I love restaurants and probably frequent them more than ninety-nine percent of the human population. I'm the Chief Executive Officer of a company called Dinner Lab, which is a private membership based organization for consumers to eat food from aspiring chefs who put forward creative culinary visions that are relevant to them. Seventy-five percent of my time is spent on the road these days as we bring Dinner Lab to more cities in the U.S. Between that and the R&D aspect of my job, I am eating out at restaurants three times a day almost 365 days a year.
My business partners and I usually dine at times that most others do not. We like to get to restaurants really early or really late, like around 5:30 p.m., before the mad dash for dinner comes, or when chefs are winding down a service, which could be anytime from 10:00 p.m. - 12:00 a.m. We sit at the bar, talk to the staff, smoke cigarettes by the dumpsters and get an in-depth understanding of the industry and some of the challenges facing the staff.
We've realized most of the chefs working at the restaurants we frequent don't particularly have a passion for what they are preparing on a regular basis. They love to cook and love throwing on the whites. But I've noticed that if you want to see a chef's passion, show up for a staff family meal before or after a service at a restaurant. Ask any chef that has prepared these meals for their colleagues and they will tell you stories: from shared meals they encountered on their travels, to influences from their upbringing, or one time when they lost power and had to clear out a fridge and this new dish was born.
These are the meals that are the most exciting to me, but they are kept from a majority of the general population. It's not because restaurateurs are jerks and are trying to be oppressive to their staff, but the concept of the modern day restaurant is based on stability, predictability and being able to master the same process over and over so that guests can rely on you. You become known for certain things, and I can't tell you how pissed off I would be if my favorite restaurant (Sylvain) took off my favorite dish (braised pork shoulder).
Restaurateurs push forward a concept and a vision that they want to see exist in the world and find a staff that can execute that vision around them. This unfortunately places the support staff at a restaurant in quite the precarious situation; most of them are preparing foods and learning their craft around menus that they don't have a deep passion for. Chefs need to learn their trade just like anyone else, but my business partners and I discovered that it isn't actually a lack of technical ability that separates some sous chefs from their executives, but a lack of opportunity, and a perception that the food that a chef likes to eat is not necessarily the food that a diner will enjoy.
I've bet the house against this, and am happy to do so. While I believe that restaurants will always have a place in our society, I think that you, the consumer, want to experience your food in a different way. I've worked with a group of friends to create a company called Dinner Lab, which acts as a platform for up-and-coming chefs to cook the foods that they want to cook for a group of diners who are assembled to provide them brutally honest feedback and help them develop their new menu concept. We hope that over time, we can produce more chefs cooking food that is important and authentic instead of a concept-driven by someone like me (with a lot more money).