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What Killed City Bakery?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 24, 2019

Last week, the beloved NYC eating establishment City Bakery closed its doors due to financial troubles.1 Rachel Holliday Smith dug into what happened for The City. It sounds like the company over-expanded, couldn’t get out of the debt it took on, and got into a series of increasingly bad lending situations.

One of those bad deals was borrowing $75,000 from a financial services firm called Kalamata Capital Group and promising to pay back $105,000. That’s a 40% interest rate, firmly in loan shark territory. But this is the bit that really got my eyebrows heading north (especially the bit in italics):

In a statement, the chief operating officer of Kalamata Capital Group, Brandon Laks, said the company “is truly sorry City Bakery decided to close” and stressed that many Kalamata Capital Group employees loved the establishment.

He said KCG made amendments to the funding agreement as City Bakery struggled and “without KCG’s capital and amendments, City Bakery would have closed, and jobs would have been lost, much sooner.”

“Unfortunately, many small businesses close and it is a risk KCG takes when we help fund and support these businesses,” he said.

Let’s be clear here: City Bakery was primarily a place for folks who can afford $5 croissants, but this is one of those instances where capitalism has become deeply disconnected from the people it’s allegedly supposed to benefit. All those KCG employees that loved City Bakery? Meaningless bullshit. A local lender that wants to invest in the community and its businesses doesn’t charge 40% interest. City Bakery needed some solid financial advice, a plan for getting out from under their debt (if possible), and a loan with decent terms. All KCG did was give City Bakery more rope to hang themselves and called it “support”.

Update: A couple people have pointed out that we don’t know the length of the loan and so cannot calculate the annual interest rate. Even so, as the article details, these “merchant cash advance” loans are under increasing scrutiny for being predatory:

As the Duncans soon learned, tens of thousands of contractors, florists, and other small-business owners nationwide were being chewed up by the same legal process. Behind it all was a group of financiers who lend money at interest rates higher than those once demanded by Mafia loan sharks. Rather than breaking legs, these lenders have co-opted New York’s court system and turned it into a high-speed debt-collection machine. Government officials enable the whole scheme. A few are even getting rich doing it.

  1. I was in NYC last week and City Bakery shuttered on the very day I was going to wander over for one of their chocolate chip cookies, my #1 all-time favorite cookie.

How Does Waffle House Stay Open During Disasters?

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 03, 2019

Waffle House is prepared to make you breakfast at all hours of the day in any kind of weather. The restaurant chain is so widely respected for its severe weather preparedness that a former director of FEMA started using their stores as an indicator of how bad a particular storm or disaster was:

The “Waffle House Index,” first coined by Federal Emergency Management Agency Director W. Craig Fugate, is based on the extent of operations and service at the restaurant following a storm and indicates how prepared a business is in case of a natural disaster.

For example, if a Waffle House store is open and offering a full menu, the index is green. If it is open but serving from a limited menu, it’s yellow. When the location has been forced to close, the index is red. Because Waffle House is well prepared for disasters, Kouvelis said, it’s rare for the index to hit red. For example, the Joplin, Mo., Waffle House survived the tornado and remained open.

Annie Blanks recently visited the “Waffle House Storm Center” in advance of Hurricane Dorian’s predicted landfall in Florida.

When any of the stores are in danger of being hit by severe weather, so-called “jump teams” are activated to be ready to deploy wherever needed.

Jump teams are made up of Waffle House contractors, construction workers, gas line experts, restaurant operators, food providers and other associates who are assembled and ready to go wherever needed at a moment’s notice. Their purpose is to help relieve local Waffle House operators and employees who need to evacuate, be with their families or tend to their homes when a storm hits, and help make sure restaurants are able to open quickly after a storm or stay open during a storm.

On Twitter, Blanks shared a photo of the four different pared-down menus that Waffle House prepares for disasters.

Waffle House Menus

(via @LauraVW)

The King of Fish and Chips

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 22, 2019

In the 1960s, Haddon Salt built up a small empire of fish & chips shops in North America — they eventually had more than 500 stores. That attracted the attention of Kentucky Fried Chicken, then flush with cash after their IPO. And then…

An initial Google search revealed that this shop was the last gasp of a once-sprawling fish-and-chips empire with hundreds of locations that started with an immigrant’s secret family recipe, flourished into an eight-figure deal with Colonel Sanders and ended in collapse.

It took several years and the research help of friends to track down Mr. Salt. We found him in a remote retirement community in Southern California’s desert. The rest you can see in the film before you.

For every icon there are those who were almost famous. And perhaps they, even more than their conqueror, have the lessons we need to hear.

See also when Colonel Sanders badmouthing KFC: For the Colonel, It Was Finger-Lickin’ Bad.

The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 19, 2019

The servers at The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders, a series of pop-up restaurants in Tokyo, are all living with dementia, which means that you might not receive what you ordered.

All of our servers are people living with dementia. They may, or may not, get your order right.

