James Beard Honors More Than Just a Chef With Leah Chase


The James Beard Foundation announced on Thursday that Leah Chase would receive their Lifetime achievement award this year, an honor she shares with chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Richard Melman. Chase, now 93, is known as the “queen of Creole cooking,” and has been a mastermind at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans since the 1940s. The restaurant, which she runs with her husband, has transformed over the years from sandwich shop to fine dining to Southern comfort and Creole, and despite massive flooding from Hurricane Katrina which shuttered them temporarily, they reopened and remain a destination for both tourists and locals alike. As recently as 2014, the Times-Picayune named her “damn-near perfect” fried chicken the best in the city.

More than just a chef, Leah Chase has been an advocate for civil rights for decades, flouting segregation laws at her restaurant in the 50s and 60s and hosting NAACP and other activist meetings there “over gumbo and fried chicken.” (Dooky Chase’s Restaurant even gets a mention in Ray Charles’ Early in the Morning.) Chase and her husband also founded the Dooky Chase Foundation to support cultural arts, education, culinary arts and social justice in New Orleans and Louisiana.

While this is not Chase’s first lifetime achievement award (she was previously honored by the Southern Foodways Alliance), it is well deserved and an excellent choice for the James Beard Foundation, which strives to honor not only culinary genius but the integral connections between food and culture, politics, economics and community.

To read more, click here.

Slow Food NYC’s Food Almanac 2016

Slow Food NYC (SFNYC) will be hosting their 6th annual “Food Almanac” on February 9th at the Brooklyn Winery. The event is inspired by the original Farmer’s Almanac, which was used by farmers to predict the weather and plan plantings for the year to come. SFNYC’s version allows industry experts and food activists to discuss what’s in store for our local food system. This year’s theme focuses on food wages: the Fight for $15, the no-tipping movement, and what they mean for both restaurant workers and farmers.

The Food Almanac will also feature treats and eats from Brooklyn Winery, including beer, wine, and seasonal snacks. Proceeds benefit SFNYC’s Urban Harvest program, a nonprofit food educational program for children in NYC public schools.

To learn more and register, click here.

It Might be Time for American Olive Oil to Shine

olive-oil-968657_960_720.jpgOlive oil may be found in almost every American kitchen, but it’s long been the purview of the old world – an assumed-to-be-necessary import from Mediterranean farms that have been producing it for generations. Increasingly, however, California farms are taking a bigger stake of the market, with claims that they offer superior quality without the premium.

To some extent, this claim is supported by the research and recommendations of professionals. In Italy, a recent investigation by a special branch of the carabinieri police force found that many oils labeled “extra virgin” were in fact only “virgin” quality (the designation is based on the basic flavor profile and presence or absence of 16 potential “taste flaws). In November, Cooks Illustrated magazine released their recommendations for super market olive oils based on blind taste tests, and found that California Olive Ranch’s Everyday Extra Virgin was the tasters favorite, while most of the imported oils were tepidly reviewed.

The obvious comparison to be made here is with wine in the mid 1970s, when buyers and sommeliers began to realize that Napa Valley was actually producing high quality wines that rivaled those with an old-world pedigree. As olive oil demand grows, this could spell big trouble for the major European exporters, who already have more than $2 billion to lose in the U.S. market.

To read more, click here.

Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Conference in April

Registration is now open for the 2016 Women Chefs and Restaurateur (WCR) Conference in Los Angeles, taking place on April 17th and 18th of this year. The WCR is a national organization dedicated to advancing the careers of women across the culinary industry through education, promotion, connection and inspiration. Their annual conference will be an amazing networking opportunity, as well as a chance to learn from the knowledge and experience of renowned chefs, television personalities, authors, restaurateurs and culinary experts. In addition to guest speakers, this year there will also be breakout sessions with movie viewings, hands-on classes, and more. The complete line-up is available online, and tickets can be purchased for either one or both days.

Register before January 31st to save $50 on the cost of admission!

To register, click here.

Evolution of the Fine-Fast Casual Enterprise

The restaurant industry has gone through a dynamic shift in dining habits.  Guests spend their money differently and seek to be more enagaged in their food experience. This change has incubated a class of restaurants—the fine-fast casual segment—which is, as we all know, fully blossoming.

With this, we are now also starting to see differences in service styles within the segment – We have highlighted 2 standard bearers to this and a new model that we call the Cafe-Table.

