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Podcast Episode Highlights
Intro. [Recording date: June 30, 2017.]
Russ Roberts: So, most of us have never worked in a restaurant, although I did wait tables at HoJo's--which is a blast from the past--about 1969 or 1970. Most people don't even know what HoJo's is: Howard Johnson's. But I'd never been in a serious restaurant except via movies. And so, one thing I'd like to hear from you is--I want to start with a sous chef. Tell us what a sous chef does, and what is the life of a sous chef in a day-to-day way in a restaurant.
Alex Guarnaschelli: Well, I think a chef, to sort of describe the scenario--it's sort of like an episode of Star Trek, you know? So, you have the chef, which is kind of Captain Kirk; and then you have a sous chef or a number of sous chefs, like Spock and McCoy, that really are boots on the ground and are all around the space ship. And that's kind of how most sous chefs function. Which means you are dealing with going through the line cooks, prep the things that have been done in advance for dinner service, lunch service, breakfast, to make sure that everything's on point, fresh, on par, cut properly, cooked properly if things are pre-cooked. You are probably participating in the purchasing, meaning you are going in the refrigerator and making sure there's a lot of everything that's needed to make the food. And then you are also probably participating in putting together the specials for the day, if there are any, or just the mechanics of the menu: any seasonal changes, any adjustments you make for changes you make when an ingredient becomes too expensive. You know, if you--and of course, because of the nature of your podcast, I'm thinking money. When in fact, a chef always is thinking about money and how to spend as little of it as possible. You know--to have a lot of[?] strawberries on your menu in New York City in February is not the same as to have them in August. And so, a sous chef would more than likely be tracking some of those costs, and certainly participating with the chef in curating a menu that's good but that also, obviously, is as cost-effective as possible. And, I mean--cooking. I forgot that part. A sous chef also cooks. Notice how long it took me to get to the word 'cooking.'
Russ Roberts: So, what's a line chef, compared to a chef or sous chef? What's a line chef doing?
Alex Guarnaschelli: A line chef is really coming in and is responsible for a certain section of the kitchen, and therefore a certain group of dishes on the menu. Kitchens are most commonly divided by a section of the menu, quite honestly. There is traditionally, say, a garde manger--which is cold dishes--and in an American-style kitchen could also include desserts. There is a hot appetizer section--those are the hot apps: spaghetti, what have you, that have to be heated up. There is a fish section; there is a meat section. Obviously, there are so many vegetarians now, the fish section or the meat section might very well also have a dish or two that's just purely vegetarian. And so a line chef comes in, say, to the garde manger and makes sure that all the ingredients and all the salads and all the cold appetizers are set up and ready. So, when that first ticket rolls to the printer, when the first guest sits down, they are ready to make it.
Russ Roberts: The image you get of a sous chef on a TV show or in a movie is a serf--someone who is typically abused verbally by an egotistical maniac chef who throws temper tantrums, screams at them; and then they dutifully say, 'Yes, Chef. Sorry, Chef. No, Chef.' Is that true? Is that somewhat accurate?
Alex Guarnaschelli: That's a very loaded question you've asked me. It can be true. I think obviously television loves to exaggerate for effect. I think we all know that if our jobs are sensationalized on television, that we'd love to share how far less compelling and how much redundancy actually goes on in everyone's day-to-day at the office, whether it's a desk or a cutting board. There's certainly tension. You know, the problem with cooking is, I can't say to you, 'I'll get that on your desk in half an hour.' Or, 'I'm not ready to give it to you.' Or, 'Gee, I'm 10 minutes late with that email.' That doesn't work in a restaurant. It just doesn't work. Someone's sitting there, waiting; and they have to go to the theater--which is the classic, pre-theater table that has to, comes at 5:30, wants to leave by 6:30 and have 3 or 4 courses. You don't have the luxury of saying, 'Hey, could you go tell the guests I'm just not ready to give them their food?' And that creates a problem. That creates friction. The person who is responsible to make all the parts grind and work [?] to get that plate of food in front of the consumer--it really all falls on them. And, I don't know--how would you feel if you had to push, and you know, really drive people and make sure everything was ready, and, say, 40, 50 times a night you are saying, 'Where is that?' I mean, how would you be, on the 40th time you were looking for something that wasn't ready? And you can't do it all yourself. I think there is also a fantasy that there is just one chef in every kitchen--just one person making everything. I know that was my original fantasy, growing up: There's one person; he probably looks like Santa Claus in my head; and he's cooking and prepping and doing everything. And the actuality of the situation is, regardless of how simple or complex the operation, there's a team of people that are theoretically collaborating to get you want you asked for. And then you pay for it. And then they get their paychecks. And so on, and so on.
Russ Roberts: So, you described--I heard you describe working in a big-league restaurant as 'athletic.'
Alex Guarnaschelli: Oh, yeah.
Russ Roberts: It also strikes me as balletic--ballet-like. That, there's a certain dance that I guess is also part of the athleticism. So, what did you mean by that?
Alex Guarnaschelli: I mean it's unbelievable what can go on in a small space--how much can get done. It's just kind of--it still sort of astounds me. I walk into the restaurant and there are 200, 300 people eating; if we have private events in our two events, basically in a full dining room, we can talk about feeding upwards of 200, 250 people in an hour and a half, two-hour period. And there are 8-10 people cooking, including the desserts. There are two different dish washers. There are 3 or 4 food runners. That's a lot of people. That's at least 12 people that you counted on them all getting the work, getting all their stuff done; you counted on all the deliveries being made, everything being prepped. That's a lot of what-ifs. And it's beautiful: When it happens nicely and you see it all come together, it's absolutely beautiful to watch. When it's awful, oh, boy is it awful. But, when it's beautiful, *ptsssiouh*--you just kind of feel it's a high that you get addicted to. And you know how that can go--
Russ Roberts: I interviewed Adam Davidson about the movie The Big Short. He was one of the advisers to the movie. I think it was Adam Davidson: I know he was the adviser to the movie; I'm hoping I got the right episode. But, he was talking about how in a movie production there are all these people who are credibly specialized who do pieces of the production, and it just kind of happens because they know their job. And there's a huge premium put on, and value, of somebody you can count on to do it perfectly. And that must be true in your world true.