However, rest assured that even if your order is mistaken, everything on our menu is delicious and one of a kind. This, we guarantee.

“It’s OK if my order was wrong. It tastes so good anyway.” We hope this feeling of openness and understanding will spread across Japan and through the world.

At the first pop-up, 37% of the orders were mistaken. This video explains a bit more about the concept and shows the restaurant in action.

Zero-Waste Cooking

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 12, 2019

Nolla is a zero-waste restaurant in Helsinki, Finland.

At Nolla there is no waste bin in the kitchen nor can you find any single use plastic in the restaurant either. No produce wrapped in plastic, no cling film, no vacuum bags. Every detail from staff clothing and napkins to tableware has been thought of. Even the gift cards are made of compostable paper that has poppy seeds in them.

We don’t produce waste nor do we cook from waste.

We work directly with suppliers to rethink, reject and control packaging while at the same time sourcing local and organic produce, which are the core of our menus.

See also WastED, a pop-up series conceived by Blue Hill’s Dan Barber where dishes on the menu were made of so-called waste food.

And if you would like to use less plastic in your own home, Trash Plastic offers a bunch of tips to make that happen.

My Recent Media Diet, The “It’s Not Life or Death, It’s Just Tacos” Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2019

I keep track of every media thing I “consume”, so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past two months. I never wrote a proper report on my trip to Mexico City, so I put some of the highlights in here. I’m in the middle of several things right now. On TV, I’m watching Our Planet, In Search of Greatness, Street Food, Chernobyl, The Clinton Affair, Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, and This Giant Beast That is the Global Economy. I don’t normally watch 19 different things at one time, but life’s felt a little scattered lately. For books, I’m listening to Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond on audiobook and I’m making good progress on Robert Caro’s Working (highly recommended).

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. Hard to summarize but there’s certainly something interesting on almost every page. (A-)

Fleabag. Bitingly funny and poignant, a real gem. (A+)

Skyscraper. Die Hard + the Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia + #sponcon for Big Duct Tape. I love a good disaster movie. (B+)

Mexico City. Great food, vegetation everywhere, beautiful architecture, culturally fascinating, super walkable/bikeable/scooterable. I am definitely visiting here again as soon as I can. (A)

Puyol Taco Omakase. Delicious & fun & a great experience, but I’m not sure the food was obviously so much better than some of the best street food I had in Mexico City. I had this same experience in Bangkok years ago…street food is tough to beat when there’s a thriving culture of markets, carts, and stalls. (B+)

The National Museum of Anthropology. One of my new favorite museums in the world. The only thing possibly more impressive than the collection is the architecture of the building. (A+)

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacán. I had high hopes for this archeological site and I was still blown away by it. (A+)

AirPods. This is my favorite gadget in years, the first real VR/AR device that feels seamless (and not like a Segway for your face). The freedom of wireless headphones feels similar to when I first used a laptop, wifi, and dockless bike share. (A+)

Homecoming. So many things to love about this, but one of my favorites is the shots of the audience watching Beyoncé and the rare moments when she watches them back: “I see you.” And also the way they put a cohesive show together while showcasing individual talents and styles. (A-)

Homecoming: The Live Album. Come on, a marching band playing Beyoncé hits? That this works so well is a small miracle. (A-)

Avengers: Endgame. I liked but didn’t love it. It was like the ST:TNG finale and the Six Feet Under finale mashed together and not done as well. It also seemed too predictable. (B)

Avengers: Age of Ultron. Now that the Thanos narrative arc is complete, this is an underrated installment. (B+)

Casa Luis Barragán. This was like being in someone’s creative mind. The layering of the garden reminded me of Disney’s use of the multiplane camera in the forest scene in Bambi. (B+)

Gelatin Sincronizada Gelitin (NSFW). I was skeptical of this art performance at first — a bunch of half-naked people painting on a moving canvas using paintbrushes coming out of their butts — but it ended up being a really cool thing to experience. (B+)

Game of Thrones. I’m not quite as critical of the final season as everyone else seems to be. Still, it seems like since the show left the cozy confines of George RR Martin’s books, it has struggled at times. (B+)

Wandering Earth. Based on the short story by Liu Cixin (author of the Three Body Problem trilogy), this disaster movie is a little uneven at the start but finishes strong. (B)

Halt and Catch Fire Vol 2. The music was one of the many great things about this show. (A-)

Running from COPS. A podcast about how media and law enforcement in America intersect to great and terrible effect. (B+)

Eating bugs. I tasted crickets, grasshoppers, and grubs at the market: mostly just salty. I had beef tartare and guacamole with grasshoppers on it. They added a nice crunch to the guac. Wouldn’t exactly go out of the way for them, but they weren’t bad. (B)

Panaderia Rosetta. Did I have one of the best pain au chocolat I’ve ever had here? Yes. Yes, I did. Also extremely delicious: everything else I tried. (A-)

