminar of ICC, held at the Institute of Culinary Education, Camac said that “learning to say no” is one of the hardest, but most important, lessons for restaurateurs looking to expand their brands. Brett Traussi, chief operating officer at Dinex Group, agreed, saying it’s crucial to check written agreements, so if investors leave the area, their money doesn’t suddenly go with them. As far as giving investors control, both Traussi and Camac said they give their investors little say in the day-to-day operations of their restaurants, but they admitted some investors have a better grasp on a location than the chef or restaurateur.
Chefs are notorious control freaks, but they need to let go a little, said Boston Rising Star Joanne Chang and Restaurateur Peter X. Kelly, who were also a part of the panel and have their own bakery and restaurant empires. “At some point you change your role” and become less a chef and more a manager, Chang said. As far as giving advice to budding restaurateurs, Camac suggests to “err on the smaller side,” both in the kitchen and in the size of the dining room. Too big a kitchen, and you’re likely to get too big a kitchen staff, he said, and too big a dining room and you’d look like you’re not doing enough business. The panel was capped off on a controversial note, discussing the possible effects of President Obama’s health care reform regulations. Chang said she (and fellow Massachusetts chefs) had already dealt with that state’s similar law (passed by then Gov. Mitt Romney and current GOP presidential candidate) and had fared well. But Kelly said the law had the potential to be “the single biggest cost to restaurateurs.”
Day 1: (Exciting) Logistics and AestheticsChefs Nate Appleman and Joel Holland of Chipotle – New York, NY
Ted Lee of The Lee Bros. – Charleston, SC
Chipotle's culinary development arm flexes some serious fine dining muscle, which was on display in the opening business workshop of ICC. Ted Lee moderated the conversation between Nate Appleman and Joel Holland, who discussed the fast casual chain's responsible expansion and the challenges and rewards of growing an international brand with loyal and opinionated followers. They explained that with multiple vendors, all in friendly competition with one another and with enormous buying power, Chipotle can convince a vendor to purchase new equipment or adjust procedures. Holland and Appleman took the discussion back to the earlier days when the company was still a small fish wading in the pool of large-scale production. Appleman said Steve Ells, the company’s founder and president, “was repulsed" by how vendors cut corners by sneaking in additives and simplifying procedure. “The way we cook our food in the commissary is the way we cook it in our restaurant," he said. "Every place I've ever worked at was about the bottom line. This is the first place I've worked where the emphasis is on the food. Make the food better and you can justify the cost." Holland said his experience at Chipotle “opened my eyes to the fact that great food doesn't just come from the Greenmarket.”Photography Penny De Los Santos of pennydelossantos.com – New York, NY
Chef Adam Evans of The Optimist – Atlanta, GA
In a dream opportunity for food photo enthusiasts and chefs, acclaimed Food Photographer Penny De Los Santos led attendees through a mock photo shoot with dishes from Rising Star Chef Adam Evans of Atlanta’s The Optimist. The duo walked attendees through the three most important steps in food photography: food preparation, food and process, and food beauty. While Evans plated Duck-fat Poached Sword Fish, Sautéed Prawns, and Glazed Short Ribs on Steelite Craft Plates, De Los Santos demonstrated how to shoot at different angles and defuse light to make the food mouthwatering. She shared tips of the trade as well, suggesting adding accessories like a crusty fork to give images tension and energy. “Bringing food to life is the difference between a good food photograph and a great food photograph,” said De Los Santos.Chef Sang Yoon of Lukshon and Father’s Office – Los Angeles, California
Christine Quinlan of Food and Wine – New York, New York
They kicked Sang Yoon out of culinary school. Don’t ask—just listen to the man speak for five minutes and you’ll figure it out. This chef and innovator built his 20-year career out of asking, "Why?," and refusing to take “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” for an answer. In the Day 1 business seminar, Food and Wine’s Christine Quinlan interviewed Yoon on highlights in a history of hare-brained ideas that hatched into cost-saving, time-efficient solutions. Most innovation begins with what Yoon calls “staring.” He watched his dishwasher polish and break glasses night after night, which led to the installation of a water filtration unit on his low-temp dishwasher—and no more spots. After witnessing his prep cooks scoop bucket after bucket of ice to chill product, he came up with the idea of a chilling sink, capable of chilling product effectively for pennies a day. Watching Yoon speak feels like watching somebody in love with his job, someone who blends science with humor, who savors the process just as much as the outcome. For chefs out there looking for new ideas, Yoon’s innovations always stem from a focus on profitability and staff retention.
