Chang, Carmellini, and Simmons Talk Chefs, Fame, and the Future of Dining (‘Sous Vide' Steakhouses?)

Photo: Getty Images, Melissa Hom

Last night at the Astor Center, as promised in our Q&A, Andrew Carmellini talked chefs and fame with his wife Gwen Hyman, Gail Simmons, and David Chang. Gail Simmons kicked things off by saying the goal of chefs has changed, and the ideal is no longer to own a 30-seat restaurant. “I love that,” corrected Carmellini — indeed, yesterday he told Gothamist he’s still looking for a space.

Of the panelists, Chang was the most cynical about how media has changed the food industry. Sure, more people know about knife skills, but he has a hard time finding cooks who actually have them. Chang used a sports analogy to explain why the flood of culinary-school grads hasn’t helped — “Dallas shouldn’t have a hockey team. Nashville shouldn’t have a hockey team. Hockey would be much cooler to watch if there were only sixteen teams.” Chang complained that there are too many restaurants, and beginning chefs often lack a knowledge of what came before them, and aren’t prepared to toil in the kitchen (he tells his prospective chefs that they’re just statistics — indeed, a Wharton grad recently left his kitchen after two years to become a food stylist).

As for Ko’s is-it-democratic-or-is-it-exclusive reservation system, Chang explained that he instituted it only because he didn’t want to waste so much time reserving seats for VIPs. He admitted that the system was a pain in the ass and wasn’t perfect, but he doesn’t see the need for a reservationist at a twelve-seat restaurant. “Sometimes it’s a problem,” he said, “when a chef comes in that’s a culinary hero and I’m like, oh what do I do here? But we still haven’t budged.”

Chang reiterated that his open kitchens aren’t gimmicks; they came from a lack of space. He said he actually hates open kitchens, but in any case his doctor has told him to stop yelling and cursing. “For a while when we were first getting going I would lose my temper. Some people loved it, some people hated it, but I didn’t care what they were thinking because I just wanted to get it right.”

It was Carmellini, not Chang, who vented about photo bloggers — “It drove me crazy for years,” he confessed. “You need to be more consistent now … There’s much more immediate consequence for sucking. It’s not a four-year review cycle anymore, it’s ‘there’s too much salt on my scallop’ and someone is Twittering it.”

Of course, there was also talk of Top Chef — Carmellini found it sad that a passionate chef who had staged with him before going on to be a runner-up on the show is now doing promotional events rather than cooking, though the panelists agreed cooking was dirty work (Chang put it bluntly: “It’s fucking hard”). Chang, in turn, expressed dismay about a talented chef friend who wanted to go on the show as a shortcut to opening his own restaurant. Gail Simmons told a story about how Rocco DiSpirito wanted to win back the respect of his peers (“so many people learned from Rocco,” Chang said, “he was a very talented chef”), but not if it meant going back into the kitchen. Rocco’s words were something to the effect of, “Why would I do that when I can earn eight to ten times as much money working half the hours and have a much more balanced, enjoyable lifestyle?” to which Carmellini said, “That’s it. I’m going on Top Chef next season.”

The most intriguing answer (since it may be an eye into a future project) came from Chang, who predicted that the future of dining would consist of “designing menus where everything is consistent, where it’s not going to be great or awesome.” Chang said that one of his dreams was a total sous vide steakhouse much like one he saw in Japan. “I was watching this guy cooking 400 pieces of protein just by opening a bag … Back then I was like, ‘This is not cooking.’ Now I’m not so sure.”

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