Against the Rules. A podcast from Michael Lewis about what’s happening to the concept of fairness in America. The episode about Salvator Mundi, the supposed Leonardo masterpiece, is particularly interesting. (A-)

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth. I have a new appreciation of how much Tolkien did in creating his books: writing, map making, world building, art, constructing languages. (B+)

Frida Kahlo’s Blue House. A striking house with a lush courtyard, but the highlight was seeing Kahlo’s work area much the way she left it when she died. (B+)

Street Food Essentials by Club Tengo Hambre. Mexico City is a huge place with so much to do that I wanted to hit the ground running right away, so I booked this street food tour. Definitely a good idea. We sampled so many different kinds of tacos & gorditas & quesadillas that I lost count. Highlights: huitlacoche quesadillas, al pastor tacos, fresh Oaxaca cheese at the Mercado de San Juan, and the blue corn masa used to make tlacoyos at one of our last stops — probably the best tortilla I’ve ever eaten. (A-)

The Matrix. This came out 20 years ago. I watched it with my 11-yo son the other day and he thought the special effects “held up pretty well”. (A)

Electric scooters. I used the Lime dockless electric scooters for the first time when I was in Mexico City and I loved experience. Easier than a bike and a fun & fast way to get around the city. Cons: the combo of the speed & small wheels can be dangerous and cities generally don’t have the infrastructure to accommodate them yet. (B+)

Paprika. Inventive and visually dazzling. Purportedly an influence on Christopher Nolan’s Inception. (B+)

Oh and just because, here’s a photo I took recently in my backyard that makes it seem like I live in Narnia or The Shire:

Ollie Shed

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

The Failure of the Great Tip-Free Restaurant Experiment

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2019

Over the past three years, a number of restaurants across the geographic and economic spectrum of America have experimented with eliminating tipping. The practice is outdated, creates a difficult-to-justify wage imbalance between servers and cooks, and can result in mistreatment of staff (racism, sexual harassment) because of the fucked-up power dynamic it creates.

But as Grub Street’s Nikita Richardson writes, the no-tip test has largely failed, with many of those places going back to the old ways. This happened for three main reasons:

1. No tips meant higher prices printed on the menu, and customers stayed away from what they perceived as more expensive meals. That $12 burger became a $14.50 burger and all of a sudden, people knew what they were actually paying for their food. What’s interesting is that in another situation (say, having to pay to check a bag on a flight), people would be upset at not knowing the price up front and having a “hidden charge” added to their bill when they’re drunk and happy at the end of a meal.

2. Servers can make more at tipping restaurants. Places that went tip-free lost a bunch of their staff to places that still had tipping.

Meanwhile, by raising menu prices and thus revenues, the extra money would go toward higher wages for kitchen staff, who could start making $12 to $15 an hour at a time when the state minimum wage was $8.75.

But, it turned out, many front-of-house staffers were more concerned with making money than with maintaining the moral high ground. This February, Meyer admitted that he had lost 30 to 40 percent of his “legacy” staffers since 2015. (One Meyer employee told Grub last year that her wages dropped from $60,000 per year to $50,000 under the new policy.) While he insisted that the employees that replaced them “understand ‘Hospitality Included’ and are thrilled about it,” added employee attrition in an industry where turnover is already 1.5 times that of the private sector average has to hurt.

My regular NYC spot was one of the restaurants that experimented with eliminating tipping, and I can report that the staff was indeed quite skeptical about it and they switched back to the old method very soon. (I believe they kept the raises for the chefs though somehow.)

3. Tips make diners feel powerful. With tipping, you become the boss of your server or bartender and are responsible for a large chunk of their take-home pay.

Generally speaking, Americans hated the practice of tipping when it was first introduced in the late 19th century, perceiving it as a form of bribery for service workers who should simply do their jobs. But as we’ve adjusted to it, tipping has become undeniably intertwined with a sense of power.

Short of walking into the kitchen and telling off the chef, tipping is the easiest way to express satisfaction or dissatisfaction with a dining experience.

As a customer, I loved not tipping. I don’t feel the need to have power over the staff in a restaurant, I want cooks & chefs to get paid as well as servers, and I’ve acclimated to factoring the tip into my dining expenses. But it seems that Americans in the aggregate do care about those things, and so here we are.

And if we’re going to have tipping in restaurants, we should all know how it works.

If you can’t afford to tip 20 percent of the total amount that you spend at a restaurant, you can’t afford to eat at that restaurant.

And if your meal is bad?

You still tip. If something truly egregious happened, you ask to speak privately with a manager. If you do not want to speak privately with a manager, and would rather correct this perceived slight by tipping less or not tipping at all, you do not actually care about your perceived slight; you’re just using it as an excuse to be a dick.

Psst. Fast Food Secret Menus Are Rare Spots of Fun in Assembly-Line Dining

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 31, 2018

For Literary Hub, Alison Pearlman writes about how secret menus at fast food joints like In-N-Out (4x4, animal style) and McDonald’s (a McDonald’s Double Cheeseburger with a McChicken sandwich crammed into it) are an attempt by customers to push back against corporate standardization.