Day 2: Building Brands and Shaping ExperienceMatt and Ted Lee of The Lee Bros. – Charleston, South Carolina
Sisha Ortúzar of Riverpark – New York, NY
Anne Quatrano of Star Provisions – Atlanta, GA
“It takes so much to get there,” recalled Cookbook Author and Consultant Ted Lee. Along with his brother, Matt Lee, Atlanta Chef Anne Quatrano, and Sisha Ortúzar of Riverpark, the group shared insight into the world of chef branding and how to expand culinary talents outside of the restaurant. Ted opened the discussion by explaining how common it is for an entrepreneur to be at a crossroads. Quatrano shared her experiences, highlighting her diversification with a retail shop and prepared foods section and forthcoming cookbook. And Ortúzar recalled finding success in working with a large team. The Wichcraft brand can be found in Williams-Sonoma retail items, as well as his cookbook. Overall, the group emphasized that the most helpful components in expanding a business are to praise employees, know lawyers, and stay in touch with mentors.Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail – Chicago, IL
Michael Harlan Turkell of harlanturk.com – New York, NY
As can be seen from the growing focus on restaurant design and aesthetics, chefs are increasingly looking beyond the food in their restaurants. In their Monday morning business seminar Martin Kastner and Michael Harlen Turkell discussed overall guest experiences, and how the dining can be manipulated with design. Kastner discussed his background as a trained blacksmith with a master’s of fine arts, and how he translates his European upbringing to America. On working with Grant Achatz at Chicago’s Alinea, Kastner spoke on how he strives to elevate the restaurant beyond simply making food and onto a “whole sensory experience.” By using his imaginative serviceware concepts like the critter, tripod, and wax bowl, Kastner was able to work with Achatz on solving problems such as, “How can a food be both hot and cold?” and “How can one simplify using a skewer?” Enhancing the discussion was an accompanying slideshow with stunning visuals of Kastner’s now-famous serviceware. Audience questions focused on applications in the field, and Kastner provided helpful advice on integrating imaginative design into restaurants across the country.
Day 3: The Reach of the KitchenChef Sat Bains of Restaurant Sat Bains – Nottingham, England
Chef John Besh of Besh Restaurant Group – New Orleans, LA
Managing Editor Will Blunt of StarChefs.com – New York, NY
Founder Richard Grausman of Careers through Culinary Arts Program – New York, NY
Chef Marcus Samuelsson of Red Rooster Harlem – New York, NY
On the day after Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster opened, a Harlemite pressed her face against the window and peered inside to see what the new restaurant looked like. It was that local’s bold curiosity about the restaurant that convinced Samuelsson that he needed to leave open one-third of his seats every night for locals. “We serve out-of-towners, New Yorkers, and Harlemites,” said Samuelsson, who was joined by other revolutionary chefs who had helped transform their neighborhoods (in Samuelsson’s case, creating an affordable fine dining oasis in Harlem, which suffers a 19 percent unemployment rate).
The panel—which included the U.K.’s Sat Bains, New Orleans’s John Besh, and Richard Grausman—touched on a variety of practical ways chefs can actively promote top-level change in their neighborhoods without sacrificing their bottom lines. Grausman talked about the failure of the traditional school model, and how his organization, Careers through Culinary Arts Program, allowed ambitious young people get both “hard training” (kitchen skills) and “soft training” (how to talk to chefs, the importance of coming in on time). Much of the time was spent discussing one of the most precious commodities in the restaurant world: young chefs. Bains, not known for mincing words, said the British culinary system is still rife with labor abuses, which is why it’s important to “create a fire” in the belly of his stages, but also to give them time off to explore other interests. “Everybody’s got opportunity to be brilliant,” he said. “They’re just not [always] given a chance.” For Besh, whose cooking hearkens to Creole and Cajun origins, one of the most important things is to promote people of color so it’s not “upper-middle class white guys” (admittedly like Besh himself), who are holding the flag for N’leans cuisine (he has his cooks often stage at Dooky Chase, one of the oldest black-owned restaurants in the city). At the end of the day, however, it’s about serving (and selling) food; to be able to change a neighborhood, there needs to first be a successful restaurant. “We all have to be stewards of our own little corner or neighborhood,” Besh said. “[But first] I need to make a living of this or I can’t be good.”Chef Jose Duarte of Taranta – Boston, MA
Author Barry Estabrook of politicsoftheplate.com – New York, NY
Activist Gerardo Reyes Chávez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers – Immokalee, FL
Between sessions on artistic plating and frenetic sommelier competitions came a more serious entrée into the ICC lineup, discussing the plight of tomato pickers in southwestern Florida, who have been subject to modern-era slavery, physical and sexual assaults, and toxic and carcinogenic chemicals. Author Barry Estabrook, whose book Tomatoland helped bring attention to the issue, moderated the session and described the various squalid conditions of the farm workers (pregnant women exposed to pesticides, child labor, workers being chained to prevent their escape) and said that although the illegality of such situations was definite, they were also ubiquitous. "You can get a tomato slave for $500, if you want one," he said.
It would seem, given the topic, that such a session would be all doom and gloom. But activist and former farm worker Gerardo Reyes Chávez, who helped organize the Immokalee community to fight back against abuses, said that conditions had improved measurably for workers in the last couple years, and that there was now a system in place to report abuses. "We're not asking for people to save us, but work with us, participate with us as equals," he said. Chef Jose Duarte, who had tried (unsuccessfully) to mobilize Boston chefs to visit the Florida tomato farms, said that chefs need to approach the issue of sustainability also from a labor standpoint, and should treat the human element as seriously as they would, say, protecting rare fish. While Duarte's previous efforts may not have had the impact he desired, the room at ICC was packed. What's more, two days after the end of ICC, Chipotle (whose research chefs also presented at ICC) signed an agreement with the Immokalee workers to help bring better wages and labor conditions to the tomato pickers.
By Laura Curtis, Jessica Dukes, Giulianna Galiano, Emily Jacbos, Nicholas Rummell, Eric Jeffay and Nicholas Rummell