1) Assembly Line

Chipotle popularized this and made the envy of every restauranteur.  Guests enter the enterprise, get in line, and are engaged by a string of team members who assemble the order in front of the guest before ending at the cashier.   Countless enterprises have come to market as the “Chipotle of” their category by substituting pizza or Indian cuisine or salad for burritos.  And for good reason: this is the simplest, most efficient, and low-cost model.  Because the majority of the food is prepared ahead and assembled to order, labor is streamlined, and the delivery time is kept low, as guests are spending the majority of their wait in line to begin the process.  

However, the model does have some drawbacks; namely, there is little room for hospitality and it inherently feels more transactional.  Guests feel pressure from the line behind them and are shuffled from one team member to the next, making it nearly impossible to build any rapport.  But for moving people through the enterprise, nothing is faster.

2) Counter Only

Starbucks, Shake Shack, Panera—many of the major players are using this format.  It’s a model almost as old as the restaurant itself: guests place their order at the register, wait for it to be prepared, and are called back to the counter when it’s ready.  

The added benefit here is twofold: a sense of freshness and service.  While guests do notice the increased ticket time more, it also elevates the sense of occasion, which in turn increases average check.  Because the food is prepared to order, though, labor tends to be slightly higher.  

3) Cafe-Table

Lastly, what we are seeing become more and more popular as quick-casual eats up more of the full-service segment is this slight hybrid, counter service with a runner, the Cafe-Table Model.  For decades, cafes have utilized the system wherein guests place their order at the register, take a number, and identify their seat with that number for the service staff to deliver to when the food is prepared.  

As the market has become saturated with the aforementioned models, more and more operators are looking to differentiate and elevate their fine casual enterprise.  This is often how they’re achieving that.  Bringing the food to the table doesn’t add much in labor cost, but the guest experience changes dramatically.  Additionally, with team members in the dining room to run and clear, table turns can actually speed up in comparison to the Counter Only model.  This does require a more skilled team member—someone capable of reading a dining room, clearing tables, and interacting with guests.  

We anticipate this trend increasing as food and labor costs rise.  As third-wave coffee shops, bakery-cafes, and the like cope with the Fight for $15, they will need to either increase check averages or foot traffic.  Elevating the guest experience is a chance to improve from within your four walls.  If you’re considering this service format, do keep in mind that it also requires a compelling menu and strong kitchen to match.  Read about our most recent experience with the format in this month’s Retail Spotlight here.

Queens Night Market is Back, and Looking for Vendors

Last year, the  Queens International Night Market debuted in Flushing Meadows with 40 food vendors a night and an average of 6,000 guests each Saturday coming to celebrate the delicious diversity of the borough. This year they’ll return with even bigger plans, including 50 to 60 vendors a night according to organizer John Wang.

The market will be open on Saturdays from 6 to midnight, beginning April 23rd and running through August when the U.S. Open takes over the park. They are still accepting applications for vendors, and you can apply online here. The application stresses that while there are no restrictions on what can be sold, they “want you to share your cultural influences with our visitors and to be willing to share the story behind what you are offering or selling and why it is important to you and your heritage.”

To read more, click here.

Fast Casual + Hawaii = Wisefish Poké


In a true sign of the chain’s enduring influence even in it’s downfall, you can now find a “Chipotle of” nearly every cuisine, from salad to curry to falafel and back again. So the opening of fast casual “Chipotle of Hawaiian” Wisefish Poké yesterday should come as no surprise to anyone, although poké itself might be a dish non-Hawaiians are less familiar with.

Traditional poké is a raw fish salad extremely popular in Hawaii. It’s most commonly made with yellowfin tuna but also available with salmon, octopus or shellfish and dozens of seasoning combinations. At Wisefish you can construct your own bowl from bases of rice, zucchini noodles or mixed greens and toppings like crab salad, wasabi-avocado cream, and citrus-ponzu sauce. The fish is responsibly sourced from vendors like Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co, and aims to be un-selfconsciously fresh and healthy. All told, this seems like a great moment for a concept like Wisefish: fast casual bowls are as popular as ever, and mainland Americans have already fully embraced raw fish. Poké provides just enough of a twist to get the lunch crowd out of their usual routine.

Check out Wisefish Poké at 263 West 19th St.and read more here.

How Bad was Jonas for New York Restaurants?


In preparation for the blizzard this weekend, residents up and down the East Coast cleared out grocery stores and prepared to hunker down for the weekend. Many restaurateurs followed Mayor De Blasio’s urging and shut down operations on Saturday, although there were notable exceptions (including Mario Batali and Andrew Carmellini). It’s no surprise that restaurants took a financial hit; according to restaurant reservation app Resy, same-day reservations were down 88% on Saturday and 38% on Sunday, decreasing weekly reservations by 25% from the previous week.