As you might guess, chain restaurants with units in the many hundreds or thousands lean toward standardization. The larger the chain, the more it regulates everything from menus to service, which creates the public perception of a homogenous and regimented operation.

This is the strongest at limited-service chains because every segment of the company-designed encounter between patron and server is at its most rote. Regulars are supposed to be addressed the same way as first-timers. Managers don’t encourage servers to recall a repeat customer’s favorite dish or how much ice she likes in her tea. That would only slow operations down-the kiss of death for a high-volume operation. If a server does become familiar with a repeat customer, that relationship could lead to special treatment, such as extra generous provisions of fries or special sauce, but interactions like these stray from the company line.

The piece is excerpted from Pearlman’s new book on the design of restaurant menus, May We Suggest: Restaurant Menus and the Art of Persuasion, which sounds fascinating. As a former designer who still very much thinks like one, almost every time I interact with a restaurant menu, I’m looking at how it’s arranged and designed. I think often of William Poundstone’s analysis of Balthazar’s menu.

2. The price anchor. Menu consultants use this prime space for high-profit items, and price “anchors”, in this case the Le Balthazar seafood plate, for $115 (£70). By putting high-profit items next to the extremely expensive anchor, they seem cheap by comparison. So, the triple-figure price here is probably to induce customers to go for the $70 (£43) Le Grand plate to the left of it, or the more modest seafood orders below it.)

And of course, there’s the 11-page menu from Shopsin’s circa-2004 that defies all rational analysis, a “tour de force of outsider information design”.

Rest In Pancakes, Kenny Shopsin

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 03, 2018

Shopsins

Word is filtering through the NYC food community that Kenny Shopsin has passed away. Together with his wife and children, Shopsin was the proprietor of Shopsin’s General Store, an iconic NYC restaurant, an establishment.

Calvin Trillin wrote a profile of Shopsin and the restaurant for the New Yorker in 2002.

One evening, when the place was nearly full, I saw a party of four come in the door; a couple of them may have been wearing neckties, which wouldn’t have been a plus in a restaurant whose waitress used to wear a T-shirt that said “Die Yuppie Scum.” Kenny took a quick glance from the kitchen and said, “No, we’re closed.” After a brief try at appealing the decision, the party left, and the waitress pulled the security gate partway down to discourage other latecomers.

“It’s only eight o’clock,” I said to Kenny.

“They were nothing but strangers,” he said.

“I think those are usually called customers,” I said. “They come here, you give them food, they give you money. It’s known as the restaurant business.”

Kenny shrugged. “Fuck ‘em,” he said.

Kenny’s daughter Tamara published a memoir recently called Arbitrary Stupid Goal…I read it last month and loved it. The book is not only a love letter to her family’s restaurant and the old West Village (which is now almost entirely gone), but also to her father, who is featured on nearly every page.

Shopsin published a cookbook back in 2008, Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin.

“Pancakes are a luxury, like smoking marijuana or having sex. That’s why I came up with the names Ho Cakes and Slutty Cakes. These are extra decadent, but in a way, every pancake is a Ho Cake.” Thus speaks Kenny Shopsin, legendary (and legendarily eccentric, ill-tempered, and lovable) chef and owner of the Greenwich Village restaurant (and institution), Shopsin’s, which has been in existence since 1971.

Kenny has finally put together his 900-plus-item menu and his unique philosophy-imagine Elizabeth David crossed with Richard Pryor-to create Eat Me, the most profound and profane cookbook you’ll ever read. His rants-on everything from how the customer is not always right to the art of griddling; from how to run a small, ethical, and humane business to how we all should learn to cook in a Goodnight Moon world where everything you need is already in your own home and head-will leave you stunned or laughing or hungry.

Much love to the Shopsin family right now.

Update: Several people wrote in mentioning I Like Killing Flies, a 2004 documentary about Shopsin. There are a few clips of it floating around on YouTube. The NY Times filmed Shopsin making his macaroni and cheese pancakes, one of the hundreds of items on the restaurant’s menu.

Update: The NY Times has an obituary of Shopsin and Helen Rosner wrote Remembering Kenny Shopsin, the Irascible Chef-King of Lower Manhattan for the New Yorker. Yesterday, Kenny’s daughter Tamara posted a photo of her dad on Instagram with the following caption:

@shopsinsnyc will be open Wednesday. My dad won’t be there in body but he will be there. I love you dad.

The carrot is not important. Chasing it is.

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2018

Arbitrary Stupid Goal

I finally picked up Tamara Shopsin’s Arbitrary Stupid Goal the other day. This is how it begins (emphasis mine):

The imaginary horizontal lines that circle the earth make sense. Our equator is 0°, the North and South Poles are 90°. Latitude’s order is airtight with clear and elegant motives. The earth has a top and a bottom. Longitude is another story. There isn’t a left and right to earth. Any line could have been called 0°. But Greenwich got first dibs on the prime meridian and as a result the world set clocks and ships by a British resort town that lies outside London.

