Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Books, Airport Food, and Wolfgang Puck

While I was traveling, I finally read Ruth Reichl's Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table (Random House 2002). Reichl (who many will remember as food critic for the LA Times and the NY Times is now the editor-in-chief at Gourmet.) She now has three books out all are great reading. In her first book, Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table (Broadway 1999), she recounts growing up with food, her parents, college, and finding her love of cooking living in a commune in Berkeley. Comfort Me with Apples is the second of her books and details how she started as a critic and expanded her food knowledge -- layered with some yummy affairs, the breakup of her first marriage, her second husband, and a heartbreaking adoption disaster. Her next book published earlier this year, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise (Penguin Press 2005).

I'm in the minority of people I know in liking the second book as much as I did. Most people found her stories of her early life, family, and hippie days in Berkeley much more engaging but my real interest in Reichl is her love affair with food. Like most love affairs, they naturally intersect with real life and in hearing about her life -- and meals and chefs she's met -- Comfort Me with Apples was a satisfying book for me. It also leads me to ponder the early days of American celebrity restaurants and where many of these chefs are 20 years. Many we know: Alice Waters, Michael McCarty, Bruce Cost, and of course, she was wowed by a young Austrian named Wolfgang Puck. As she describes following him from his first successful restaurants in LA to the harried opening of Chinois, I wondered when and how chefs make the choice to sell out.

There, I said. I think Wolfgang Puck is a sell-out. I suspected this some time ago -- probably about the time he put his name on frozen pizza, but I began to suspect it more as the media went crazy over the opening of his licensed, branded restaurant, Puck's, at the IMA. I finally made the connection when stepped off the plane at the St. Louis airport and directly in front of me was a Wolfgang Puck Express airport restaurant complete with rickety tables, harried bartenders, and pizza on plastic plates. The format? Open seating with a not-very-friendly bar and a menu featuring salads, sandwiches and pizza. Behind the "to-go" counter was a small in-wall brick oven. The salads were fresh greens with what I'm guessing are premixed dressings and chicken cooked to spec designed to be tossed on site. The food was basic and other than the wasabi kick in the Chinois Chicken Salad I had, the format had less character than the average snack bar. I had a salad, then moved down the concourse to a Mexican restaurant/tequila bar that was warm, had a friendly bar, great tables, and a cozy, busy margarita-fueled ambiance.

I realize that everyone measures success differently. Some believe there's room to bring "gourmet" to the masses. Others believe quality is king -- and that if they can't oversee it directly, the quality will suffer. Some chefs are perfectionists and others populists. Some are businessmen and others are not. None of these traits are mutually exclusive, but I think it's hard to have your name on restaurants at various levels as well as pre-packaged food and maintain quality -- and brand. Sure, Wolfgang Puck is a household name -- and quickly becoming an "accessible" gourmet brand. But in the meantime, is he losing the respect of serious foodies like myself? Is there a feeling that chefs can't both be good at high end restaurants and build quick-food franchises? Clothing designers do it all the time. Consumers know that an Isaac Mizrahi top from Target is going to be a far cry from one at his couture boutique in New York. But will it work for chefs? There's only so much quality you can maintain by shipping pre-packaged food, sauces, spice mixes, and instructions to chefs or food service people alike.

I'm sure Puck isn't worried. But I'm glad other chefs aren't taking the same routes. I'd be pretty disturbed to step off a plan and find a Daniel Boulud or Thomas Keller branded place with an airport format. Of course, like any other consumer, I can vote with my feet -- or my fork. What will be interesting to watch is whether this trend is ultimately successful. Puck is the best test case -- and we'll see if other foodies follow.

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