Alex Guarnaschelli: Oh, yeah.
Russ Roberts: There must be lots of stuff that you don't tell people that you don't tell people what to do. They know what they are supposed to do; they know what's supposed to be where and when. Is that true?
Alex Guarnaschelli: Yeah. There are--actually, this is true of any field. There are different types of skill sets that you look for. You want people that can--you want someone who can beautifully butcher 30 chickens in half an hour. You want someone who goes into the refrigerator and sees 3 or 4 things that aren't really being used that need to be used and combines them into a Special for that night. You want someone who can cook 20 steaks perfectly in 10 minutes. So, you want different types of skills. It's not just one [?]. And that's true of anything, right? On a movie set I might have someone who is brilliant at lighting, someone who is brilliant at sound; make-up, costumes, furniture, special effects--it's the same, a kitchen is the same, you know? And I think one of the most important things I've always tried to stick by is if someone is good at something, chances are they like it. Generally speaking. They like it because they are good at it; and they are good at it because they like it. And so, when I find someone and I see that they like to do something, I have them do that. And I periodically say, 'Hey, do you still love that? Because, if you don't, let's have you try something else so that you don't get bored, you don't fall in a rut, or whatever else.' But that's really been--that's really what makes the ballet great. Because, when you say to the dancers, 'How do your feet feel? You still feel like dancing to this song? Should we change this song? You want to change your shoes?' The things that we can change which benefit incidentally the business, diversifying it and having a solid core of things people can come for but also maybe always having something a little bit new and exciting, it benefits everyone to do that. I think.
Russ Roberts: There's really few things more beautiful in human achievement than mastery. And it's really what you are talking about, right?
Alex Guarnaschelli: Absolutely.
Russ Roberts: It's just, when you have somebody who does their job with excellence, it takes your breath away.
Alex Guarnaschelli: Yes. That's a brilliant way to put it. There's a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, "The Windhover," and I'm trying to find it. He's talking about a bird--and I'll find it in a minute. But it's--it takes his breath away.
Russ Roberts: But, what I was going to ask you is: Are there some skills that frustrate you? That are particularly hard to find and you have to fire someone, or they let you down because it's just so hard; and when you get that person who knows how to do it, you are just so ecstatic? What are, what might some of those skills be in an intense environment like you are talking about?
Alex Guarnaschelli: The micro-skills you are talking about--what are they for me?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Key.
Alex Guarnaschelli: What's a list of the micro-skills?
Russ Roberts: What are the most important ones?
Alex Guarnaschelli: For me, I think, I'm going to say, cooking meat and fish accurately. If someone wants a medium-rare salmon, if someone wants a well-done steak, if someone wants a rare bass[?], if someone wants a medium-rare pork chop--those are a lot of nuances. Not only to know how to do them, but to do them under pressure multiple times and get it right every time. That's a big one. And the larger, more overarching thing is that meat and fish cost a ton of money. And so, if you don't cook it right and you screw it up and you've got to scrap it, do it again, that's a lot of money. A couple of steaks lost every night over a year--I think I did the math on that once, and the tens of thousands of dollars it lost in revenue was alarming. My friend had a restaurant--he had, deliberately put a table of 4 by the door where people would sit and answer the phone, and take reservations. It was a way of showing how much people wanted to eat there; and it was a very effective little tool until he calculated that he was losing about $60-70,000 in annual revenue, having a table of 4 that no one was sitting and eating at. So, every steak, every piece of fish is really critical to your bottom line, because it's so expensive. So, that's the first one. The second one is a good pastry chef. Which I think really fell out of fashion for a number of years. I think there was a lot of, 'Hey, let's cut that department; as a chef, I'll just do it.' You know what? Chefs and pastry chefs are not the same animals. It's like saying, 'You know what, I don't have a horse to ride at the Kentucky Derby, so I'll just ride a zebra.' It's not the same type of thinking; it's not the same mindset; it's not the same approach. That's just my opinion; and I don't need anybody to agree with me. But a good pastry chef who is taking care of bread; if you are serving breakfast; other such things, and there are pastries involved, and then there are desserts on the lunch, the dinner menu--those are a lot of nuances. Also, you can have a crappy meal and have a great dessert and walk away saying, 'I feel really great.' We don't have the power to trump all, in my opinion. That's the ace in the hole.
Russ Roberts: But, has dessert fallen off in recent years, as a menu item, as something people order.
Alex Guarnaschelli: Well, that's a separate question you are asking. So, I'll get to that. I'll tell you what people are eating at the restaurant, because actually, we print a product mix of everything and we look at what people are eating. We look at trends. We--what do people like that we are doing, what do people don't like? It's a great way to take a restaurant's temperature all the time. Which I think is important: Take your own temperature. It's not pretty. That's the time you probably have a fever. But at least you know where you are at. So, other micro-skills? A really good dish washer is so underrated. It's a skill to wash things, clean[?] them, not have residual soap. Let me understand that if you have the greatest cook in the world and you have the best cut of steak in the world, and you've got the most beautiful stove: But if the pan, stove is soapy[?] or it's dirty, what does all that other stuff matter? What directly touches the meat, no matter how good it or the cook is, is going to ruin it. And the other thing is just keeping the place clean. That's a big part of making food taste good. Um, what other micro-skills? Putting away food--
Russ Roberts: I want to go back to the empty table. One of the things that, as an economist that always fascinates me--and I heard this from Earl Thompson, UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) economist who argued that the markup on food is related to how long it takes to eat it. Not just the cost of the ingredients but basically what you are doing as you are sitting in a restaurant is you are renting the table. And you can't--it's not so nice to sit at a table with a meter running. So, restaurants, through a variety of, maybe not even realizing it, but tend to charge more for things that take longer to eat. Obviously, take longer to prep, as well. Because there's more labor time. But the key point is that turnover of the table--how long you sit there--if a restaurant turns over 3 times a night versus 5, it's an enormously expensive thing to have a leisurely meal. So, I'm curious how you deal with that, with your staff, with your wait staff. You want people to have a great time. You want them to linger over a great wine and great desserts. You also want to get that table for the next person. So, how do you--that's an art.
