The Automat Returns! Bon Chance, Eatsa!

eatsa

A story last month (February) in Business Insider described Eatsa, a new restaurant chain, as “unlike any fast-food chain we’ve seen before.”

The reporter, Hayley Peterson, who appears to be, in her photo, in her youngish thirties, clearly was using the ‘royal we’ – speaking as one as if she were, like the queen, somehow greater than the sum of her parts.

But then, no one of her generation ever had an opportunity to see Eatsa’s spiritual and practical predecessor, because Horn & Hardart, shut down its last New York City Automat in 1991 – a fact that Haley later alludes to in her well-done, highly-illustrated article.

Horn & Hardart, which opened its first restaurant in 1902 in Philadelphia, quickly caught the public’s attention for a couple of reasons. Its several walls of shiny glass-door compartments held individual portions of sandwiches, salads, desserts and more. Combinations of nickels (five-cent pieces) would be deposited in a slot by each door featuring a desired item. The door would unlock, and the item became yours!

On one side of the usually-large rooms – some seemed to be nearly the size of Rockefeller Center’s ice rink – there were steam tables where hot dishes were available. Whether you stopped by the hot tables or skipped them, you sat wherever you wanted – beside whomever happened to be there – and tipping was discouraged.

There was, after all, no service: You could enjoy a pretty good ‘fast food’ experience – this was, in fact, the nation’s first true fast-food restaurant chain – without once interacting with a person, with the possible exception of a ‘nickel thrower’: A woman who exchanged your larger coins and/or bills for their value in nickels.

The food was prepared either behind the scenes on the same location or at a central commissary elsewhere in either New York or Philadelphia, the two principal cities where Automats operated. The food was, by standards of the day, healthy and nutritious, and ordinarily pretty tasty, too.

So what happened to the Automats – which, by the way, were based on an earlier automat concept in Germany? A couple of things: The arrival of McDonald’s, Burger King and local variations on the same theme(s) provided a more ‘exciting’ atmosphere and, significantly, drive-thrus. At the same time, in the late- ‘60’s – early ‘70’s, as food costs rose, there weren’t a lot of things that could be offered for a combination of nickels.

Then there was the rent factor: For obvious reasons, Automats tended to located in high-traffic locations. Horn & Hardart at one time operated 40 of their restaurants in New York City, and as the rents rose – as they seem to do with tide-like regularity in ‘The Big Apple,’ their share of overhead, coupled with the higher food costs, made Automats economically unviable.

A company calling itself Bamn! attempted to revive the concept in New York City’s East Village in 2006.  It survived a mere 2.5 years – probably, in part, because the street it was on, St. Mark’s Place, has been ever-more ridiculously pricey real estate since the 1960’s, when it was a popular draw as home to Gerdy’s Folk City, when ‘folk music’ was all the range, then to clubs of more advanced genres, the kind of gift/memento stores tourists flock to, and, for a while, to one of NYC’s hottest jazz clubs, The Five Spot – frequently inhabited by Thelonious Monk.

(I often ‘hung’ there when Monk was in residence – selling nonsense poems written on bar napkins to tourists!)

Eatsa is a truly modern-day version of the automat-type restaurant. It’s brightly lit, it’s décor is plain but in tune will Millennials’ tastes.

eatsa_interior

It’s computer-based ordering system – for the sole specialty, a bowl of quinoa priced at $6.96 and topped with whatever the customer orders, from a wide range of choices – is recorded and stored so when a customer returns, his/her previous preferences are  displayed and alternates are suggested as part of the approach to encouraging repeat visits.

So far, there are Eatsa locations in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Nation’s Restaurant News has reported that the chain plans to open at least ten more locations this year.

From that, point who knows?

 

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Italians Get Serious About Keeping Released Convicts Free, and Employable

 

ingalera

Italy, like the U.S. and other countries, struggles both with prison over-crowding and recidivism – the too-high percentage of released prisoners who reoffend and end up back inside. A few years ago, the Italian government, sometimes in partnership with private industries, began a program to offer training in trades work (painting, carpentry, etc.), and because it seems to be working, the program is being expanded, to more kinds of work, and to more prisons.

