Well, the eagerly-awaited, both loved and feared Restaurant Wars were upon us this week, and I’d be surprised to hear of any surprise at their outcome. Creating a one-night-only restaurant is a formidable undertaking, and it’s been interesting season after season to see how our chefs approach and execute the challenge. The experience has run the gamut from hair-raising to, well, hair-raising for our chefs, and has never been humdrum for us judges.
As you saw from the introduction of our guest judge, Ludo LeFebvre, professional chefs of note will create such restaurant events, dubbed “pop-up restaurants.” My "Tom: Tuesday Dinner" (TTD) was (and is again) one such venture, in fact. Every other Tuesday for a year, I presented a rather impromptu tasting menu in Craft's private dining room. I've recently begun doing so again, periodically, for a little while. The space is intimate and the kitchen open to the dining room, so that I can connect with the diners and can enjoy cooking directly for them. Many of the dishes I devised for TTD have made their way onto the menu at Colicchio and Sons. TTDs are always fun for myself and the chefs cooking with me, and our enthusiasm always makes its way across to the dining room. Pop-up restaurants such as Ludo's and mine are culinary happenings of a sort, but at the end of the day, they still need to be restaurants. No one is expecting the atmosphere at a pop-up to be great, or the restaurant to be built out, but that’s not the point of the pop-up. One goes because one gets the sense that it’s new and only for the moment, and that’s what exciting about it. But a pop-up only works when that excitement is there from the start and is sustained throughout by the chef and his/her staff. All involved in the venture need to sincerely invest in that excitement and communicate it to the diner –- the workers need to have the attitude that they are part of something special. The diner is then brought along on this brief journey. The dishes can be experimental and fun and may or may not succeed, as long as the chef and staff are never imposing anything on the diner. Here, wewitnessed an example of a successful pop-up and one that pretty much imploded. We saw in Bodega the spirit of fun and the sense of sharing a culinary moment with the diners, whereas with Etch, we saw the head chef impose his will on his teammates and his negative experience on the diner. Not fun. The s--tstorm in the kitchen (as the chefs rightly referred to it) got in the way at every turn and translated into a poorer dining experience for the patrons and a loss for the team.