It was an arbitrary choice that became the basis for precision. My father knew a family named Wolfawitz who wanted to go on vacation but didn’t know where.

It hit them. Take a two-week road trip driving to as many towns, parks, and counties as they could that contained their last name: Wolfpoint, Wolfville, Wolf Lake, etc.

They read up and found things to do on the way to these other Wolf spots: a hotel in a railroad car, an Alpine slide, a pretzel factory, etc.

The Wolfawitzes ended up seeing more than they planned. Lots of unexpected things popped up along the route.

When they came back from vacation, they felt really good. It was easily the best vacation of their lives, and they wondered why.

My father says it was because the Wolfawitzes stopped trying to accomplish anything. They just put a carrot in front of them and decided the carrot wasn’t that important but chasing it was.

The story of the Wolfawitzes’ vacation was told hundreds of times to hundreds of customers in the small restaurant that my mom and dad ran in Greenwich Village. Each time it was told, my dad would conclude that the vacation changed the Wolfawitzes’ whole life, and this was how they were going to live from now on — chasing a very, very small carrot.

The restaurant was Shopsin’s, no longer in Greenwich Village, and after a start like that, I read the next 80 pages without stopping. Really wish I’d heeded much advice to pick this up sooner.

See also “I’ve never had a goal”.

Using weeds, pests, and invasive species to make sustainable sushi

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 23, 2018

At Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, CT, chef owner Bun Lai makes sustainable sushi using invasive species and other typically overlooked ingredients.

By collecting invasive seafood on shell-fishing beds, we are basically providing a free weeding service… We hope that this will do a few things. First of all, it could potentially curb the dominance of invasive species in the ecosystem. Secondly, it would provide the seafood industry a greater supply of native seafood and reduce the stresses on those populations already fished. Finally, we hope that it would encourage greater balance in the inter-regenerative relationship between man and the oceans. If we were to have thirty Miya’s in thirty different places, each one would have a slightly different menu, each reflecting the problems of its local universe.

Take a look at the current menu…there are entire sections dedicated to dishes made from invasive species (like Kentucky silver carp, Japanese knotweed, and Florida lionfish) and sustainable seafood.

The world’s smallest sushi is made from a single grain of rice

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 29, 2018

Tiny Sushi

At Sushiya no Nohachi in Tokyo, you can eat sushi that is made using a single grain of rice. The tiny sushi came about when a customer challenged the owner’s son to make the smallest possible sushi.

The most difficult tiny sushi are the ones with nori seaweed — those are the sea urchin and egg. For sea urchin, he has to put a small piece of nori around a grain of rice horizontally. For egg, he has to wrap the nori around the egg and grain of rice. It’s pretty impressive to witness.

You can see the small sushi being made in this video:

That said, when we asked how often they need to make a plate of small sushi, we were surprised.

“Just a few times a week and at most five times in a day.” Though when customers from overseas order, they tend to be extra enthusiastic about the tiny sushi.

He told us that one woman from Europe burst into tears and cried for an hour and a half after seeing the cute, little sushi.

(thx, jason)

Warren Buffett’s daily breakfast allowance

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2018

Warren Buffett’s net worth is right around $84 billion. Each morning before he drives himself to work, he tells his wife how much his McDonald’s breakfast is going to cost — $2.61, $2.95, or $3.17 — and she puts the exact change in the cup holder for him to pay with. No, really:

That’s a clip from the HBO documentary, Becoming Warren Buffett. The full documentary is here.

On Medium, Daniel Bourke shared some things he learned from watching Becoming Warren Buffett.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are two of the richest men in the world.

One time Warren was at Bill’s house for dinner and Bills dad asked them to write down on a piece of paper what was one word to describe their success.

Focus.

They both wrote down the exact same word.

(via gruber)

The McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese is a lie. A delicious lie.

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 12, 2017

McDonalds 1974

Some facts about the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese:

1. As you can see in the photo above, purportedly taken in 1974, there was originally a Quarter Pounder without cheese, which was scrubbed from the menu at some undetermined point (even though you can still order one sans cheese at the counter).

2. The patty on the Quarter Pounder with Cheese does not weigh a quarter of a pound. It weighs 4.25 oz after it was subtly micro-supersized in 2015.

3. The 4.25 oz is actually the pre-cooked weight anyway. The on-bun weight is more like 3 oz.

4. When I’m traveling a significant distance by car, on a trip that requires stopping for food, my go-to meal is a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, fries, and a Coke. Don’t judge.

5. The Quarter Pounder has been discontinued in Japan. No one knows why.

6. In the US, the Quarter Pounder comes with pickles, raw onion, ketchup, and mustard. But in NYC, they omit the mustard. That sound you heard was me slapping my forehead after learning this just now after years of not being able to figure out why my Quarter Pounders sometimes had mustard and sometimes didn’t. (I prefer them without.)