A ground-breaking addition to the was introduced late last year, when a full-scale, up-market restaurant opened in a prison just outside Milan. InGalera – the name is prison slang for “In Prison” – quickly caught the attention of the media and adventurous diners: The eatery is fully booked a month or more in advance, and the food critic of  Corriere della Sera, one of Italy’s most important newspapers, has urged her readers to “spread the word.”

Elvira Serra, who visited InGalera a few days after its ‘soft’ opening, praised the menu (which included, she noted, “chestnut pappardelle with venison ragout and currants, and guinea fowl stuffed with Belgian [endive] and hazelnuts”) and the wine list that, she said, “well-represents all [Italian] regions.” And the tag line of her column was, indeed, “Spread the word!”

The small prisoner staff – all carefully-chosen, as you’d imagine – is overseen by a professional maître d’, Massimo Sestito, who greets customers and handles all the cash, and, in the kitchen, by professional chef, Ivan Manzo. The latter recently told the New York Times that he is not concerned about working with men convicted of serious crimes, because, as he put it, “I’ve seen a lot of crazy people working in kitchens outside of here!”

Many of the visitors are naturally curious about the presence of a commercial restaurant inside a prison, a world that is alien to most people. But more and more, as word spreads, thanks in part to glowing reviews on TripAdvisor (InGalera has a four of a possible five stars there), they are drawn by the cuisine, which is presented as impressively, and professionally, as in the area’s finest restaurants.

Sadly, though, the men chosen to work in InGalera are due to remain in prison for considerable lengths of time, so it will be a while – several or more years – before they will be able to put their newly-learned skills to work in the civilian world.

Why is that so? Simply because those running the training program want a good return on their investment in these workers! Understandable, but sad, nonetheless.

 

NYC to Fast Feeders: ‘Na’ To Excess Salt

salt_shaker

For reasons that defy gravity, there are opponents to New York City’s new rule that items in chain restaurants containing more than the FDA-recommended daily allowance for sodium – chemical name NA – be specially labeled with a salt shaker emblem. That recommended daily maximum of salt intake is, by the way, 2,300 milligrams – roughly a teaspoon.

Foods with that much sodium are plentiful, and plenty popular, in many fast food facilities. But that’s hardly news: It’s always been so, since Ray Kroc did a deep-discount deal with the McDonald brothers and turned a small quick-service restaurant into a monster that has, in the interval, nearly engulfed the world.

(There presently are more than 35,000 McDonald’s restaurants spread across no fewer than 119 countries. Their 1.7 million employees serve some 68 million customers daily, according to Wikipedia. A large portion of their fries probably comes close to offering up that daily maximum recommendation of sodium.)

Put into effect earlier this month, the new rule doesn’t have to be reflected on chain outlets’ menus until March, 2016, before they face fines of $200.

The Associated Press says that, “Public advocates cheer the measure [because] experts say Americans consume too much salt, raising their risks of high blood pressure and heart problems.”

The AP also notes that, “Salt producers say the city’s policy is misguided and restaurateurs” – a rather highfalutin term to associate with purveyors of fat-rich meat patties on buns – “say the city should leave the matter to federal regulators.”

The National Restaurant Association (an NRA not associated or affiliated with the gun-or-three in every household one) believes – and has asserted as much in a suit against NYC – that the salt-warning rule is “another in a series of burdensome, costly and unnecessary regulations the city has heaped upon local restaurateurs,” the NRA’s web site asserts.

“Customers should,” they went on, “have the same access from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon” – a sentiment the crafters of New York City’s new regulation undoubtedly would heartily agree with.

So, as it happens, more than like would the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), if anyone bother to encourage them to extend NYC’s rule nationwide.

“But,” the FDA’s web site and that of the National Kidney Disease Education Program declare, “nearly all Americans consume more salt than they need, according to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines are published every five years by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture.”