Food delivery also suffered, and GrubHub reported to Bloomberg that they were dealing with a record number of refunds for undelivered orders. They did not offer any exact numbers, but considering they were also offering a 10% discount during the storm, it’s likely the weekend was particularly hard on their bottom line.

New York is cleaning up this week, and most restaurants are open for business once again. If you’ve burned through all the milk and bread you purchased last week, considering heading out and giving your neighborhood spot some love. Just make sure to wear your snow-boots.

To read more, click here.

Retail Spotlight – Blank Slate Coffee + Kitchen

o.jpgTheir Success… In a city with sky-high rents and rising expenses, it can be hard to make ends meet on coffee alone. Blank Slate has increased its sales by bridging the gap between coffee shop and restaurant, creating a hybrid best described as a “Café-table” that is the best of both worlds. This concept works on an old premise that is becoming increasingly popular as labor and operational costs increase. In it, guests order from a single point of sale, then take a number to indicate their table as they seat themselves. When the food is ready, a runner brings it out, clears dishes, and attends to guests.

Walking into Blank Slate, guests are greeted with high ceilings and a bright, modern space. During the busiest lunch hour, this space can fill up quickly; tables are laid out to maximize seating with longer shared table spce in the middle and a banquette along the wall. The espresso machine is front and center behind the counter, promising all the caffeine fixes you would expect from a coffee shop, but the large menu on the wall behind makes it clear that Blank Slate wants to keep you fed as well as energized. This menu, which is impossible to miss as you walk up to order,  focuses entirely on prepared food; beverages are listed on a smaller side menu, and there are none of the pastries or baked goods that are usually on display in a coffee shop. Guests who come in in the morning may not be able to get a quick muffin with their coffee, but they can get sweet toast with whipped ricotta and candied bacon, or an egg sandwich with truffled goat cheese.

The breakfast menu is available late on weekends to appeal to midtown brunch-ers, but in the afternoon the selection switches over to salads, sandwiches, and small plates. These offerings are all thoughtfully curated and described on the menu – there are basics (like a rustic chicken sandwich or a Mediterranean salad), but they often have small twists to add a layer of appeal (the caesar salad is made with brussel sprouts, and the meatball sub is made with lamb, mint, and pecorino). The desserts are also in line with what you would expect from a sit down restaurant, including molten chocolate cake with vanilla gelato, and you can pair any of the food with wine or beer offered on tap.

While the menu itself would be at home in an upscale sit-down restaurant, the front of house operations are much more streamlined. Guests order from the register in a single line from which they can get coffee to go or a table number to seat themselves and wait for food. From there, staff members bring orders, fill water, and bus dishes – but ordering and payment is all taken care of.

Take Aways…Blank Slate fills all the needs of a neighborhood coffee shop in a neighborhood that needs plenty of coffee shops, but a finely tuned menu of savory foods (and a streamlined system for serving them) helps Blank Slate do double-duty as a lunch, brunch, and early dinner spot as well. This combo is the heart of the Café-table concept: fill two needs at once, and your morning regulars may just become your most satisfied lunch guests as well.


Momofuku Nishi Cements an Unexpected Trend: Annotated Menus


The Menu at Yours, Sincerely

The opening of Momofuku Nishi in Chelsea generated buzz for lots of reasons, and it remains difficult to get a seat at David Chang’s Italian-Korean-Don’t-Call-It-Fusion restaurant. If you have managed to eat there though, you might have noticed that the menu is heavily footnoted with information about the dishes, from “Notes of parmesan come from chickpea hozan” on the Cacio e Pepe, to “Kathy Pinsky’s Bundt Cake 2.0” on the Pistachio Bundt Cake.

Including these footnotes does more than just provide information about the dishes, which is useful in it’s own right; it lends the menu (and the restaurant, by extension) more personality. Granted, it is a very specific personality – quirky, irreverent, and casual – but it’s a personality that many restaurants are striving to achieve, especially as fine dining falls out of fashion. So it’s no surprise that other restaurants have followed suit with menu annotations of their own, including Bushwick cocktail bar Yours, Sincerely, where they’ve crammed the drink list with handwritten notes, and included a flowchart to help you choose a drink. It should also be noted that the speakeasy-style Pouring Ribbons went a similar route with their menu years ago, adding scores for each drink on scales from “refreshing to spiritous” and “comfortable to adventurous,” along with a graph on the first page (in case you’re a more visual orderer).

We certainly can’t recommend that every restaurant starts doodling on their menus – in the wrong context, it can be off-putting and confusing. But if the atmosphere of your enterprise is shooting for approachable and quirky, this is one way to make the menu more engaging. And when guests are engaged as soon as they see the options, they might just notice a drink or dessert they didn’t even know they wanted.