Alex Guarnaschelli: I mean, you are talking--you really are managing to touch on the very unromantic underbelly of restaurant dining. Um, you know, I do find that in New York City there are so many other factors that go into this specific aspect of a restaurant. My restaurant is in mid-town Manhattan. People are either going to the theater, so they have their own built-in timer and they are going to get up; and they are also going to eat early in the evening--which you obviously love. You love that 5-o'clock seating. Right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Alex Guarnaschelli: You have people that, in Midtown are getting off work and they are having a business dinner: they are having some drinks and steak and they want to go home. They don't want to sit there with their--even if they like their colleagues. It's neither here nor there. They just don't want to be out, particularly on a weeknight, really, really late. So, in midtown Manhattan you have a lot of things that--sorry for the fire engine--
Russ Roberts: It's all right; makes it a little real.
Alex Guarnaschelli: Yeah, makes it authentic. Um, in Midtown Manhattan, you have a lot of built-in constraints. Which are actually kind of a blessing in disguise, when all is said and done. I, my restaurant in--I've had work--Butter is 16 years old. When I started out at Butter, it was a year-plus old. And it was a big nightlife[?] spot. So, our first customer--our first customer--was often not until 8 o'clock at night. And we would serve dinner. My rule with the kitchen was: It closes when the last person who would like to eat here finishes ordering. You know? That's when my kitchen closes. And that would be very late. So, the cooks would come later. It would stagger in later. And, it would go later. Tell me how bizarre it was, when I took that exact kitchen staff--we moved the restaurant to mid-town. Our biggest dinner rush was at 6 o'clock. Those same cooks were used to rolling in at 6 and not having to serve food till 8--or 9 even, sometimes. So, it was like we had to retrain ourselves, first of all. But second of all, with the night-life stuff, I also had a speakeasy with my partners where someone would be onstage singing. And no one would get up. And you had a ton of celebrities. So, you'd be sitting in a room with a bunch of actors or musicians or whatever else; you'd order another $15 or $20 drink; and that just wasn't going to pay the rent on the fact that would often lose half of the seating, because people just wouldn't get up. Now, so, yeah. There's an art to it. And then sometimes there's nothing you can do about it. You also have people that just come in, they don't order a lot, and then they linger over their food. You have people that order an enormous steak, eat it in 5 minutes, and leave. Or, we try to do the best we can to make guests feel, 'Hey, look, this is yours. Relax, enjoy yourselves.' We think about how things are eaten, how much food to give, how long is it going to take to eat it. I mean--Butter is just not the kind of place where you take a stop watch to a bowl of grits, you know? And you know what? The way we cover that really is more diners that wants[?]. In other words, our events business. Which is really critical to, you know, surmounting the rent and all the other costs. I don't think it's any newsflash to you. Opening a restaurant in New York City just isn't what it used to be. It's unbelievable.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I want to talk about that. Before we go on, I want to give you the line from Gerard Manley Hopkins'--it's hard to believe; this was written in the 19th century. It's so beautiful. He's talking about seeing a falcon in flight. He says, "My heart in hiding stirred for a bird the achieve of the mastery of the thing." I just love that line.
Russ Roberts: I want to talk about--so your restaurant is called 'Butter,' which is one of the greatest names of all time for a restaurant. It makes you hunger just thinking about it.
Alex Guarnaschelli: It really is great.
Russ Roberts: How much time do you spend worrying about your competitors? If a new restaurant opens around the corner, do you drop in to see what they are doing? What their prices are?
Alex Guarnaschelli: No.
Russ Roberts: You can't really drop in anyway, because you are recognizable. So you don't worry about that. You just try to--
Alex Guarnaschelli: Yeah--
Russ Roberts: You just try to get Butter right.
Alex Guarnaschelli: Well, yeah. Honestly, I spend so much time worrying about the restaurant itself. I've found that if I'm spending a lot of time worrying about my competitors, it probably means I'm procrastinating on something about the actual restaurant I'm a part of, and that I should probably face reality and face whatever it is that I'm trying to avoid by worrying how much for that on the street is charging for his sea bass.
Russ Roberts: What's the hardest part of that experience, of running Butter? You say your work should[?] be worrying about that--what would be a worry that's keeping you up at night?
Alex Guarnaschelli: Keeping the staff satisfied and happy with their work makes the food taste good. I don't need anybody to agree with me. It's just what I feel. And that's what I spend a lot of my energy and time doing. Making sure [?], cooks in particular, are stimulated, that they feel a part of the conversation, sounds a little kumbaya in the face of so much math. But it works. And, you know, I think an employee who feels as satisfied as is possible, is going to give more to the business. And that trickles down to how much money you make. It really does. You know, for example, I'll go to a bakery and I'll buy a dozen cookies; and the person gives me 14 instead of 12, and says, 'Don't worry about it.' I think to myself, 'Either they like me and they want me to have more cookies because they are good people, or they feel underpaid and they think if they give a little of that extra pride, they're going to get an extra tip.' You know, there's a number of nuances as to why something like that goes on. And you have all those varying degrees in a restaurant: You have a waiter who tries to tack on an extra side-dish, or tries to add cheese, and add this and add that, that costs the restaurant; but the waiter doesn't charge the consumer. You know, like, 'Oh, no problem. I'll add that on.' Well, what are they not getting, that they are trying to, you know, make up for?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I turn those down: As a customer I often say, 'No, thank you,' because it's stealing. I get it, but it's--
Alex Guarnaschelli: Yeah. It isn't stealing: it's like cab drivers in New York City. You get in a cab and they drive around like there are no other cars; they drive around like it's the Indy 500. It can really--it really comes down to being so deep in a context that you lose a sense of it, I think, to a large extent. And I think when you are doing--when you have a lot of guests every single night, over and over and over again, you are like, '[?] a slice of cheese.' So, what I did--I want to believe it's innocent and just good will, because Butter is really a sort of good-will place. It would not be open without the staff and all the people who are so dedicated to making it work every day. It just wouldn't. It wouldn't exist. So, I have to believe in that kind of greater good. I really do. I don't mean to sound hokey--
Russ Roberts: No, no. That's what it's all about--
Alex Guarnaschelli: but those kumbaya things work. It's the[?] human.
