The Sacramento dining scene, in my opinion, is in a dysfunctional funk induced by the endless distraction of restaurant closings and the seemingly relentless media deification of the hottest new “chef” to sizzle in Midtown. Thanks to the continuous network stream of televised reality programs pitting pimply-faced, tattooed, spiky-headed men and women against each other in pointless cooking competitions, the essence of restaurant greatness is being shamefully eclipsed by chef celebrity.
This is no doubt a national phenomenon, but the Sacramento region has been bludgeoned with a parade of chefs who open or join a joint (always with moneyed backers), only to fail, move to the next place or retreat to San Francisco to “stage” at a Michelin-starred restaurant (translation: they work for free while they plot their comebacks).
The searing truth is that a career as a chef is infrequently the path to stardom or riches. It is one of the most physically demanding and risky jobs imaginable: incredibly long hours standing; working in Hades-like heat; suffering painful scarring from grease spatters and self-inflicted knife wounds; enduring the night-after-night, crushing stress of the height of dinner service; dealing with often-on-edge service staff and distraught co-workers whose stations are in the weeds. And, oh yeah, you get to work nights and every weekend.
Perhaps the most unfortunate and inequitable part is only those chefs at the top of their games are compensated in line with what they deliver. The sad fact is that back-of-the-house staffers are typically anonymous and modestly compensated. There is only one chef, so those hoping to someday fill the top spot have few opportunities to achieve their career aspirations.
No matter, the result of chefs being placed on a pedestal is becoming the principal driver for many consumers in how they decide where they will dine tonight. In fact, this is sadly flawed reasoning.
For those who seek a great dining experience, the overriding deliverable is the food, from the quality of ingredients to the deftness of preparation to creative twists to inspired presentation. And a talented chef backed by a well-trained crew makes it happen.
But that is only part of what translates into a memorable experience and elevates a restaurant to shine above others. What matters is how customers are treated, from the time they enter the premises, are welcomed and seated. A capable front-of-the-house staff is, obviously, an essential part of the fine-dining equation, as is the place itself. The design, seating and vibe must all make you comfortable, and the lighting must be spot on—subdued but bright enough to be able to read the menu.
And then there is the wine. No other single element can help delight the palate, transform native food flavors and lubricate a social environment more than a great bottle of wine selected from an intelligent, fairly priced list, based on an informed recommendation from a server. The right wine is a game-changer, plain and simple.
So I submit, and no disrespect to celebrity chefs (and wannabes) everywhere, that it is the total restaurant package—striving for continuous excellence on all fronts—that results in a restaurant breaching the potential for greatness—not simply the brilliance of the person who, for the moment, occupies the chef’s slot. Because if a restaurant fails in any other essential respect, the net result will be: “Yeah, the food was wonderful, but. . .”
It’s about the restaurant, stupid.
At Carpe Vino, Executive Chef Eric Alexander has been with us since we opened the doors, first with his partner, Chef Courtney McDonald, and then independently. Chef Alexander is one of the most talented professionals you will ever encounter, but mostly because of our location in Auburn—far from the center of activity on K Street—his celebrity is localized but growing thanks to the evangelism of our 1,100 Wine Club members.
Chef McDonald left us years ago to pursue her budding interest in farming, but the band is back together now that she has returned as our pastry chef. And thanks to the small farm Courtney and Eric purchased near Auburn last year, they’ve created an all-new paradigm: “Farm to Job”. They are supplying Carpe Vino with in-season vegetables from their acre garden and fruit from their orchards. . .plus the fresh flowers you find on our tables.
While we are very fortunate to have these two stars heading up our kitchen, the plain fact is any success we enjoy is clearly traceable to the professionals in the front of the house (think Carpe Vino veterans Ada, Paul and Beth); to our incomparable venue; and to our building jammed with stellar wine.
There’s yet another challenge that all restaurants must continually grapple with, one that we’ve mastered at Carpe Vino: maintaining a balance between continuity and innovation. Many people are transformed into loyal restaurant patrons because they appreciate and come to expect the same kind of experience each time they visit. The flip side is that to stay relevant, restaurants must constantly but smartly innovate and evolve—quite simply, they must avoid becoming static and predictable—or they’ll lose out to the next hottest joint that opens in the neighborhood.
We don’t plan to lose out to anyone.