Significantly, the FDA also notes that, “The natural salt in food accounts for about 10 percent of total intake, on average, according to the guidelines. The salt we add at the table or while cooking adds another 5 to 10 percent. About 75 percent of our total salt intake comes from salt added to processed foods by manufacturers and salt that cooks add to foods at restaurants and other food service establishments.”

And there – in the last sentence – is the rub: Processed foods of all sorts, particularly those processed for fast food feeders, have, in addition to their ‘natural’ salt, at least two doses of it added along the way from field to our digestive track: During the processing phase, as a preservative, and at the table, for a (truly unneeded) flavor boost. Fast feeders compound the excess-salt problem by employing even more of it in their food preparation processes – most notably (but hardly exclusively) in the preparation of fries.

(For people such as yours truly, who have CKD [Chronic Kidney Disease], not only is a low-salt diet a must, we’re similarly advised to stay away from the likes of potatoes, tomatoes, bananas, oranges and a broad assortment of other food items with high potassium.

(CKD sufferers are advised to have no more than 1500 mg of sodium per day. On average: And it’s the latter fact that allows for a bit of cheating – say, the occasional order of fries, or a tomato slice on a burger, or pasta with tomato sauce on it.

(Passing on many off-limits things, on a CKD diet, isn’t all that hard, generally speaking, when you’re eating home-cooked, carefully-chosen foods. But meals out and holidays present a host of problems, because much of what people most crave for on such occasions is salt- or potassium-rich.)

Another ‘villain’ among salt-adding enterprises is the movie-screening field. Their mission is similar to that of the fast-feeders: Because salt makes you thirsty, when you eat movie theaters’ popcorn, you’re also inclined to buy their similarly-over-priced drinks.

(Most movie theaters make most of the little profit they enjoy through the sale of candy, snacks, popcorn and, yes, drinks. They make very little on ticket sales, because producers have to rake in the most they can to support the outrageous sums they pay performers. And if one could get an exclusive contract on cars to be blown up or wrecked beyond repair in movies, a car manufacturer could do quite well on that business alone, thank you very much.)

In addition to raising blood pressure and adding to the potential for heart problems, excess salt can do a lot of damage to kidneys – more than most diets acknowledge. Because I have CKD, my dietitian and my nephrologist (kidney specialist) recommend I take in even as little as 1200 mg of sodium daily.

It’s a struggle sometimes to determine how much a portion of this or that contains, particularly when one’s portion size is not typically the size – often distorted, compared to how people normally eat – described on a package’s mandatory Nutrition Guidelines.

It’s a rare occasion when I eat in, or from, a fast food restaurant. When I do, I always choose from the low-price menu, and request no condiments (mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, relish, etc.) be added. All of those are highly processed, and hardly what you’d call ‘healthy’ for someone with kidney issues. And Chinese food is, for all intents and purposes, a no-no, as are such other highly-spiced ones as Indian food.

I happen to love some Indian foods – the combination of spices they involve are so unlike what you find in other cuisines – and some Chinese dishes. So I cheat – by making my own, minimizing the potentially harmful ingredients and boosting, if I care to, others. (You’d be surprised how readily available most of the spices used in Indian foods are.)

A really good ‘cheat’ for a CKD sufferer is – if you’re fortunate enough to have a Vietnamese restaurant nearby – to stop in, sit down, and order a vegetarian pho (a kind of soup) . . . then, after consuming half of it, take the rest home and ‘build’ your own pho, complementing their broth and some of their ingredients with your own.

Rice noodles – a very healthy choice for CKD sufferers – can be found in any store specializing in foods for people from, or descended from people from, the far east – China, Vietnam, Korea, etc.  As well as eating them with sautéed vegetables, I also use them as a rice substitute in various dishes – including my home-made chili, which I can’t eat a lot of at a given sitting both because it employees a lot of tomato (a no-no) and as it’s bean-rich (most beans are off limits). And while I enjoy it with rice, which always is a healthy choice for me, the rice noodles make an interesting change.

Change: That’s something that, one way or another, a lot of us – most of us – should be doing to improve or retain our health through our diets.