A man turned his backyard shed into the top-rated restaurant in London

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2017

Having previously written fake reviews for restaurants on TripAdvisor for £10 a pop, Oobah Butler decided to go one step further. He listed his backyard shed on TripAdvisor, set up a dummy website (complete with appetizing food photos constructed from bleach tablets and shaving cream), and wrote a bunch of phony reviews.

The Shed at Dulwich

As the shed began climbing in the London restaurant ranking, Butler began to get more and more requests for reservations from actual people.

Emails? I check my computer: tens of “appointment” requests await. A boyfriend tries to use his girlfriend’s job at a children’s hospital for leverage. TV executives use their work emails.

Seemingly overnight, we’re now at #1,456. The Shed at Dulwich has suddenly become appealing. How?

I realise what it is: the appointments, lack of address and general exclusivity of this place is so alluring that people can’t see sense. They’re looking at photos of the sole of my foot, drooling. Over the coming months, The Shed’s phone rings incessantly.

And then, after it reaches #1, Butler actually opens The Shed at Dulwich for one night.

Update: When I initially posted this, I almost closed the post with something like “the best part of all this is that we don’t really know if any of this happened the way Butler says it did”. And indeed, Jonathan Power noticed that the URL for the restaurant’s website wasn’t registered until Oct 27, not in April as the article implies. Hmmm. The Facebook page for the restaurant has posts going back to June 30 (can you backdate FB posts?) & reviews back to April 5th. The listing appears to have been on TripAdvisor as of Dec 4 (Google cache) and was mentioned and screenshotted on Twitter in mid-November. Maybe Butler fudged the timeline slightly for the article…he used the Facebook page as the restaurant’s website until doing it up properly with its own URL in October? So, I dunno…is the joke on us, on Vice, on TripAdvisor, or…?

My recent media diet, special French edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 02, 2017

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past two weeks or so. I recently took a trip to France to visit friends and log some time in one of my favorite places on Earth, so this particular media diet is heavy on Parisian museums and food. If you take nothing else away from this post, avoid The Louvre and watch The Handmaid’s Tale at the earliest opportunity.

Dial M for Murder. This Hitchcock film, with its relatively low stakes and filmed mostly in one room, is more suspenseful and thrilling than any of the “the world/galaxy/universe is in peril” movies out today. (A-)

Musée des Arts et Métiers. Before ~1950, you could look at a machine and pretty much know what it did and how it worked. After the invention of the digital computer, everything is an inscrutable black box. (A)

Manon des Sources. This movie feels much older than it is. (B+)

Marconi. The chef from my favorite NYC restaurant recently opened this place in Montreal. Best meal I had during my trip (Paris included). (A)

The Big Sick. It may have been a little predictable, but I really liked this movie. Lots of heart. (B+)

Le Chateaubriand. The skate tartar and a dessert with a smoked cream were the highlights, but the whole experience was top-notch and chill. (A-)

Candelaria. You will never feel cooler in Paris than having an excellent cocktail in a bar behind a hidden door in the back of a taqueria. (A-)

Musée Picasso. Not much else to say about Picasso at this point, is there? That creep can roll, man. (A-)

Women in Physics. My daughter is pretty interested in science and scientists (she’s a particular fan of Marie Curie), so books that highlight women scientists can always be found around our house. (B)

Café de Flore. You will never feel cooler in Paris than sitting outside at Café de Flore at night, reading a book, and drinking a Negroni as Hemingway might have done in the 20s. (Tho Hemingway probably didn’t have a Kindle.) (A-)

Stacked. I recently rediscovered this hour-long mix by Royal Sapien. The two-ish minutes starting at 32:00 are sublime IMO. (A-)

The Devil in the White City. A gripping tale of architecture and serial killing. Chicago 1893 is definitely one of my hypothetical time travel destinations. (A)

Sainte-Chapelle. My favorite church in Paris. Literally jaw-dropping, worth the €10 entry fee. (A)

Rough Night. I will watch anything with Kate McKinnon in it. But… (B-)

Balanchine / Teshigawara / Bausch. An amazing building. (I got to go backstage!) The third act of this ballet was flat-out amazing. (B+)

The Louvre. The best-known works are underwhelming and the rest of this massive museum is overwhelming. The massive crowds, constant photo-taking, and selfies make it difficult to actually look at the art. Should have skipped it. (C)

100 Pounds of Popcorn. Forgettable kids book. (C-)

Kubo and the Two Strings. A fun thing to do is tell someone halfway through that it’s stop motion animated. (A-)

Musée d’Orsay. The building and the art it contains elevate each other. Probably the best big museum in Paris. (A-)

The Handmaid’s Tale. This is both a not-implausible future of the United States and a metaphor for how many women and LGBT+ folks feel about how our society treats them. Excellent, a must-watch. (A)

Musée de l’Orangerie. Two rooms of huge Monet Waterlilies? Yes, please. (A-)