Russ Roberts: That's what it's all about. Two people on a date in your restaurant, a nice meal--so, they're going to have wine, they're going to have dessert, they're going to have an appetizer. What's the tab going to run, roughly?
Alex Guarnaschelli: My guess is going to be, if they each have a couple of glasses of wine or a bottle of wine, and a steak--I don't know-- $250?
Russ Roberts: So, it's upscale.
Alex Guarnaschelli: $200? Could get to $300. Depends on your choices. But there is also a varying degree of choices, for that very reason. I don't like the concept of a restaurant that you literally walk in and you just put your wallet down. You know, no matter what. I feel trapped and strangled by that concept.
Russ Roberts: You mean, I just give you my credit card when I walk by the Maitre d' and say, 'Enjoy.'
Alex Guarnaschelli: Yes. Yeah. 'I'm just going to actually give you the deed--I'm going to give you the deed to my car, and I'm going to have dinner.' There should be some bandwidth.
Russ Roberts: How do you worry about that number? Do you think about--how often do you think about changing your prices? How often do you think about changing your menu? Are there rules of thumb in the business?
Alex Guarnaschelli: Um, the rules of thumb in the business pertain to the type of restaurant you are running. Obviously, a Japanese restaurant that's serving sushi, a Mexican restaurant that's serving barbacoa, an Italian restaurant that's serving lasagne and spaghetti--it's not going to be the same across the board. So, I think a number of factors come into play. What are sort of the building blocks of your cooking style that you need and how much do those cost? What role does seasonality play in what you are doing? I think seasonality plays a role in all cuisines, but I think you can structure a restaurant. For example, if you have a store and you are selling Banh Mi sandwiches, I don't think the seasonality of chicken livers is as critical as the seasonality of something like asparagus. So, Butter is a green-market-driven restaurant. It's French fundamentally. I call it French-American: French techniques, American ingredients. It definitely has a splash of Italian in there, and that definitely has a lot to do with the fact that I grew up--I'm Italian/American. Both my parents are Italian. But I trained for many years in France, and I spent a lot of time working with fresh produce and markets. So, it's sort of makes sense. So, for my rule of thumb: We change the menu, I would say we change 20-30% of the menu 8-10 times a year, on average. We will in addition put something else on here and there as well. Desserts change with similar frequency. The lunch menu pretty much similarly; although, lunch is probably more stable, because I do find lunch is a different animal. People come in and they want to have a salad. They want to go back to their desk. They are thinking about the fact that they've got another meal on their hands--which is dinner--and if they have a really long day of work, I generally think they want to regard dinner as a recreational part of their day--calorically. So, those are my rules of thumb, generally. Seasonality is really important. I think. And keeping up with that can be hard.
Russ Roberts: Let's shift gears. I have a lot of trouble going to movies, because if there's any economics in it, it drives me crazy. When you watch food movies--restaurant movies, food movies--is there something that drives you crazy when you watch them, and someone says, 'Wasn't that great?' And you said, 'I couldn't enjoy it, because that part about the whatever was so unrealistic I was offended.'
Alex Guarnaschelli: I don't like when chefs are off on weekends to go on dates and participate in the romantic thread of the movie. I think that's just crazy to me. You know: What really good chef has Saturday night off to have a hot date and isn't worried that 18 things are going wrong. I didn't have a Saturday night off for years. And when I did get one, it felt so odd I couldn't enjoy it. I don't think any chef truly enjoys a Saturday night. They are either in the restaurant angry that they don't have the night off; or, they have the night off and they are outside the restaurant drinking and worrying because they are not there. That's the plight of a chef. And we all--every profession has their moment in the week or their nuance that someone never enjoys. I would say that's totally unrealistic. I think, I think everybody sort of goes along and just sort of seamlessly--and just seeing that framing[frying?] pan, that sprinkle of powdered sugar that we so often see in movies as a representation of a kitchen kind of amuses me. You know, it's very hard work. It's very physical. There's a beauty to it, but maybe not a cinematic beauty in the classical sense that necessarily--so that's something that I kind of resent. I like movies like Big Night, where, you know, a fight just ratchets itself to a complete standstill inside a restaurant. I think a movie like No Reservations where someone gorgeous like Catherine Zeta-Jones magically gets an Aaron Eckhart, stunning sous chef, and they fall in love and everything works out. She also somehow [?] a chef's salad lives on a gorgeous corner on Bleecker Street, and she lives down the block with her poodle and her Porsche, which is also kind of perplexing to me, considering the economics of being a chef. When I chose to be a chef--or a cook, I should really say--when I just graduated college and I said to my dad, 'I think I want to be a chef,' and he said, 'I have two comments for you.' He said, 'The first is: Do you want to eat Thanksgiving dinner with your family on Thanksgiving? Or do you want to cook it for total strangers?' And that was, by the way, brilliant and true. I have spent many a Thanksgiving cooking for strangers instead of at the table with my family. And the second thing he said is, 'You've chosen an interesting field, because it's still somewhat the wild, wild West,' he said, 'and you can make very little, or an awful lot of money.' He said, 'and that isn't necessarily true of a lot of other fields of work.' And he was right. All of that was really right. I was a little too young--and irreverent--obviously; and they go hand in hand--to hear him. But I did think of that many times. And he was right. Really right. Parents are always right.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I certainly agree with that, as a father of four. There must be some satisfaction, though, often, in making strangers delighted by your work, on Thanksgiving. That's something.
