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Steven A Shaw's "Turning the Tables"

Turning the Tables: Restaurants from the Inside Out
by Steven A. Shaw
New York: HarperCollins, 2005
xxiv+216 pages

Steven A. Shaw is the “Fat Guy” of eGullet, the superb Internet food site that he co-founded, and to which I am addicted. Any regular visitor to the site will have been impressed by Shaw’s encyclopedic knowledge of the restaurant industry and especially the New York restaurant scene. Shaw gave up a career in the law to become a food writer. It is his passion, and it comes through in everything he writes.

A bit belatedly, I finally got around to reading this book. It’s about 200 pages, but goes by quickly. I bought it on a Thursday night and finished it the next day. Curiously, although it’s hardcover, the book is shaped like a Zagat Guide, which is a strange design choice. I found it a little unwieldy to hold.

The book’s premise is to provide an insider view of the restaurant industry. Shaw talks about how they manage their reservation books, how kitchens work, how ingredients are sourced, how restaurants operate as businesses, and the “Restaurant Information Age.” Most of his points are made by example. The bulk of his research was conducted in high-end New York restaurants (Eleven Madison Park, Gramercy Tavern, Tavern on the Green, Café Gray), but he also visits a hot dog stand, pizzerias in New Haven, barbecue joints in the South, and a small restaurant in Florida where one guy does all the cooking.

Shaw has done most of his writing in short formats, and it shows: the book reads like a series of newspaper feature articles. This structure makes the material easily digestible, but at times it lacks depth. For instance, in the chapter on “The Business of the Restaurant Business,” Shaw takes brief tours of projects that are already in progress, but they are only fly-bys. Take Café Gray, for instance. Shaw wants to tell us what it takes to open a new restaurant, but when he first drops by, the space is already under construction. A lot of the formative stages have already happened. And he never gets far enough to tell us how it all turned out after Café Gray opened: What worked? What didn’t?

Shaw spends several pages on one of his favorite hobby horses: critic anonymity. He believes that critics should drop the pretense of dining anonymously, since restaurant staffs usually recognize them anyway. He argues persuasively that restaurants can’t really improve the quality of the food when a critic is in the house, so in that sense anonymity is meaningless. Instead, he suggests that critics should develop “ties—close ties—to the community.” Shaw believes that those close ties will allow the critic to obtain better information, and ultimately to “promote the best within the industry while exposing the worst.”

Shaw’s own book demonstrates why this will not work, for it is notable that Shaw never criticizes any of the restaurants or restaurateurs whom he had personally interviewed or worked with during his research. To the contrary, he gushes and fawns over them. It is a love-fest. Regular eGullet visitors will know that Shaw hasn’t lost his critical faculties. But in the book, he holds his tongue. He is too indebted to his sources—without whom the book would have been impossible—to confide what he really thinks about what he may have seen or heard.

By the way, Shaw doesn’t hesitate to criticize those whom he did not work with. He gives an extremely balanced view of the Zagat Guides, both their strengths and methodological flaws. He rightly takes the New York Times to task for selecting amateurs as food critics (William Grimes and particularly Frank Bruni). He brashly says that “Michelin will, and should, fail to gain traction in the United States.” Early indications suggest that he is already being proved wrong on that prediction. But would he have been so harsh had Michelin invited Shaw to a few confidential inspectors’ meetings? To the contrary, one must assume that Shaw would have bestowed heaps of praise upon Michelin, just as he did for everyone who helped him on the present volume.

Mind you, I am not suggesting that Shaw has done anything wrong here. I would be very happy to receive just one-tenth of the comped meals and insider access that Shaw receives. But I do not suggest that I could write about those restaurants with the same objectivity as a critic who attempts—however imperfectly—to remain detached and anonymous.

One can understand Shaw’s lack of objectivity about the wonderful resource he co-founded: eGullet. Having already run us through the limitations of Zagat, Michelin, and newspaper reviews, he asks, “Is there another way? I think there is. It’s called the Internet.” Jaws drop in amazement. There’s this undiscovered secret called the Internet, and somehow we missed it!

Anyhow, I’m as big a fan of the medium as anybody, but Shaw’s discussion of the Internet doesn’t have the same detachment—and perhaps it can’t—as it does where he’s not personally involved. He steers clear of mentioning Chowhound, the one other Internet site that could reasonably be considered a competitor to eGullet. Perhaps that’s because, in any rational comparison, Chowhound would invariably come across as inferior, and Shaw could be forgiven for not wanting to gloat. However, I could see no reason for his failure to mention the invaluable menupages.com, or indeed, any other Internet site that caters to dining out.

Along the way, Shaw doesn’t spare us his opinions, and some are provocative. He appears to be right when he criticizes overly harsh U. S. agricultural regulations that prohibit the manufacture of chesse made from raw (un-pasteurized) milk, even though it is permitted in Europe. He concludes that the purported health risk is insignificant.

He strongly believes it is worthwhile to focus your dining on a few good restaurants, so that you’ll become a “regular” and get treated like a VIP. One of the book’s early chapters explains precisely how to go about doing that. I don’t doubt Shaw, since he’s done it and I haven’t. But for the moment I intend to disregard his advice. Trying new places—his advice in a different chapter—is just too much fun.

Some of Shaw’s general advice seems trivial. He points out that most restaurants have a menu posted outside, and it’s a good idea to read the menu first before deciding whether to eat there. Yet, we shouldn’t be afraid to try new things. I think my mother told me all that before I was 10. Shaw advises us to remember to say “please” and “thank you.” Those to whom this is a revelation are probably beyond his help.

A final chapter on the future of dining takes a fun look at where the restaurant industry has been, and where Shaw thinks it is going. He interviews Jean-Jacques Rachou (La Côte Basque) and Georges Briguet (Le Perigord), two conseratives who turn out to be surprisingly open-minded. He also profiles avant-garde chefs like Ferran Adria of El Bulli and Grant Achatz of Alinea. He argues convincingly that we shouldn’t be concerned about global chefs who aren’t always present in the kitchens they supervise: all chefs are executives, and are to some extent dependent on work done in their absence. “To my way of thinking…all chefs are absentee chefs,” he says. “The only variable I have been able to isolate is the extent of their absence.” Less persuasive is his strange definition of authenticity as “being faithful to oneself.”

Shaw has a tendency toward hyperbole that can be extremely irritating. Nobu Masuhisa’s flavors are “seemingly extraterrestrial.” Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Gray Kunz “run roughshod over culinary borders with the audacity of international arms dealers.” A pizza oven is “ancient…spewing forth sparks, flames, and smoke with reckless abandon.” (Can an inanimate object be reckless?) The workers who tend it “look as though they’ve been working the boiler room of the Titanic.” A cheese-making machine “looks like an evil harp.” He later tastes the cheeses: “all are at least superlative.”

The book is written in Shaw’s easy conversational style. There are occasional lapses into irrelevance, such as complaints about having to wake up early to do research. My alarm goes off at 5:45am on weekdays—a time not unusual among New Yorkers—so Shaw’s complaints about leaving the house at 6:30am don’t draw much sympathy from me. The ongoing saga of his choices of shoes, none of which seem to make him comfortable, is a distraction we don’t need.

But while it may be a mixed bag, there is much here about the restaurant industry from the inside-out, which is precisely what Shaw set out to tell us. I can’t imagine anyone more qualified to tell it. One gets the sense that Shaw has far more knowledge to share than made it into this book. I will be very happy to see a sequel.

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