Brasserie Lipp. The steak frites was so-so, but the people watching from my table near the entrance was fascinating. You’ll never feel cooler…etc. etc. (B+)

Monograph by Chris Ware. This thing is *huge* (like it weighs almost 9 pounds) and beautiful. (A-)

D3 Traveller. I bought this on sale, but even so it was an epic splurge for me. Now that I’ve been on 4-5 trips with it, I can say I love love love this bag. Will likely last a lifetime. (A)

Blade Runner 2049. Rewatch, this time on a smaller screen. Despite its flaws, I definitely like this more than the original. (A-)

Shake Shack releases an official cookbook

posted by Jason Kottke   May 11, 2017

Anatomy of a ShackBurger

Big news around these parts: the Shake Shack is coming out with their first cookbook next week. Shake Shack: Recipes & Stories details how the Shake Shack came about and spills the beans with recipes for almost all of the food, burgers, chicken sandwiches, and fries included. According to Eater, the recipes have been tweaked for the home cook:

Rosati shares almost all of the company’s recipes, though unfortunately he isn’t giving away any real secrets here. The processes have been adapted for the home cook, and Garutti told Eater that only “six people” in the world know the real recipe for Shake Shack’s signature sauce.

The recipe in the book for Shack sauce is a mixture of Hellman’s, Dijon, Heinz, pickle juice, salt, and pepper. “We make our own from scratch,” Garutti says, but when he and Rosati first started testing recipes for the book they came to the conclusion that these weren’t recipes “most people would want to make at home,” because they were labor-intensive, “messy,” and time-consuming.

Immediate pre-order. See also Kenji’s Fake Shack burger recipe.

Update: Here’s the recipe for the ShackBurger and sauce from the book. The ShackSauce recipe includes “¼ teaspoon kosher dill pickling brine”, which is also the secret ingredient in my homemade tuna salad.

“For the Colonel, It Was Finger-Lickin’ Bad”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 26, 2016

KFC Finger Lickin Bad

Here’s a gem from the archive of the NY Times. One day in September 1976, NY Times food critic Mimi Sheraton and Colonel Harland Sanders stopped into a Manhattan Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Colonel, then estranged from the company he founded, strolled into the kitchen after glad-handing some patrons and proceeded to tear into the quality of the food:

Once in the kitchen, the colonel walked over to a vat full of frying chicken pieces and announced, ‘That’s much too black. It should be golden brown. You’re frying for 12 minutes — that’s six minutes too long. What’s more, your frying fat should have been changed a week ago. That’s the worst fried chicken I’ve ever seen. Let me see your mashed potatoes with gravy, and how do you make them?”

When Mr. Singleton explained that he first mixed boiling water into the instant powdered potatoes, the colonel interrupted. “And then you have wallpaper paste,” he said. “Next suppose you add some of this brown gravy stuff and then you have sludge.” “There’s no way anyone can get me to swallow those potatoes,” he said after tasting some. “And this cole slaw. This cole slaw! They just won’t listen to me. It should he chopped, not shredded, and it should be made with Miracle Whip. Anything else turns gray. And there should be nothing in it but cabbage. No carrots!”

Sanders sold his company to an investment group in 1964, which took the company public two years later and eventually sold to a company called Heublein. After selling, Sanders officially still worked for the company as an advisor but grew more and more dissatisfied with it, as evidenced by the story above. When the company HQ moved to Tennessee, the Colonel was quoted as saying:

This ain’t no goddam Tennessee Fried Chicken, no matter what some slick, silk-suited son-of-a-bitch says.

And he got sued by a KFC franchisee after he commented:

My God, that gravy is horrible. They buy tap water for 15 to 20 cents a thousand gallons and then mix it with flour and starch and end up with pure wallpaper paste. And I know wallpaper paste, by God, because I’ve seen my mother make it.

To the “wallpaper paste” they add some sludge and sell it for 65 or 75 cents a pint. There’s no nutrition in it and the ought not to be allowed to sell it.

And another thing. That new crispy chicken is nothing in the world but a damn fried doughball stuck on some chicken.

Colonel Sanders: serving up chicken and sick burns with equal spiciness. (via @mccanner)

Floor maps of iconic NYC fast food joints

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 25, 2016

When he was asked to design a new outpost of iconic NYC hot dog joint Papaya King in the East Village, Andrew Bernheimer went around to several other establishments in the city built to serve food quickly — Chipotle, Russ & Daughters, Katz’s, Shake Shack, Gray’s Papaya — and looked at their floor plans and flow of customers through their spaces. Mark Lamster talked to Bernheimer about the survey.

Grays Papaya Floor

Katz Floor

ML: I think at fast food joints we’re conscious that we’re in a very controlled environment, but perhaps don’t realize (because we are in a rush), just how manipulative that space can be. How did you see this playing out in the places you looked at?