Alex Guarnaschelli: Um, the satisfaction--I'll just give you my opinions; and then do with them what you will. I truly think, after all this experience, that the satisfaction has to be for you. It has to come from within you, and this, you know, all the boomerang, you throw it and it comes right back to you. I really think it has to--you have to go in and work really hard and try to get everything as right as you can each day: consistently, steadily, time and time again, [?], and be satisfied with that. The satisfaction is in consistency and hitting your mark as frequently as you possibly can. [?] And then the guests follow suit. That doesn't mean I'm not constantly thinking about the guests. I am. [?] in a restaurant, good or bad, have always been intended for the guests. Sort of--the drive to do it only comes from inside of you. The drive to do that, the desire.
Russ Roberts: That's one of the, I think, deepest parts of the nature of work. Which is, we often forget the ultimate effects of our work. I mean, right now I'm working really hard to do a nice job interviewing you. Which is challenging. I'm not a--I had to--I did a little bit a research, and a little bit of thought; and a lot more thought than I do for most of my interviews because this is off the beaten track a little bit. And I don't spend a lot of time thinking about whether people enjoy it or not. I assume that there's that connection. Like you do: You nailed the steak, and you know the customer is happy; but you are really focused on the steak. But ultimately you have to focus on the customer, because you won't do a good job with the steak. And so, that's a complicated back-and-forth for me. And, when I get emails from listeners about what they've learned, it's like, 'Oh, yeah! Right. I'm not just talking to Alex Guarnaschelli on a Friday morning. We're actually being listened to by a lot of people. Thankfully.' And it's hard to keep that in mind sometimes. It's an interesting back and forth.
Alex Guarnaschelli: Yes. And then, when you talk with people--it all boils down to a steak. You are often talking about your idea of medium-rare; and the general idea of medium-rare. And all of those varying degrees of medium-rare. You know? I'm making it for myself the way I want it, the way I know it's good; and then, there's, 'Hey, this is how most people actually like it--a little less salt, a little less vinegar.' A chef's palate is the amount of salt that I have to use. I can't be in the morning I have to have an English muffin on a Saturday [?]--I put salt on my toast with butter. Because I want that. That's what my palate is asking, 'I wish there was a little more salt than this.' I ate dinner in [?] restaurant last night, and I thought the food was too salty. And I said to my dining companions, 'If I think it's too salty, it's too salty.' So, there's that other thing to reconcile at the end of the day, which is a chef who [?]--
Russ Roberts: Say that again? Say that again? I lost you there.
Alex Guarnaschelli: A chef--there is a nuance there, which is there is a chef who is always theoretically anyway and always to a division, sees things a certain way, who seasons the ingredients in a particular way, and then there's the sort of reception of that by the general public, 'Oh, the food's too salty there.' Or, 'the food's too heavy there.' Or, 'the food's too dietetic there.' 'I don't like the desserts.' And sort of paying attention to those trends. And then sometimes you don't feel like such an artist. How about that? You go into the refrigerator and you have 10 cases of cauliflower, because you over-ordered or because you thought you needed it for that party of 300 that ordered cauliflower soup; and now the special is cauliflower for 3 days. And people say to me, 'How do you come up with those ideas?' Hey, sometimes I don't come up with them in such a romantic way. Sometimes I do, by the way. When I see that the 'fridge is humming along and that everything is good and that there's nothing kind of hanging on that I'm worried about--yeah. I go into the 'fridge, I look around and I say, 'Wow, this is really fun. Is this really what I earn a living doing?' And there there's some times when I say, 'Hey, you know what? I've got 30 courses' of bass in there leftover from a lunch party. That's the special tonight. How can we make it great?' Now, I'm operating on the premise that the bass I bought is wonderful--so, it's not like, from China, a [?] something bad. But the idea that we just freely go in and choose the way one might do at home with their refrigerator, I think people might assume somewhat like that: Well, we always have leftovers at home, right? You're always worrying about that quart of milk or the rest of that bag of celery at the bottom of your crisper drawer. Or that weird ingredient that you bought on a whim at the supermarket that's sitting in the 'fridge looking at you like, 'What are you going to do with me now?' We have the same challenges in a restaurant, only whether we do or don't make money depends on how artfully--and methodically, really--how we use all those things. Or not.
Russ Roberts: So, tell me something you are proud of like that, where you created something magical out of--a purse out of a sow's ear.
Alex Guarnaschelli: I think chefs do a lot of that. I said just the other day that I feel one of a chef's many responsibilities--two of the biggest are philanthropy and also you know, finding the nobility in ingredients that are less-prized and more affordable. It's not just the scoop of caviar or the lobster or the langoustine that needs to be treated by the most skilled hands. Yes, that's true. But it's also things like oxtails, pig ears, rutabaga--the less sexy foods of the bunch. What do you do when you have a mushy batch of peaches? What do you do when apples are mealy? That's really where technique can trump an ingredient. I always say: If the ingredient isn't coming to you, you've got to go to it. And there's got to be that constant push-pull. So, let me think: What am I particularly proud of? Hmmm. I mean, I would say, one of the things that we do periodically at the restaurant that I'm most proud of is we buy a whole animal and we make a commitment to cooking and using all of it. I know "nose-to-tail" is over-used as a concept. But, we got a whole pig and we just served a series of dishes: we cured some of it, we brined some of it, we smoked some of it. And we served it until we really made our way through the whole animal, served it all. And then what I discovered is that you could then turn an experience like that into somewhat of one of the many threads that goes into the philosophy of a restaurant. So, when we get a head of broccoli--hey, let's make a little salad with the pretty little florets, and all the [?] of the broccoli, let's make soup from the middle part; let's peel the stems and make a pesto. And you end up with this note[?] that's half philosophy with something like broccoli. Which is absurd, right? Because broccoli obviously doesn't have noses and tails. But that sensibility, that's something that I'm really proud of. And something that I think is useful in this day and age when chefs have to, first of all, minimize waste, and second of all, maximize profitability off everything.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about your own eating habits for a minute, and your daily life. You said you were out at a restaurant last night. How often do you eat at a restaurant versus cook for yourself?
