FOOD

Sharp - - EDITOR’S LETTER - By Chef Tommy Mchugh

Our colum­nist, STK’S Chef Tommy Mchugh, talks to his Miche­lin-starred men­tor Eric Chavot.

On the state of fine din­ing with Miche­lin-starred Chef Eric Chavot

LONG BE­FORE IT WAS OCCUPIED by the ever-ex­pand­ing check­list I keep to en­sure the kitchen at STK Toronto op­er­ates like a Rolls Royce Mer­lin en­gine, the ques­tion on my mind was much more sim­ple: is the mo­tor on the Vespa hot, or cold? The an­swer would de­ter­mine how my 16-hour shift at Lon­don’s most pop­u­lar restau­rant would be.

Early in my ca­reer I staged at the Cap­i­tal Restau­rant at the Cap­i­tal Hotel, in Knights­bridge. It was helmed by the city’s golden chef, Eric Chavot, proud owner of two Miche­lin stars and in­cred­i­ble ac­claim — and a lip­stick red scooter. I, on the other hand, work­ing on just three hours sleep thanks to a busy shift the night be­fore, pon­dered to­day’s mise en place while trans­fer­ring from one cramped dou­ble decker bus to an­other to be at work be­fore the sun rose. If the Vespa’s en­gine was warm — or even bet­ter, hot — it meant that Chef Chavot had just ar­rived. This was good. If the en­gine was cold, it meant he had been there for hours, long be­fore me. I would mar­vel at how a chef of his stature could leave the restau­rant at 2 am and re­turn at 6 am, night after night. He’d work alone – noth­ing was be­neath him, even scrub­bing floors with a grout brush — wait­ing for his dis­ci­ples, won­der­ing why my gen­er­a­tion was so soft. Work­ing for Chef Chavot re­quired in­testi­nal for­ti­tude and an ex­cep­tional de­sire for per­fec­tion.

Over the past decade, how and what guests eat, and the way restau­rant kitchens run, has changed. I won­dered if that con­stant striv­ing for per­fec­tion had, too. Food TV has of­fered din­ers en­try into a once-un­fa­mil­iar world. Time is ev­ery­one’s chal­lenge. Now, you sit down to din­ner and make menu choices by look­ing at your phone, tak­ing sub­jec­tive sug­ges­tions from peo­ple you don’t know in­stead of listening to the server. The clock isn’t go­ing to turn back, so I wanted to ask my men­tor what his thoughts are on cook­ing with snowflakes, how tech­nol­ogy has changed the din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and the fu­ture of fine restu­ar­ants.

Where are you cook­ing these days?

I’m tired of how things have changed in Lon­don. It’s too ex­pen­sive and I want a fresh start, so I’m open­ing a 75-seat restau­rant in Hamp­ton, with only 10 of us in the kitchen.

Are you ever go­ing to slow down?

Never. I get more done now by tak­ing a step back, but I’ll never slow down. My wife wants me to re­tire in five years, but that’s not go­ing to hap­pen.

You’re mak­ing us all look bad! You’re sup­posed to let the gen­er­a­tions you’ve trained start to take over — do you think that’s some­thing you’ll see hap­pen­ing soon? Or is there is too much to learn be­fore you hand it over?

Only a small hand­ful will take over. Guys like you who did it for real. We used to work for qual­ity — that was the name of the game. We worked for our­selves, not for Miche­lin, and for that, they re­warded us.

When work­ing with young cooks, what’s the most ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ence be­tween now, and, say, 10 years ago?

The de­sire to do it, and the goals they want to achieve. Be­fore, they wanted to work with — and learn from — some­one who was re­spected for all the right rea­sons. Now, it’s about build­ing their own name. But if you can’t do the work, how you can claim to be a chef? There’s a cul­ture to find “the next chef,” so some­one who’s young and not ready sud­denly gets thrown into the lime­light, and is told he’s the next best thing. For six months, he feels like a rock star, and then — bam! — it’s over. They’ve moved on to “the next chef.” You don’t come back from that; it’s ru­in­ing young chefs. It should be about qual­ity, and who’s do­ing some­thing unique, not what’s trendy. Chefs used to look at cook­ing as a craft. You had to learn it.

What do to­day’s din­ers want?

Din­ers to­day are far more de­mand­ing than they used to be. Tech­nol­ogy af­fects the kitchen and the restau­rant — and not nec­es­sar­ily in a good way. Fif­teen years ago, peo­ple came for the food, and for a din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Now, peo­ple are not pay­ing enough at­ten­tion to each other. At Brasserie Chavot, I used to have an open kitchen, so I was able to watch and in­ter­act with the guest. If a hus­band and wife were just sit­ting there, I would send over cham­pagne, and sit next to them and ask them, “Is your hus­band re­ally that bor­ing?” I was try­ing to get peo­ple talk­ing. But ev­ery­one’s on their phones, and not pay­ing at­ten­tion to the de­tails around them: the server, the ta­ble, the glass­ware, the chef, the food, each other. It’s sad.

Do you think fine din­ing will make a re­turn?

It’ll come back, like flared jeans from the ’70s. It’s all about qual­ity. Chefs who tra­di­tion­ally had stars have all changed what they are do­ing: the white table­cloth is gone, and the food is sim­pler. To do it as an in­di­vid­ual will be al­most im­pos­si­ble, though, so you’ll have to join a larger group to help you out. With the cost of run­ning a restau­rant, you need help. But young peo­ple don’t want to do it any­more — that’s why so many restau­rants like Robu­chon and El Bulli closed, or changed what they do. The only places where this is still go­ing on are places that have money, like Dubai.

Do you still ride the Vespa?

No, I’ve up­graded, but I don’t have the heart to sell it. It’s my most cher­ished pos­ses­sion. It sits in my garage now.

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