We kicked off our food-filled weekend with a panel discussion that hit very close to home. The Restaurant Diners: The Next Generation panel would give us the opportunity to find out what some of the top chefs in the nation really think about the “new generation” of diners; us bloggers included. Several topics were discussed including the panel’s feelings on the “exciting” career of food photography and the shift towards more conscious diners. All chefs in attendance are also restaurateurs, so the opinions were from both viewpoints which allowed for some well rounded discussions. The panelists included Marc Murphy, who not only owns several restaurants in the New York City area and is the VP of the Manhattan chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association, but he frequently appears on Food Networks’ CHOPPED as a judge. Michael Solomonov is the owner and chef of Zahav in Philadelphia and is the recipient of the 2011 James Beard Award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic. Another James Beard Award winner (Best Chef South 2007), Michelle Bernstein, owns several restaurants in Florida and has appeared on various Food Network shows. Tony Maws, chef and owner of Craigie Street Bistro in Cambridge, has a very long list of local and national accolades, including a James Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast in 2011. Last but definitely not least, John Kunkel, Founder & CEO of 50 Eggs Restaurant Group, is owner of the Lime Fresh Mexican Grill brand. What a discussion panel, right? Our thoughts exactly and we were psyched.
The moderator, Jennifer Baum of Bullfrog & Baum, wasted no time and jumped right into the hot topics. There was a ton of great information shared but a few topics stood out. The panel discussed the shift in age of the average restaurant diner and most agreed that those eating out were younger. In addition to the diners being younger, they were spending just as much money as their older counterparts! However, unlike the older diners who remained loyal to their local favorites, the younger diners were more interested in the latest restaurant opening or the restaurants with the most buzz. They too had their favorites but did tend to venture off to try the next “hot” establishment. In regards to food photography, the chefs did not really find this to be that distracting. Of course, if you see a parade of flashes going off in the middle of the restaurant, you may see a smirk or two from the kitchen. More concern was focused around the actual picture; go figure. No one wants to look at an ugly plate of food and chefs want their food to look its best. With sites like Foodspotting, the “taking a picture before you eat” has become the thing to do. With the popularity of social media, this phenomenal and new way of sharing is not going anywhere any time soon. Just don’t let your food get cold and complain to the waiter because you took pictures for 15 minutes! #justsaying
As Chef Michael Solomonov puts it, “If you want to be local and sustainable, we will be eating cabbage and pumpkin for months”. The food trends seem to be taking over and diners are asking for dining options that are local, gluten-free, dairy-free, and hell anything ending in the word “free”. The panel spoke on the need to align with these trends. Most of the chefs did offer these options by default, but do focus more on those required modifications to their menu for food allergies. As food trends come and go you will not see anyone on this panel jumping to create a dish to align with the next trend. “We are not trying to be all things to all people”, Chef Tony Maws states. You can’t place any more truth behind this statement. At the end of the day, the chef just wants you to enjoy your dining experience, enjoy great food, and are willing to make sure your expectations are met. As one chef states, these “extreme” diners are not your main stream diners; we need to stop chasing the food trends. Well, that just about wraps it up! We think there is some validity to some trends, but we agree it can become difficult for a restaurant and chef to continuously keep up.
And on the topic that hit us so close to home…the Yelpers and Food Blogger movement. Yelp is not getting much love these days and it is for good reason. As many of the chefs discussed, it is disheartening to find that someone had a horrible experience that they chose to write about AFTER the fact. No one was given the opportunity to correct the issue or attempt to make things right. Well shame on them! No restaurant is great 100% of the time and it is only fair that they know what went wrong before you go and blast them on Yelp (or any other site for that matter). Now, if the food is bad, it is bad and there is no recourse for that.
When the conversation moved from Yelper to Blogger, our eyes widened. It was great to hear that many of the chefs actually read blogs and as you would have imagined, really enjoy reading the great reviews of their restaurant. Chef Marc Murphy was one that admitted he did not. Chefs have even reached out to bloggers directly to invite them to come back to see if they would have a change of heart. Those bloggers providing their thoughts on where to go and what to eat don’t come from the world of renowned food critics anymore. There was a time when the life and death of a restaurant was contingent upon a great rating from the New York Times. Now, the popular bloggers have just as much clout. In the past, bloggers were ignored by PR companies and that has changed drastically. People are going to blogs to learn of restaurant grand openings and will actually rely on a bloggers opinion when choosing to visit a restaurant at all. We are here to stay dammit!
We left the panel with a validation that our blog was doing everything the right way. I think it is up to us to change the opinion that bad reviews are not just published with malice, but with honesty and good intentions. There is no denying the dining landscape has changed. No one will take a stand on if this shift is good or bad; it just is what it is. If we had some advice for this new age of dining it would be two things: enjoy the dining experience and be realistic with your dining expectations.
Urban Swank received complimentary media passes; opinions expressed are our own.