Alex Guarnaschelli: I try to eat out as little as possible. How about that? I probably cook for myself 30% of the time--30, n'yeah, 30. It varies. And some weeks not at all; and some weeks it's 50-60%. So, it varies. My own eating habits are a disaster. They always have been. The reason I agreed to participate in this podcast is because of your deranged relationship with potato chips. And, I was really drawn to you by how piercingly intelligent you are and how connected you are to your emotions, and how despite all of that you will lose yourself at a bodega in a bag of potato chips. That is me to a 't.' You and I share that common thread. I can see certain trigger foods in a supermarket and there's no getting at me--there's just no way anything, no amount of intelligence, restraint, therapy, or anything else will do. So, I have probably struggled all along with just eating 3 square meals. I don't understand that concept. I think a lot of chefs are grazers and nibblers and tasters. That's just how we go through it. You know, I'm having to let go of this fantasy that no matter what I do I get to three meals. Or, if you eat all day and you still give yourself 3 meals, we know where that goes.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I like when my wife says, when I say something like, 'Gee, I wish I could have some x,' and she says--I'm being whimsical; I'm not really longing for it--and she says, 'Are you hungry?' And I say, 'Of course not! I want to eat.' Why are those related?
Alex Guarnaschelli: Yeah. I didn't understand that that was a prerequisite. The other thing is this idea that dessert--you are never hungry. You know, I turn to my [?] chef all the time and say, 'Here's something no one ever says: I'm starving; let's have dessert.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Alex Guarnaschelli: So, there's a whole other set of sort of buttons on the keyboard to push to put a successful dessert in front of a consumer. And I'm often thinking about that; also because I just--I love dessert. I love a great dessert. So, I have a sweet tooth. I'm erratic. I'm unreliable. I drink way too much coffee. I drink a lot of tea. I grew up in a house--my father always makes tea. Very strong, distinctive teas--a lot of lapsang souchong, Poulier, Earl Grey, jasmine--just a lot. I think those really contributed to my passion or sense of smell and how--it's just one sensory experience to me, smelling a really nicely brewed cup of tea and then having hot liquid, just so comforting, and then taste. That's a lot, you know? So, I drink a lot of coffee and a lot of tea. I love the aroma therapy, and the temperature: I like hot things. I like hot food.
Russ Roberts: I should tell listeners that the potato chip aspect of my life that Alex is alluding to--
Alex Guarnaschelli: Yes, you should. I didn't know you were willing to share--
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, we both were on a podcast called "Tell Me Something I Don't Know." It's scheduled to air this Fall; and if you follow me on Twitter, folks, I'll tell you when that comes out. But, I talked about potato chips drawing on my Brendan O'Donohoe episode, which many of you still listen to and still love; and we'll put a link up to that, in this episode. I want to ask you a question, again about your eating habits. Do people cook for you? And do they--because if you came to my house, it would be a frightening thing. Right? I mean, there are a couple of things I know how to make. And I like to think 20 things my wife makes that are first-rate. But, cooking for a chef is very intimidating. Does anyone cook for you who isn't a chef?
Alex Guarnaschelli: Um, people do. I don't know--I think they think they are going to enjoy it, and then when I arrive, they are less--some people love the challenge; some people make a hundred things and ask me how it tastes and if they should be a chef. It all depends on where that person is coming from. I will say[?] the most relaxing thing is when a chef invites me over, and just makes something super-simple like a roast chicken. I am a friend of Michael Symon; he's a chef on The Chew. He's from Cleveland. He has a number of restaurants. When he invites me over for lunch, dinner, whatever, and he just makes a bunch of stuff; and we eat. And it's always so delicious. I mean, above and beyond. So, we're just, 'Hey, we're both off duty.' You know? I always joke: Do you think a cab driver drives around his neighborhood on his day off? You know? Chefs just love to be cooked for. They deserve it. And we're not getting that. But I don't know--I think people like it in their mind, but I don't get many invitations about that. I should get more, shouldn't I?
Russ Roberts: I think you should.
Alex Guarnaschelli: I'm a good person.
Russ Roberts: Next time you'll in Washington, D.C., you let me know and I'll cook for you. I have a big green egg. So, it's hard to ruin--there are many things I can not ruin on a big green egg. And one of them is, like, a roast chicken. I butterfly it; I think you'd like it.
Russ Roberts: So, you mention Big Night, which is one of my favorite food movies. And that movie centers around two things: risotto and hot dogs. But the hot dogs are just a throw-away line. I heard you say, when we talked before, that you can never cook risotto again. And why is that?
Alex Guarnaschelli: Well, I don't think people realize how many times we potentially do something. Right? So, I've made risotto so many thousands of times. I've batch-cooked it. I've served it all night, and had to taste it and taste it all night long, serving it. I've ended up making risotto in two different very high-end restaurants: one 3-Star Michelin in Paris and one [?] in New York City. I ended up, by a series of unfortunate events, making risotto pretty much steadily for about 5 and a half years. And that's every night, general service. And I just can't: when I see that box of Arborio rice in a supermarket--you know, it didn't do anything wrong; it's just a sweet little box of very delicious rice--I just run in the other direction. Run for the hills. Coiling. Right into the cookie aisle. For comfort.
Russ Roberts: What's your go-to dish, if you want to amaze me? What is the biggest wow that has the least chance of failure, that's going to just blow me away? What would you make?
Alex Guarnaschelli: Well, yeah. I'm a big fan of, um--I'm really a big fan of the aw-shucks school of thought on that. I would probably skip the caviar and the lobsters and go straight for a roast chicken or a whole roasted duck that's glazed with honey and vinegar, probably. I'd like a lot of really earthy ingredients. I love potatoes and onions and shallots and garlic. I mean, you give me [?] and lock me in [?] and [?] and I'm really happy. So, I would probably go in that direction. And if, maybe, I think impressing people with more everyday ingredients and a little bit of extra technique is definitely the best.
Russ Roberts: So, now, I'm at your house: I'm a weekend guest. And I don't feel so well. I'm sad; I'm a little bit depressed, having a tough time at work, say, or with a family issue. And you're going to make me some comfort food. And you've got a comfort food cookbook. What are you going to make me?
