When you receive a breakfast invitation with the world's 'best restaurant' chef René Redzepi you say yes first and ask questions later.
This first dialogue, in what hopes to be an ongoing series of intimate food-centric talks, was an insiders discussion of the restaurant industry and CTbites was lucky to simply be a fly on the wall. In town for a talk at Yale, Redzepi was the guest of honor at an intimate breakfast hosted by Carey Savona of Heirloom Restaurant located at The Study at Yale in New Haven. He invited Yale professor Paul Freedman and a gathering of Connecticut chefs with some familiar names, including: Tim Labant, Schoolhouse at Cannondale; Fritz Knipschildt, Cafe Chocopologie; Jean Pierre Vuillermet, Union League Cafe; Bill Taibe, Le Farm; Bun Lai, Miya's Sushi; Denise Appel, Zinc; Pedro Garzon, Cafe Manolo; Roland Olan, Martel; Tyler, Union League Cafe; Brandon Ahearn, Heirloom; and Marcell Simon Davidsen, Heirloom.
Beginning with a question posed by Freedman regarding the challenges of running a restaurant in the state, the conversation turned quickly to how to manage the expectations of customers and to what degree can you do what you want, and essentially lead your customers. The trap being a fine line between disenfranchising your customer base with a challenging menu, and at the other extreme, catering to the palate of the vast majority and risk sacrificing your identity.
On leading your customers:
Tim Labant: "In the beginning. i had similar challenges. You're opening there is no reputation, people expect it to be one thing. I think you dump the dishes you are not personally interested in, and you just keep pushing."
Bill Taibe: "My experience in being a chef is understanding your clientele. [My customers] don't leave westport much. When I created a restaurant, it's about us as cooks. People want a connection with restaurants and chefs."
On the Connecticut food scene:
Fritz Knipschildt: "Food scene has changed so much in the past 15 years. in 96 I was disappointed in food scene. When I started 12 years ago, people were afraid. I was persistent, I had to dumb down. It wasn't what the audience wanted ... people have started to travel more. They are learning what real food is."
Bun Lai: "Very similar experience. My menu hasn't changed over the last decade but it wasn't until the media has come in and said it was cool. rRthinking sushi in a sustainable model. I started living in the basement of a very slow restaurant. my mother had a very traditional place, I jumped in and drove it into the ground with my creativity. But hten in my mid thirties the nytimes and others came around ... without that media it wouldnt have been enough to keep us on course."
On local agriculture:
Bill Taibe: "I've been buying local, but it's becoming such a fad here. Doing it and feeling right about it. This years produce has been awful. Weather was awful. Season was awful ... I get into lots of fights about food costs. It's why I own my own restaurant."
René Redzepi: "Lots of people have attacked for wanting us to explore local terrioir. Some people have called us fascists. There is no such thing as the best of anything. Overall, we are trying to reduce food mileage. I think it's about generating these connections, we have two day boats, a diver who harvests in the cold water. It was tough initially. We had to grow together and trust each other and its astonishing what we get for products."
On working in restaurants:
Bun Lai: "Miya's attracts a very smart Yale food crowd. We truly believe working with food, is one of the most important things a human being can do. The basis for the menu, the basis of the menu, the cheapest, is the healthiest. As chefs we have an opportunity to educate."
Carey Savona: "They are all very engaged and interested in food. They wanted to get their hands involved in something. Working in a restaurant, makes you feel you are part of something, you are part of a team. That kind of experience on any level is important."