Contemporary Cuisine in Buffalo- Part II
Wednesday we talked about the reaction to a previous post which generated comments regarding whether or not Buffaloâ€™s restaurants offer quality, contemporary food. With that question many other points were raised along with a glut of opinions regarding the current state of Buffaloâ€™s restaurant scene. This situation spurred me into thinking about what the definition of modern food is and who in Buffalo is preparing it. I decided that over the course of the following weeks I would ask this question to chefs that I knew and those that I would interview for other posts.
Over the course of the past month I have spoken with Adam Goetz, chef and owner of SAMPLE in Allentown, JJ Richert, chef and owner of Torches, Mike Andrzejewski, chef and owner of Sea Bar in Williamsville, Chef Bruce Wiezsala of Oâ€™Connellâ€™s American Bistro, and by email, Chef Roo Buckley, former owner of The Coda who is also currently in the kitchen at Oâ€™Connellâ€™s.
It is curious to me how many of these chefs opinions were in harmony with those of their peers. I myself had a hard time defining â€śmodern foodâ€ť. Initially the term â€śmodernâ€ť brought to mind the controversial Molecular Gastronomy Movement (whose name itself is up for debate). But certainly food doesnâ€™t have to fall within the range of this move towards chemistry in the kitchen to be contemporary. On Wednesday, I asked readers to help define the concept; you can read the responses we received here.
My goal was to find out first how each chef defined â€śmodernâ€ť food, and secondly how it relates to Buffaloâ€™s current dining scene.
Adam Goetz, chef and owner of SAMPLE, a restaurant that, if you havenâ€™t heard by now, operates more like a cocktail party or a sushi bar with items sold per piece. â€śOur concept is pretty progressive, not just for Buffalo, but worldwide. There is a movement toward small plate offerings but often it is really just an upgraded bar menu. Modern cuisine is about offering the guest variety and this is easily done by having smaller portions. Each bite should entice you and fill you with anticipation about what will come next and that should happen through the entire meal. Our concept gives us a lot of flexibility, we aren't pigeon holed in the same way that many other restaurants are. We can do Asian, French and Greek on our menu and it still fits into our concept.â€ť
Another common theme that developed during my conversation with chefs was about defining trends and separating the concept of a dining trend from the larger picture of contemporary cuisine.
â€śTrends are about marrying things. For example, Japanese and French cuisines have a lot of similarities and even though the marriage of those two cuisines is a little passĂ© now, it still works. I think it's really about having the technical know how, doing things the right way. A lot of chefs read about something and get excited and then try to put it on their menu without really working through it. We work on a concept for a long time and take advantage of the weekend specials to really perfect something, to make sure we have it right.â€ť
I know from speaking with Chef Goetz and his wife and business partner Jennifer, that it has taken a while for Buffalo to catch on to this bite-sized restaurant. Is Buffalo really ready for change? Can a restaurant take the risk of running with an innovative concept in a city that sometimes clings too tightly to its past?
â€śThere is a new wave of chefs in Buffalo that are trying to do something different,â€ť says Chef Goetz. â€śThat's really what Nouvelle American cuisine was all about, re-visiting old favorites and stand-bys and making them appealing to the new American palette. I also think that there is a move towards lighter fare. The most difficult thing in Buffalo that I've found is that the dining public in is not quick to reward the people that are trying to do something new.â€ť And that may be the case, though SAMPLE is working hard to prove nay-sayers wrong. â€śOnce we get them in door,â€ť Jennifer told me, â€śthen they love it here and we see them over and over again. Itâ€™s getting them to try something new that seems to be an issue, something that I donâ€™t think weâ€™d have trouble with if we were in a major city like New York or L.A.â€ť
Speaking of New York or L.A., Iâ€™m often surprised by the number of people that like to draw comparisons between Buffalo and major metropolitan cities. Recently Buffalo was awarded the top mid-size city for art. Perhaps we should focus on what other mid-size cities are doing.