Alex Guarnaschelli: Well, I mean, I have to tell you that was very comfort--that's a case-by-case basis. You can't as a chef give a blanket, comfort answer. So, what you are telling this person, I mean, first of all, lasagna cures everything. Strangely so does eggplant parmesan. So, I'm really a fan of Italian-American as being number 1 go-to source of comfort. The other thing is, when all else fails, is: Just bake a giant cake. And frost it with many layers of butter cream. If the person doesn't like chocolate, go vanilla. Otherwise, it's vanilla cake with chocolate frosting. And it's several layers. And it sits out on the counter frosted, and gets nice and goopy and room-temperature-y. And then you have a big slice of it with either ice-cold milk, coffee, a small glass of dark rum, or possibly all three.
Russ Roberts: And what do you make for your daughter when you want to cheer her up?
Alex Guarnaschelli: I actually am trying to teach my daughter not to associate emotion with food so much--
Russ Roberts: Good luck with that.
Alex Guarnaschelli: I'm failing miserably. The things my daughter really loves are prosciutto, and poached eggs. So, I would say, always--and my daughter--I'm much more of a person who gets lost in a love of garlic salt[?] than I would a steak. She loves steak and potatoes. So, I would say, if I [?] a lot and she had poached eggs and prosciutto and maybe some sushi for lunch and steak and maybe some crusted potatoes for dinner, I won't hear from her--in a good sense of not hearing from her.
Russ Roberts: I think it's in the movie Chef--I think he makes his kid a grilled cheese sandwich. I think it's interesting--in the food movies, the chef always makes something unbelievably basic, like scrambled eggs, and then we as the viewer start to imagine that these are the greatest scrambled eggs or the greatest grilled cheese sandwich in the history of the world. Which reminds me that your world of Chopped and Iron Chef, how crazy it is that we live in a time where you can watch people cook. You don't get to taste the food, and you still watch.
Alex Guarnaschelli: Well, I always say, 'You can see it. You can witness the emotion and witness the technique and the cooking and the food.' And you can hear it. The sound of it cooking, the sound of the kitchen. The play-by-play commentary. You can't smell it and you can't taste it. And so, when I am either judging, I am attempting to fill in those blanks for people watching. This is like, it's like, 'This is what it smells like.' And I realize those two senses are deeply intertwined. Or, I am trying to illustrate with what I'm doing. Because I don't think there is any point in those shows if most of you feel brought in [?]. Well, yeah, it's crazy. You are right. It's literally like, you know, you go to the movies but the screen is blank, in a sense, because there's so little--you're not living in it, in actuality. But, come on: I mean, watching it--what's really the difference between watching a soccer match and watching an episode of Iron Chef, America? What's the difference? Is there much--isn't an athlete running around? Yeah, I mean it's nice, and an occasional wild salmon floating by. But isn't it the ability, fundamentally that same feeling? Don't you have somebody that for whatever set of reasons with the layer of emotion and food and your personal history, there's someone you feel in [?], there's someone you identify with. There's someone you don't like. It just becomes like a Star Wars Soccer Match. There's a Darth Vader. There's a Luke Skywalker. It's all the same.
Russ Roberts: Who are your heroes? Do you have any? Do you like Jacques Pepin? You like Julia Child?
Alex Guarnaschelli: I really love Bobby Flay. I really love Bobby Flay. He's fantastic. And it's nice to admire somebody who is living, vibrant, and, you know, almost the same age--well, we're of a similar age. So, I like--I love him. I think he is tremendous[?]. He is committed; when he says he is going to do something, he does it. I like that. He's got a lot of kind of--I call him 'Captain America.' And I think that's about right.
Russ Roberts: It's a very high compliment.
Alex Guarnaschelli: I love Julia Child, of course. I grew up watching my mother watch her shows on TV, write down what she did, and go in the kitchen and cook it. I mean, my mother was one of those people. Still is. And I love that. So, yes: I love Julia Child. I love James Beard, Craig Claiborne, Pierre Fernet[?]--this whole school of people that were sort of documenting French cooking in America and how to go about it. And I watched my mother cook all that food. So, that's really near and dear to my heart. But I have a little--I have a lot of different people that I like. So many different reasons to be drawn to people. I like Anne-Sophie Pic. She's a great chef who took over a 3-Star Michelin in France for her father and for her legacy, for her family. And she's running a staff of, you know, 35 men, and she's got 3 Michelin stars: I mean, she's amazing.
Russ Roberts: So, have you ever eaten at a 3-Star Michelin restaurant where you went, 'Ehh'? You don't have to name it.
Alex Guarnaschelli: You know--no, I hear you. Definitely. You know? Sure. I've had the privilege--I lived in France for 7 years, and I made very little money, but what money I did make at that time, I saved it. If you work 100 hours a week, the upside is you don't spend your paycheck--because you can't. There's no way to spend it. It's really funny, right? I know it's funny, but it's actually totally true. You never [?] make so little and save so much. So ironic to me. It's like Shakespearean. So, what money I did have, I spent. Every few months I would go somewhere [?] fancy and just eat, in an effort to learn, and whatever else. And, sure, definitely been underwhelmed. But more underwhelmed by a dish, and not so much by a whole meal or a whole experience.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about Bobby Flay for a second. Bobby Flay has a show where you try to--it's a brilliant conceit: You pick your best dish and he's got to compete by matching it. What would you make to beat Bobby Flay?
Alex Guarnaschelli: I've actually beaten Bobby Flay. Twice. And I've made Lobster Newburg, which is an old-school lobster classic; and I made Sole Almondine, which is another old-school classic. I definitely go for those kind of French-y classics. But, make no mistake about it: He's such an unbelievable cook. He really is. I mean, people say to me, 'How can he always win as much as he does?' He just does. He's that good. Even when he's making something that he's not familiar with, somehow he pulls it off. He's a flavor master. And that's one of the reasons I admire him so much. He's also just a good dude. You know what I mean? On top of all the skill, he's a good guy.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's rare.
