How much do celebrity chefs really matter to their restaurants?



Crain's reported yesterday that Japonais, the decade-old glitzy-sceney Japanese restaurant on the north branch of the Chicago river, will team up with celebrity chef Masaharu Morimoto—or, as he is almost always referred to, Iron Chef Morimoto—to reboot itself at the end of the year. Despite the comic book-like moniker, Morimoto is in fact a real person (unlike Chairman Kaga's nephew, who is a fictional character on the show Iron Chef America played by an actor, or Alton Brown, a fictional character on the show played by Alton Brown), the chef and co-owner of Morimoto restaurants in Philadelphia, New York, and so on.

A friend summed up the prognosis for this latest celebrity-chef venture in Chicago on Twitter: "Can't-miss celebrity chefs from the east coast open restaurants in Chicago just to prove to themselves that yes, they can indeed fail." And indeed, for a cautionary tale Morimoto can simply look out Japonais's front door at the empty husk of BLT American Brasserie, a fabulously expensive eatery from New York chef Laurent Tourondel that got some of the most scathing reviews in recent Chicago history and closed in six months.

It's not so much that death is guaranteed to such places—the Pump Room, as a condescending rehash of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's ABC Kitchen in New York, plugs along and even managed a Bib Gourmand rating from the Michelin folks, who perceptively sense that their less-adventurous-than-they-think readership is its perfect clientele. But jet-setting chefs will never be loved by more serious foodies, because they're too unreal to fulfill our deepest fantasy about our food: that we can know the man or woman who placed the final sprig on our dish and made it just so. We like to think that it was put there, just for us, by our dream chefs, that Food & Wine's Best New Chef is in the kitchen, exalted yet within our grasp as real-world celebrity chefs can never be.

I shot video of Top Chef celebrity chef Fabio Viviani before his Siena Tavern opened in River North, and the question everyone asked me afterward wasn't "Is he just as adorable in real life as on TV?" (yes, and he knows how to deploy Fabio-ness in person like an Apache helicopter) but "Do you think he'll actually be there at the restaurant?" I gave the only sensible answer I could—"Hell if I know, but his girlfriend's from here and he seems to talk Wisconsin cheese pretty knowledgeably, so maybe. The pizza he made on camera was pretty good." It was taken for granted that the frequency of Fabio's presence or nonpresence would be the deciding factor in whether it was pretty good or a hack joint for gullible tourists.

But going into Siena Tavern recently—on a weeknight, which meant the place was merely packed, not insanely crowded—it immediately struck me how absurd the question is for an operation of the size that these celebrity-chef places are. Fabio could be in his Fortress of Solitude at the North Pole for all it would matter once a machine of this size gets running for the night. As generals say, "No plan survives first contact with the enemy," and once the hordes hit the bars (two of them) and the dining room and the patio, it's all up to the troops, each within their narrow station, as autonomous as video gamers, the rest of the restaurant as far out of their vision as Kathmandu.

Sashimi at Siena Tavern.

I sat at the second bar, watching the fury of activity around me. An expediter barked out commands—"I need three pizzas, one pepperoni, one carne, one vongole." One Mexican guy scooted pizzas around in the oven. Another in a kamikaze pilot's headband unwrapped sashimi sliced earlier and shrink-wrapped and arranged it on plates. "One burrata, one tuna, one bufala, five slices." Over and over, all of it, many times a minute, barking orders like a commodities floor, except the price wasn't money for that burrata, but time, how long till it was ready to hand off and move to the next one.

A chef has a role in designing and monitoring such a system; he's certainly not irrelevant to the fairly high (but not exacting) level of quality displayed there. But once the system is running and in the heat of battle, it is pure capitalist imperatives in motion. A century ago Frank Norris depicted the commodities world our most basic staples moved through in The Pit; now we need a modern Norris to write the great 21st-century restaurant novel and show us the pitiless logic by which acres of chopped basil land on oceans of broiled fish from Mexican fingers in River North Italian restaurants every night.

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