During my telephone conversation with Buffalo celebrity chef Mike Andrzejewski, he discussed just that. â€śWe can't compete with the major cities. But, I've traveled to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, Dallas--every where I go I seek out the best. In most of these places I can get a better meal at Oliver's or Tempo; even the kids over at Torches are up there.â€ť
â€śI think contemporary food is about a light presentation. Itâ€™s simple, back to basics. The hardest thing about being a chef is not f*@#%ing things up. It took me years to figure that out. I was young, serious about food, experimental and trying to put my own stamp on things. Sooner or later I realized that my job was to let the food speak for itself.â€ť But that doesnâ€™t keep Chef Andrzejewski from pushing the envelope.
Most of the chefs we interviewed dabble in Molecular Gastronomy, using chemical thickeners for sauces and the like, but, to the best of my knowledge, there is no other chef in Buffalo plating and serving as many dishes influenced by this movement as Chef Andrzejewski. The spherification technique takes the form of caviar-sized orbs of liquid that pop when you bite down on them and gels grace the plate where once a more traditional sauce may have laid.
â€śContemporary food is about flavor and quality ingredients. People look at these techniques and see technology, but it really starts with the desire to accent the very best of an ingredient. Itâ€™s (Molecular Gastronomy) a revolt against overdoing things. Itâ€™s really about bringing forth the flavor. But in the end I have to remember that it isnâ€™t about the art as much as it is about the customer and offering them what they want.â€ť I asked Chef how he felt about the many Buffalo restaurants that have been successful for a very long time offering less than modern cuisine. â€śGood for them,â€ť he says. â€śThe restaurant business isnâ€™t easy. If people like what youâ€™re doing then youâ€™re doing something right.â€ť
Another chef dabbling in new techniques is Chef JJ Richert who, with his wife and brother, operate Torches restaurant on Kenmore Avenue. The picture above depicts a new method theyâ€™re tinkering with, one that is used by a few top chefs in other cities. The concept asserts that the aromas accompanying food are as important as the food itself. You can see that this veal cheek is plated, covered with plastic wrap, smoked with wood chips and then taken out to the table where the wait staff removes the plastic to reveal a cloud of mouthwatering alder smoke. The effect is tasty, pleasant and a good show. Richert is currently toying with the idea of purchasing glass cloches that will make plating of this dish all the more special. Although heâ€™s interested in pursuing many of the skills and techniques associated with the Molecular Gastronomy Movement, he doesnâ€™t feel that contemporary food is defined by them solely.
â€śTo a certain extent it has all been done before, and I think that some classics shouldn't be open to interpretation. And itâ€™s important to add that you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been. There's a right way and a wrong way to do everything and understanding and learning classic techniques is important.
We're interested in fresh, high quality food prepared with conscientiousness. A lot of times food is over thought; where the menu lists a million ingredients and the description of the dish is confusing and an entire paragraph long- heaven forbid someone make something simple that tastes good.
I like food that is down to earth and comforting with a feel that is a little more high-end. In Buffalo we're starting to see a younger dining public, people with a taste for the eclectic and a well-versed palate looking for modern and fun places to hang out. I think the younger generation views food as a form of entertainment as opposed to something that's saved for a special occasion. They're looking for cool dĂ©cor, upbeat music and good flavors in dishes that are interesting and different.
I would like to see Buffalo's palate become a little more adventurous. Weâ€™ve found that if we can build strong relationships with our customer, theyâ€™ll try new things. Itâ€™s not easy though, it's tough. I'll do something that I think is really awesome as a special and no one will buy it. Not to be a sissy or anything, but it hurts.â€ť
Chef Roo Buckley told me a similar tale via email (from which he gave me permission to quote). â€śModern dining in this town will take on when there are enough young people (25-40) who have the disposable income to support it. There simply arenâ€™t enough of us to go around.
Case in point, this last weekend, we did a beautiful Braised Rabbit over pappardelle with fresh fava beans, roasted cremini mushrooms, and a sauce made with the braising liquid reduced almost to a glace, then finished with butter. It was glorious.
