How will history remember 2014 when it comes to New York City dining? As we look back at a year’s worth of interviews with some of the industry’s best chefs and restaurateurs, we notice a few trends.
Certainly this year saw an uptick in vegetable-forward cooking. Back in January, Piora chef Chris Cipollone observed that “everyone’s now doing the vegetable thing. My customers love it. I sell more market vegetables than anything.”
Many chefs began giving produce the attention they normally reserved for meat, and some restaurants pushed forward into making vegetables the highlight of the menu. Prime examples include Semilla, a continuation of José Ramírez-Ruiz and Pam Yung’s Chez José, and John Fraser’s Narcissa. Fraser saw the swing away from the pork era as part of a broader trend: “Gyms are popping up on every corner,” he said. “That tells me something is going on: People are interested in taking care of themselves, or they’re at least interested in having gym memberships they don’t use. That tells me that people might be recognizing that pork is not a long-term solution.”
Some chefs called for that focus to evolve further. “We need to change the paradigm for protein-centric food — and I don’t mean just serving a plate of vegetables,” said Blue Hill chef Dan Barber. “Grains have to be a big part of this. Sixty-five percent of agricultural land in this country is in grains. Vegetable is only 5.5 percent. So when we herald vegetables as the change, it’s kind of nuts. Change grains and you change everything.”
So where does that leave meat? Some purveyors observed a retreat from nose-to-tail cooking, even as restaurants cared more than ever about where their food came from. “Unless you want to help a small farmer who needed to sell a whole animal, there are difficulties with it, with getting rid of all the parts in an efficient manner,” said meat-monger Pat LaFrieda. “You’d never do it for pricing. The only way I see a use for it is for the restaurateur who wants to raise his own animals. But those who just do it to be trendy, it never lasts long.”
D’Artagnan owner Ariane Daguin told us chefs should continue angling that way, though: “It’s the duty of the chef to use the whole animal — it’s too easy to be good with caviar, foie gras, and truffles. But I like places that will put belly and loin in a dish and then use everything else in the headcheese.”
There was an intellectual and personal bent to a number of restaurants that opened this year. Some meditated on a single ingredient: “It’s a celebration of an ingredient and everything you associate with that ingredient,” Mike Price said about his restaurant The Clam. “I would love to eat stuffed clams, and after, I’d love to eat a ribeye steak. That’s how I wrote the menu — I thought, what do I want to eat with my clams?”
And Tuome’s Thomas Chen observed that many chefs were pushing boundaries of cuisine in a number of ways. “People are doing more uncommon things than they used to,” he said. “They’re exploring different kinds of ingredients and what they can do with different types of cuisines. That’s why a lot of people call themselves New American — there’s no real definition. It’s innovative food that’s different than everything else. Like here, I use Asian ingredients, but not ingredients that are commonly used in Chinese cuisine. I create dishes that make sense but do not have classification.” That explains why we saw openings like Huertas, a Spanish restaurant that aimed to capture the spirit of a true tapas bar while remaining relevant to New York, and King Bee, a restaurant that traces the migration of the Acadian people from France through Canada and down to Louisiana. Those personal projects, many chefs thought, will continue.
On the flip side, 2014 will also go down as the year we lost a number of institutions to gentrification and rising rents. The demise of prolific restaurants like Union Square Cafe meant that the subject weighed heavily on the minds of many chefs and restaurateurs, whether they were working to keep an institution alive or opening a new place. “We’re losing these institutions that helped pave the way — or gentrified neighborhoods and helped landlords raise the rents, and now the landlords want to go back and triple the rent on the spaces,” said The Gander and Recette chef Jesse Schenker. “Landlords are in a position where they can sit on property.”
And it wasn’t just Manhattan that suffered: “When we were looking for a restaurant space, it took us about a year and a half to find a space,” said Meadowsweet’s Polo Dobkin, who ultimately signed a lease in Williamsburg. “Rents in the city are so out of touch with what a restaurant needs in order to succeed. We saw a lot of spaces, and they all came down to the same issue: Rents are way too high, and landlords were unwilling to negotiate.”
Restaurateurs Francine Stephens and Andrew Feinberg pointed out that economic problems run deeper than unsustainable rents: “The city is looking to restaurants to make up a lot of its income,” Stephens told us. “And it’s small and medium businesses that suffer.” They cited regulations and health care changes in particular.
And some chefs worry that these woes will force people out of the city. “People can go work in such amazing restaurants throughout the country, so they say, ‘I don’t want to deal with New York,’ ” said Kin Shop and Perilla’s Harold Dieterle. “I’m a New Yorker, but for people from the Midwest, life is different here, and life is tough.”
Many chefs also spotted a dearth of talent they blamed on expectations of newcomers in the industry and the paltry wages most line cooks receive. “People are into food and going to culinary school, but they don’t make money, so they don’t cook,” Huertas chef Jonah Miller told us.
Still, despite the obstacles, almost every chef we talked to had a future project in the works, including fast-casual spin-offs, or second (or third or fourth) restaurants. Because most of them love and want to be a part of the timeless quality of this city’s food industry: “Here, you can find basically anything you want,” said Aquavit’s Emma Bengtsson. “You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to get a great meal. There are a lot of smaller places that cook fantastic food, and everyone can enjoy it.”