While no one wants ‘big brother’ to be telling us what to do – and that certainly proved true when former NYC Bloomberg tried to limit the size of to-go soda containers that could be sold – there is something to be said for the likes of New York City to ‘advise’ consumers about how much sodium their food contains.

Wendy’s restaurants, like some others, posts a chart spelling out that and much more about the nutritional values of what they serve. That’s a good start. But forcing a salt shaker alongside a really-heavy-salt-bearing item seems like an even better idea.

 

How To Become A Chef? Let Me Count The Ways

flynn_mcgarryThere’s much to be said in favor of tradition, and traditional ways of doing things. But some people, including 16-year-old Flynn McGarry, who aims to have his own restaurant by age 19, say “why does [the traditional] kind of struggle –  having a terrible life, missing all of your family events, being treated like shit for ten years — why [does that have to be] the mark of being a chef?”

That comment, in a Grubstreet.com interview, was in response to David Santos, a chef who recently closed a restaurant called Louro in NYC’s West Village two and a half years after he opened it – and  (after a 70% rent hike. Santos, in an Istagram post, was adamant about McGarry not deserving – in his opinion – to be referred to as a chef:

“I’m sorry but I hope I’m not the only chef that’s offended by this. I shit this morning [with] more knowledge and life on the line then a 16 year old has. The fact the media even calls him a chef offends me to no end. Chef is something you earn through years of being beaten and shit on and taught by some of the greats.

“Not doing trails [a type pop-up restaurant, where food is prepared and offered in multiple ‘sampling-size courses by a specialist – a chef, by some reckonings – in a small environment, for a limited period of time, say, a night or three] that your family pays for. Because as a real chef I don’t treat people who trail the same way as people who sweat and bleed for me.

“If you go to this [‘chef’s table’ of McGarry’s, where he serves two rounds of 12 people on three successive nights] and fork over $160 plus then your [sic] a damn fool because I can name so many more actual chefs that actually deserve that money.

“Maybe one day he will indeed be a great chef I’m not saying that but earn it before you offend most of us that actually are.

“And any idiot that works 3 days a week can put together a couple great tasting dishes. If you can’t your [sic] fucking worthless. Try managing people and dealing with the ins and outs of an operation and still being creative and inspiring to the people that work under you and intrust [sic] their futures in the knowledge you will pass onto them. That’s a chef – that’s what a chef does. It’s not about playing dress up and plating a couple dishes.”

Well, yes, there is that – about managing people, and being prepared to pass your hard-earned knowledge on to a next generation. McGarry may not have acquired either of those skills yet, but hey, he is only 16 – and his focus, since his age was represented by a single digit, has been on the food: Studying it, learning how to mix-and-match ingredients in both traditional dishes and, more importantly, in dishes he creates himself.

(He’s also been quoted as saying, “I want to learn as much as possible, but I don’t want to wait too long.”)

And the fact that McGarry has, just recently, passed his high-school equivalency exam (he’s been home schooled through much of his school ‘career’) suggests it’s unfair to fault him for not having learned, yet, to “manage people and [deal] with the ins and outs of an operation and still [be] creative and inspiring to the people that [sic] work under you,” as David Santos included in his laundry list of McGarry’s shortcomings.

Santos, who also wanted to cook, professionally, from an early age, learned a lot about food through the good fortune of being part of an immigrant family from Portugal that regularly traveled to the old country to spend time with relatives – relatives who raised much of what they ate, and young David “loved every minute,” he’s quoted as saying, of helping an aunt build a fire for the bread-baking followed by ingredient-gathering for meals to come.

After high school (where he excelled in baseball), he went to cooking school – Johnson & Wales, in Rhode Island – then, somehow, moved fairly quickly into gaining experience at “New Jersey’s most acclaimed restaurants: Nicholas and The Ryland Inn,” according to a bio of him on Louro’s web site. He also picked up a lot of pointers traveling around Europe and South America, “soaking up the culinary heritage of the visited countries and their cuisines rooted in peak quality seasonal ingredients,” his bio says.