Out of 150 diners we offered it to, we sold two. We sold 46 Steak Sandwiches with Loaded Fries. Less than1% went for something you wouldnâ€™t see anywhere else in Buffalo. I sold both, one person was from England, one person was from Spain. 30% went for the upscale Jimâ€™s Steakout. This underlines the lack of modern cuisine in Buffaloâ€ťâ€¦ â€ś(They want) steak on a plate, a lot of starch, a foil or styrofoam takeaway. Two glasses of merlot,â€™ cause they havenâ€™t seen the movie, or two glasses of pinot noir because they have.â€ť
He also told me of some concerns he has regarding the politics reflected on our plates. For those of you that had the pleasure of dining at The Coda, you know that his menu was entirely different every week. All goods that could be sourced locally were, and the goal of offering food that was not only delicious, but also sustainable, was an important part of Buckleyâ€™s concept.
â€śThis town has embraced sushi at a time when sushi is now politically incorrect, potentially a health hazard and going to skyrocket in price. Chilean Sea Bass is sold alongside swordfish and other critically endangered species at the counter in Wegmans.â€ť
Another chef concerned about where his food comes from and how itâ€™s raised is Chef Bruce Weizsala, also currently in the kitchen at Oâ€™Connellâ€™s American Bistro after a few months at the helm of Modeâ€™s kitchen (with a menu that sang, I might add). Chef Weizsala is a WNY native that recently returned to Buffalo after years away in Atlanta. There, under the tutelage of acclaimed chefs like Gunter Seeger, Michael Tuohy and Linton Hopkins, he learned to respect what was fresh, local and well-made. â€śI think weâ€™ll see lighter fare,â€ť he told me. â€śI think that modern food is about presentation and the care that's taken with the flavor combinations. Every thing's been done before, but you need to take a fresh approach. I think the biggest move toward modern food is the idea that people are beginning to look at where there food comes from. People will be less and less interested in eating things that come cryovac'd.
I see, maybe 5 years down the road, the opportunity to offer people fresh local food year around. I think there's an awareness that's happening that will prompt farmers to implement the things necessary to make that happen.â€ť
Finally, as someone who has watched Buffalo's dining scene very carefully over the last few years, Iâ€™d like to add that there are a lot of obvious benefits to Buffaloâ€™s evolution toward the future, both on the plate and elsewhere. But, Iâ€™d also like to point out that Buffalo has a unique distinction that separates it from many of the other cities in America--its diverse and long standing ethnic heritage. Many cities in the U.S. are not rife with the history and traditions that we have. Iâ€™d like to suggest that rather than cast the associations aside in an attempt to become â€śmodernâ€ť that we instead embrace them and find a way to make them work for us--an innovative and unique way.
Perhaps Anthony Bourdain--in some ways the guy who started this whole conversation--put it best in a recent episode of his hit program, â€śNo Reservationsâ€ť. After what appeared to be a lengthy discussion with Chef Paul Rankin, Ireland's Michelin star awarded celebrity chef and restaurateur about Irelandâ€™s much improved dining scene, he made an observation regarding what the Irish weâ€™re doing right--â€śVery much rooted in the old ways, yet unafraid of the new. Innovative in execution, yet firmly rooted in tradition.â€ť
Currently restaurants like Bistro Europa and Trattoria Aroma are doing just this, and Iâ€™d like to point out that that in itself is a very contemporary take on food as well, and one that Buffalo is uniquely suited to attain.
It seems to be, to some extent, a question of which must come first- the modern cuisine or the clientele with a palate modern enough to support it? Perhaps that is a question for another day. Suffice it to say that those of you that love contemporary food should make sure to put your money where your mouth is and those of you that have been complaining about large, sloppy portions and lazy chefs should try some of the restaurants weâ€™ve highlighted today. They are working diligently every day to offer you just what youâ€™re looking for.
Please support your local restaurants.
Photos of Chef Andrzejewski and Chef Buckley's dishes were taken from their websites.