Once upon a time, chefs dreamed of opening award winning restaurants. They’d endure years of meticulous training, failures too embarrassing to recount, hours spent holed up inside a windowless room, and years slaving away under culinary stalwarts. The reward was the same for each of them: an opportunity to make a mark in the world of fine dining.
Not anymore. As this generation of chefs grows up, it’s forgoing the traditional stylings of success, opting for Instagram and Twitter fame, and leaving fine dining for fast casual. And in the last couple of years, that’s given rise to a slew of single-item restaurants (you know, the ones that focus only on the baked potato, the chicken nugget, or the biscuit).
Let’s not shift blame: We’re bringing this on ourselves. We’re an increasingly mobile society, and we want our food made in the time it takes to pull up our email. The days of the two hour business lunch are over, replaced by the two minute challenge of eating a halal plate at your desk without getting rice stuck in your keyboard. In fact, we’re probably using an app to order our meal, and we’re avoiding face-to-face conversation when we can. This all means that we’re increasingly over fine dining, and we’re also armed with enough information to know that there’s a world of dishes beyond of burgers and pizza that can be had quickly.
And we get it — if you’re a restaurant owner, you can’t pay NYC’s skyrocketing rent in James Beard awards. You know what’s easier to manage from a cost perspective? Fewer menu items, less kitchenware, and a smaller kitchen. It’s hard to get rich from running a restaurant, but a one-item menu gives you a fighting chance — especially if taquitos blow up and enable a multi-franchise empire.
But is this really the best display of a chef’s skills? The men and women behind these operations are well trained and have worked in some of the city’s top dining institutions, yet we’re only seeing a fraction of what they can do, mostly in the form of sauces. I get it: The pressure of working your entire life only to have a select group of diners lambast your effort as below par sucks, especially when your playing in the high stakes realm of fine dining. I understand the temptation to open up a joint that makes the customer order and pick up their own meal — it takes a load off. And when we’re eating at these miniature restaurant models, we provide more leeway. (Didn’t realize the goat cheese, pineapple, and tuna-stuffed dumpling would make you redefine the word gross? That’s on us for choosing the combo.) Heading down the fast casual road can be less of a headache and so much more fun.
But the market’s beginning to get saturated. We love the creativity, but now that we’re swimming miniature restaurants, we’d like to see chefs break this single-item mold. You don’t have to go back to fine dining, but let’s consider a little variety.