McGarry was fortunate in having connections – serious connections: His film-maker mom knows lots of food-loving important people in California, and she’s encouraged many of them, including Hollywood actors and producers, to experience her prodigy son’s culinary samplings (in the form of small-dish-size servings) at a dinner party at her home. His professional photographer father has busily performed his specialty as guests show obvious delight in the results of Flynn’s efforts.

And professional publicists make sure the activities of the young cook – Flynn doesn’t call himself a chef; even his twitter feed (@diningwithflynn) says, simply, “I cook” – are widely exposed.

Santos also has been fortunate to be able to work with Chef David Bouley (Bouley’s, in NYC’s TriBeCa area, described on the restaurant’s web site as “the most memorable dining experience in New York [that] set a new standard for fine dining in America”) and Per Se  (where a Chef’s [tasting] menu is priced at $310, at lunchtime). So, like McGarry, he clearly has friends in high places.

Thomas Keller, the 60-year-old cook book author and owner of Per Se (as well as a number of other restaurants and food-based operations) is, at 3.75 times McGarry’s age, exceptionally successful as a restaurateur who, as it happens, got his start working in a Palm Beach restaurant his mother managed. His route led him not to cooking school but, through meeting a French-born master chef in Rhode Island, to opportunities to work in several prominent U.S. restaurants, from which he traveled to France, where he apprenticed under several Michelin-ranked chefs before opening his first restaurant. T hen, in time, he returned to the U.S. where, in a good deal more time, he came to be the only American-born chef to have multiple restaurants with three-star Michelin Guide ratings. His efforts have enabled him to bank some $30 million.

Santos, who appears to be in his thirties, also appears to be a long way from accomplishing anything like what Keller has. And McGarry is still three years away from the year he anticipated, a while back, opening his first restaurant.

But, without formal training, he’s already done so – in a manner of speaking: Last month (Sept. 2015) he launched a three-day-a-week “Chef’s table”, as he calls it in a dining room that the owner – Creative Edge Parties – doesn’t make much use of on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays. His 14-course offerings are, for each of 12 guests at each of two (sold out) nightly seatings, priced at $160, tax and gratuity included. He calls his Chef’s Table/restaurant Eureka –after a street he once lived on.

This is not the first time he’s used that name for a food-serving place: Flynn  launched his first dining club at age 11 in Los Angeles, where by the time he was 14 he was referring to it, mimicking its followers’ description, as a fine dining establishment.

It quickly outgrew its fixed location, initially in his and his mother’s home, at was reborn as a pop-up restaurant – a place where food could be prepared and served wherever the surroundings allowed. And it quickly became, in that guise, an L.A. staple.

Eureka’s web site says that, at age 16,

“Flynn became the youngest under-30 Zagat honoree for his Eureka pop-up in Los Angeles and was named one of Time Magazine’s 25 most influential teens. As well as being self-taught from a young age, Flynn received his culinary training by staging and working at fine dining restaurants in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, among them Eleven Madison Park and Alma, and recently has returned from stages in [exceptionally well-known] Copenhagen and Oslo [restaurants].”

The site fails to mention that Flynn also was invited to participate in a staging – food prep and serving in special locations, or under special circumstances – at the White House for the benefit of guests at the 2013 version of the annual Easter Egg Hunt.

Three dramatically different paths toward careers as professional cooks – no path being better, or worse, than another. Two of the paths have proved their worth through the success of their followers. The third path, the one being diligently followed by a teen who, despite his age, already is invited to work alongside some of the best in the business, looks likely to succeed, as well.

As Vogue magazine

Flynn McGarry at Eureka, his pop-up restaurant. Photo: Cameron Yates, Grub Street
Flynn McGarry at Eureka, his pop-up restaurant.
Photo: Cameron Yates, Grub Street

said about him last month, “the one undeniable thing about McGarry is that he’s passionate about what he does. He’s . . . taking hold of the opportunities that have presented themselves and provocatively reinventing the way we experience fine dining” – adding, in Flynn’s words,

“I cook and the rest of it just sort of happens.”

Remember Flynn McGarry’s name, and his favorite name for a restaurant: Eureka. You’re likely to hear a lot more about it, in time.