“The main purpose of the book” - The Art of the Restaurateur (Phaidon, $39.95) - “is to correct a misconception that exists, I believe, in many restaurants-goers’ minds as to who is mainly responsible for a successful restaurant,” writes former restaurant owner and current Financial Times food columnist Nicholas Lander. In dependent clauses, Lander delicately couches his strong point of view: “Chefs, in my opinion, have been elevated to an overly lofty position. They have been the main focus of the restaurant media, to the detriment of the restaurateur’s profession.” These could be construed as fighting words or sour grapes, but he has a point. I’m not exactly a foodie, but I can name dozens of chefs…yet maybe two restaurateurs.
Rest assured, the quotations above (from Lander’s introduction) are the only negative words in his celebration of 20 world-class dining proprietors. This would seem amiss, as Lander is his newspaper’s “restaurant critic,” but if you forage through his published archive, you’ll find that his “reviews” are positive press, mini-narratives devoted to friends and his favorite places to eat. His expertise in the industry earned him his column, so despite his favoritism, he’s not exactly compromising his ability to do the job he’s done since 1990.
The Art of the Restaurateur reads like an architecture compendium. Lander, a Brit who owned London’s L’Escargot for most of the 1980s, knows the practical ins and outs of constructing a restaurant. As he visits each of the profiled owners (Gabriele Bertaiola in northwest Italy, Enrico Bernardo in Paris, Michelle Garnaut in Hong Kong and China, Danny Meyer in New York, etc.), he commends carefully chosen design elements that compliment the kitchen’s mise-en-place. Also, Lander’s text is structured in a very pleasing way. Each concise vignette of observations and interviews ends with two pages of Lander’s basic insights, with titles such as “Catching your chef” and “Looking after your regulars.” But what makes the book are the jacket and 40-plus whimsical, fantastically detailed pen-and-ink illustrations. It’s a mistake that artist Nigel Peake is not named on the front or back cover. For his drawings of places and people (plus many painfully lovely hand-drawn fonts), Peake is consigned to just a single sentence in the acknowledgements, almost giving the false impression that Lander did the artwork himself.
As Lander makes clear, this story is not a how-to-guide to opening restaurants, which is good, because few of us are in a position to do so. Here’s where I have my quibbles: Lander refers to the restaurateur as an “ageless profession,” citing the number of twenty and thirty-something first-time restaurant owners. Any restaurant requires investors, but the restaurateur almost certainly contributes a large amount of personal money. Unless someone is the scion of a rich family or an jackpot-hitting prodigy like Mark Zuckerberg, accumulation of wealth typically comes with age (hence young broke liberals becoming middle-aged fiscal conservatives).
“A chef’s career, on the other hand, tends to mirror that of a talented sportsman. They exhibit great talent in their late teens; they travel, learn, and begin to display their individuality in their early twenties…but by the time they reach their mid thirties they have often endured a work and social life that has exhausted them physically and mentally.” Despite the toll of the restaurant industry, most chefs seem to live for the adrenaline that accompanies a nightly service. If I want a steak, I want a veteran behind the grill.
Cooking is often a career shift, a person’s decision to pursue a passion after years of drudgery. She’s clearly an exception, but Julia Child learned how to cook in her 40s and was nearly 50 when Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published - all prior to her beloved tenure on television.
Lander excels at explaining simple concepts to us outside the food world in a non-patronizing way. For example: there’s no such thing as the perfect location, give your restaurant a name that’s pleasing to the ear, make nice with your competition. Ensure that there is more seating inside than outside in case of bad weather (because you’ll have to accommodate drenched customers alongside the rest of your guests). This is all good information, delivered with taciturn eloquence instead of showy prose.
The Art of the Restaurateur is a nice book. It’s overpriced and too heavy to carry around as leisure reading, but it’s still nice. That’s the key adjective, which is fine and OK and suitable and genial, although not quite what a writer strives for.