Alex Guarnaschelli: Pretty enviable.
Russ Roberts: Have you lost to him?
Alex Guarnaschelli: I have. On Iron Chef America I've competed against him. Jeffrey Zakarian competed against him and Michael Symon. And we lost. And Jeffrey and I were pissed, and it took a couple of martinis to get past.
Russ Roberts: That's pretty impressive. That's a low--it's a bar to get over it. But you still like him, too. That's very nice.
Alex Guarnaschelli: Hmmm. Yeah--
Russ Roberts: But you got those two victories--
Alex Guarnaschelli: That's right. There's something--yes. I love Michael Symon; I love Bobby. I love a lot of people that I work with. Really, I like everybody. It's a privilege to be on television. So, I'll take it.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's cool.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about something a little serious for a minute. Not that this hasn't been serious. But something a little more, big picture-y. You mention that you keep track of what people eat and you look at trends, of course, in your own restaurant. And you are in a particular environment: you are in New York City, which is very specialized for all kinds of reasons. But, are there things going on in the food world that are dramatically different today than, say, 3, 5, obviously 20 years ago? Eating in America has changed so much in the last 50 years; but even the last 20. I think obviously from your perspective it's changed a lot. Talk about what some of those trends are, in terms of what people like to eat, what they care about emotionally. I recently had Tamar Haspel on the program and we talked about people's concerns about animals and animal welfare. What are some of the issues that you see, both in your restaurant and outside it, that interest you.
Alex Guarnaschelli: Whew. I mean, that's a big question. I definitely think people are eating more healthfully. I definitely think people care more about the food chain: where did the food begin and how did it get on my plate; and what does that mean? And I don't just mean in terms of taste, but, you know: Is it organic? How was it raised? How was it grown? Were there pesticides? There's so many different factors, I don't think that we really consider so many nuances when biting into a piece of cheese or a bread with a smear of butter at the beginning of a meal. Or a salad. I do think that people like what they like. And that, I sort of relish in the fact that people still eat French fries. People still eat steak. People still want mac and cheese. People still want those foods, a lot of the time. I think there's definitely a call for more diversity. I don't think you can get away with the menu that's so simple or that doesn't offer more choice. I don't [?] done, more complex and more choice both. The middle ground is less popular. I'd say it's either a slice of tomato with a sprinkle of small, [?] sweetened with the blessings from a chef from Denmark that has burnt rugma[?] on top of it, versus a dish that's like a 10,000 layer lasagna and that's, you know, the size of half of Texas. At the [?] we sensationalize it; I think that's part of our culture. And I love that, by the way. I think people will pay more for something of quality, more so than in the past. I like to believe that. I think that we have our national treasures, our junk food. And I think people also accept that. I think there's just more of a--I don't think people feel so much like they have to eat the same exact thing every day. One day they may have this. The next day they may have that. Sometimes I think that goes too far. When I see, for example, a Chinese restaurant that offer [?] sushi and banh mi, and [?], I'm thinking, 'They're mashing 18 cultures into one.' You know, so, like, 'Oh, we're just going to go out and have an Asian dinner.' And those kind of nuances of the different countries, including China, get pushed off; and it all becomes this hodgepodge. That, I think, is a shame. Because I think that, first of all, street food is so exciting. And second of all, the foods and ingredients and flavors are unique to each culture--just such a great way to celebrate their uniqueness. I don't like when that gets all mashed together. A lot of mash-ups. You know, your laundry detergent has to have your air freshener in it. You know? Everything has got to be 2 for the price of 1. And, a la carte, with food, I don't always love.
Russ Roberts: What are some of your other pet peeves about restaurants or food.
Alex Guarnaschelli: I don't think bacon on everything is a solution. I think it actually degrades and demeans bacon. There are 18 ways to make bacon, and so each one, again, is nuanced and belongs, I think, in a certain context. I think there are certain foods that if you are going to bring bacon to life [?], if you're going to eat it you should really enjoy it. I think when an ingredient becomes so ubiquitous, it's not like Lady Gaga. It doesn't have to go everywhere. It can have a specific place where it belongs. I appreciate the restraint when it's not on everything. So, that's a pet peeve. I don't like when purveyors try to sell me a product by telling me the 10 chefs that are using it, that therefore makes me want to theoretically use it. I feel like I would like to be free to decide whether I think something's good or not, and not add the layer of worrying that my colleagues are or are not using the same thing, or thinking that it's good.
Russ Roberts: What would be an example of that? What would be an example of something that "everyone's using right now and you should be using it?"
Alex Guarnaschelli: I'm going to say a trend--and this is not new, but it's just something I'm seeing a lot now--taking a bottle of olive oil and finishing a dish by drizzling it with a lot of it. I don't understand that. If it belongs, or if it's needed, or if you made the dish with the intention of doing that all along: Okay. I get it. But sometimes people will make a butter-basted fish with [?] and whatever else, and then drizzle it with the olive oil. And I don't really understand that. Conversely, I absolutely love that we've come to recognize olive oil as something that is often a finishing ingredient that we prize--that it's very hard to make. It takes 9 pounds of olives to make 1 quart of olive oil. Just as an ingredient that we should prize and cherish. So, I love the idea that we don't cook it or heat it or denature it, but we use it as something that's finishing. That's gorgeous; that we're going to fully enjoy. But a gratuitous drizzle of that, or of truffle oil, or of something is just really just a No for me.
Russ Roberts: Do you have a favorite guilty pleasure you can share with our listeners?
Alex Guarnaschelli: Well, I love potato chips, like you. Favorite guilty pleasure--it's got to be--there are many things I could say, but probably my favorite is cake. It really is. A really great, perfectly baked yellow cake with goopy chocolate frosting. I don't think there's much better for me. There are many other things I love: people, food, furniture. That, a really good yellow cake with the right goopy chocolate frosting, and you've got me.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Alex Guarnaschelli. Alex, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Alex Guarnaschelli: Of course! Did we talk about money?
Russ Roberts: [chuckle] More than enough.