A Message From One of Those Chefs Ruining SF's Restaurant Culture
The truth about (most) of those fast-fine, fast-casual, seat-yourself outposts.
July 9, 2018 ● 3 min read
By Casey Rebecca Nunes | Molly DeCoudreaux
There’s been an uptick of articles surrounding the fine-casual restaurant model over the past couple years. Some hail the model as the future of dining out, while others make it out to be a heartless, sterile approach to hospitality.
A lot of these articles, unsurprisingly, center in San Francisco. Some of them mention Media Noche, where I cook.
My first thought was a bit of a victory lap. We were in The New York Times! Upon further reading (and a stroll through the insane and always charming comments section), I realized there was a widespread misconception about what we actually do.
As the chef of one of these spots “ruining” the future of San Francisco dining experience, here’s another hot take into how it’s done: Really, really carefully with a lot of finicky maneuvering. It’s like trying to finish a puzzle where the pieces can hide, or change the picture on the box halfway through completion—not unlike all restaurant projects.
Let’s get one thing straight: the claim that customers are serving themselves (à la cafeteria or buffet line) at the restaurants mentioned in these articles is simply not true. If the authors had dined here, they would know that. True: guests are responsible for finding their own seating, with ticket number in hand, but that’s about it. Both food and beverages are served by our front of house (and at times, back of house) staff. When we’re in the weeds on a Saturday afternoon, it’s all hands on deck. I cook and run food all the damn time.
As consumers, it’s expected to want things hot, fresh, good quality, fast, and cheap. You can get most of these things. As for cheap: I hate to break it to you (again) but ingredients are expensive. There’s no way around it. Plainly stated, good food is not always cheap food.
Plus, a lot of what you don’t see is what costs money. Making drinks, making sure we hire someone who wants to get your orders correct, keeping the power on, compostable takeout containers. The people who run these restaurants also have rent and bills to pay, families to provide for. Labor is always at 100% cost. Just because we aren’t a traditional seated fine dining establishment doesn’t mean that there isn’t an actual human in my kitchen at 6 AM, frying plantain chips (which are incredibly tiring and labor intensive to make) for your rapid consumption.
I’ve read comments that it’s “expensive frozen food.” If that were the case, I would not go through daily, low-grade anxiety. If it were that easy and profitable, my bosses and I would be Scrooge McDucking it in a pool of money by now. But that’s not the case. The owners are often in the trenches, sometimes in the kitchen, also slanging food. Other things to consider: Prepping a higher volume of food in a typically smaller space, with a budget cap on labor. Not overspending, but making sure we don’t run out of food. What’s the weather like this weekend?
It feels dehumanizing to see the work we do diminished, chalked up to “rising costs and the current social climate in SF.” I’m not saying that’s entirely untrue but please: people are hardly left to fend for themselves here. It takes a lot of work to make this look effortless.
It is my pleasure to provide a wonderful dining experience for people. I loved doing it as a home cook and now, I’m lucky enough to thrive professionally from it. I am beyond fortunate to have the support of a kitchen staff who take as much incredible pride as I do in making fresh food every day. There’s nothing robotic about that. These are the people that your money supports.
You’re paying for time, experience, and knowledge; insurance of food safety; electricity, gas, the keycard function when you pay; leaps of faith and dreams. You’re keeping us alive.
There is wide berth between McDonald’s and Saison. There’s nothing wrong with that. There should be variety and choice—of price, ambiance, quality—when it comes to dining out. We are simply trying to evolve into a sustainable middle: a place where quality and efficiency aren’t compromised but create a refined, yet approachable, experience that can be enjoyed more frequently.
The next time you dine at one of our establishments, I ask you to think about these things. We are real people making tough decisions every day to serve you a lovely, memorable—fast, and perhaps casual—meal.