We just got back from a great little trip to LA to celebrate my birthday. While we were there we caught up with an old friend - Robert - and checked in on a new friend - Michael - who is there working on the music for an upcoming movie. It was a lot of fun. We had some great Thai food, some really good Dim Sum and delicious seafood at the Blue Plate Oysterette in Santa Monica (highly recommended).
Then on the actual day I turned 59, we decided to try something 'special'. We knew about the restaurants of Mario Batali - particularly Babbo in New York - and so we were looking forward to having dinner at Osteria Mozza on Melrose Avenue.
So, why do I say that Mario could learn from advertising? I don't mean he needs to advertise - the place was packed. No, my comparison is a little more complicated than that.
Advertising, like cooking, is - or should be - a creative endeavor. But years ago a new management structure took over advertising. The formerly independent and highly creative agencies got bought by Holding Companies. These companies had nothing to do with creativity, they were headed by money men. Suddenly the agencies they bought could no longer survive making the level of profit they were used to. Suddenly they also had to contribute their share of the massive running costs of their bosses - who had no direct impact on the day-to-day world of advertising. This was okay when times were good, when the economy was roaring and nobody was paying too close attention to costs. But when things changed, the only way the agencies could return this level of profit was by cutting staff, cutting standards and generally focusing on money rather than creativity.
It seems that the same is happening in the culinary world. I'm sure the chef at Osteria Mozza is quite skilled but she now has to pay her share of the running costs of Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich and their ever-increasing empire. And the end result is ridiculously over-priced, average Italian food that fails even to come close to food we have had in Italy for a fraction of the price.
It was a little like going back in time to those days when money flowed like water and, specially in LA, being seen in the right places was more important than what you ate there. It was weird.
I have no problem with chefs bringing back the cheaper cuts of meat which, when expertly prepared, are some of the tastiest. But the key is "expertly prepared". Our beef short ribs were prepared in advance and then charred just before serving to create a luke warm slab that was not offensive but not great. They sat in a puddle of congealed Polenta that barely merited the name. And the Porcini mushrooms mentioned on the menu were literally nowhere to be found. Maybe they'd been used to flavor the miniscule amount of sauce on the plate but you would not know it from the taste.
Unfortunately I was already familiar with most things on the plate as my appetizer of calf's liver had been presented in an almost identical fashion. The liver was good quality but seriously overcooked.
I could not escape the feeling throughout the meal that this chef, running a simple, independent restaurant could achieve great things. But as part of the Mario Batali empire she is burdened with a profit necessity that can only be achieved by overcharging for these basic, if classic, dishes and then cutting more corners. The mark-up on the wine list was equally disturbing in a way that only LA expense accounts or gullible tourists would not notice or care about.
I came away thinking very differently about restaurants that are part of these new super-chef empires. My experience in advertising should have taught me long ago that creative activities do not adjust well to carrying this financial overhead. We'll be looking for small, less money-driven places from now on. Places where the chef actually does the cooking rather than the counting.