AB: It ranged. Artisanal places (like Russ & Daughters) don’t feel manipulative in an insidious way at all (other than showing off some great food and triggering all sorts of synaptic response), while others do (Five Guys and their peanuts, a pretty nasty and obvious trigger to go order soda or spend money on WATER). We didn’t just look at fast food joints, but also icons of New York (R&D, Katz’s) that do try to serve people quickly but I don’t think qualify as “fast food joints.” In these cases the manipulation is either entirely subliminal and beyond recognition, or it has been rendered unnecessary because a place has become iconic, the domain of the “regular.”

Speaking as a customer, places like Katz’s and Russ & Daughters always felt like a total mess to me. Katz’s in particular is the worst: the whole thing with the tickets, paying on the way out, the complete lack of a single line, separate ordering locations for different types of food, etc.

That Gray’s Papaya that used to be on the corner of 8th St and 6th Ave, however, was fantastic. It had the huge benefit of being situated on the corner, but when you walked in, there was the food being cooked right in front of you. It was obvious where the line was and what direction it was moving. And after getting your food, you could exit immediately out the “back” door or circle back against the line to find a counter spot to quickly eat your meal.

Danny Meyer tells the Shake Shack origin story

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 15, 2016

On a recent episode of the Serious Eats podcast Special Sauce, Ed Levine talks to Danny Meyer about the origins of the Shake Shack.

Did Meyer have any idea that that hot dog cart would eventually become the massive sensation it is today? Not at all. It was a happy accident, born of his love of burgers, Chicago hot dogs, and the custard that’s still served at Ted Drewes in his native St. Louis.

In Situ, SFMOMA’s aggregated restaurant

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 22, 2016

In Situ is Corey Lee’s new restaurant in the recently refurbished SFMOMA. Like the museum does with art, In Situ brings culinary masterpieces from chefs around the world and presents them to guests. The current menu, which provides the name of the chef and the date the dish was first made in the style of the info cards next to artworks, includes Shrimp Grits from the now-closed WD-50 (Wylie Dufresne, 2013), Spicy Pork Sausage Rice Cakes from Ssam Bar (David Chang, 2007), Meyer Lemon Ice Cream and Sherbet from Chez Panisse (Alice Waters, 1980), and Wood Sorrel & Sheep Milk’s Yogurt from Noma (René Redzepi, 2005).

This sort of thing is not exactly without precedent. From the very beginning of Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas’ Next, one of the ideas was to present the menu from the French Laundry from Achatz’s first day on the job there in October 1996 (which is happening this fall) and the Chicago restaurant has already featured menus with dishes from El Bulli and Trio (Achatz’s first restaurant as head chef). Ssam Bar used to have cocktails from other places (Milk and Honey, Death & Co., etc.) on their beverage menu, properly credited. But as Pete Wells explains in his positive NY Times review, In Situ takes the concept further:

Would any chef have dreamed of building a restaurant like this 25 years ago? Would anyone have gone there? In Situ probably requires a steady supply of customers who care about restaurants in Lima and Copenhagen enough to have seen some of these dishes in cookbooks or at least in the Instagram accounts of the chefs in question. Mr. Lee depends on, and caters to, a class of eaters who pay attention to the global restaurant scene the way certain art hounds follow the goings on in Basel, Miami Beach and Venice.

One thing In Situ proves, just by existing, is that certain chefs are now cultural figures in a sense that once applied only to practitioners of what used to be called high culture: literature, concert music, avant-garde painting. A Redzepi dish can be visited in an art museum in 2016, and nobody finds this very strange.

What In Situ is doing also underscores how context and the renown of an artist can affect our perception of what is creative appropriation versus theft or plagiarism. That In Situ is helmed by one of the best chefs in the US and affiliated with a world-class museum matters. The similar work of an unknown chef might not get the same treatment, as Robin Wickens found out in 2006, when he presented dishes from WD-50 and Alinea on the menu at his Australian restaurant:

That’s what happened three months ago on the eGullet.com Web site. Sam Mason, a pastry chef at WD-50 in New York, set off an international dust-up when he posted a link to the Web site of Interlude, a restaurant in Melbourne, Australia, and asked: “Is it me or are some of these dishes strikingly similar to a few American restaurants?” Interlude’s site showed photos of such unusual fare as noodles made of shrimp and a glass tube full of eucalyptus jelly and yogurt, dishes pioneered at WD-50 and Chicago’s Alinea, respectively. Interlude’s chef, Robin Wickens, had worked for a week at Alinea as a stagiere, or unpaid intern, and had dined at WD-50 while visiting the U.S.

EGullet’s administrators then juxtaposed Interlude’s images to nearly identical ones from WD-50 and Alinea. Within a few days, restaurateurs and chefs from around the country and dozens of eGullet members added to the thread, many branding Mr. Wickens a plagiarist.

Mortified, Mr. Wickens says he removed the dishes from his menu and his site, and sent letters to the chefs whose work he’d copied explaining that he only wanted to utilize what he’d learned on his travels. “I never tried to claim them as my own,” says Mr. Wickens, who says he told many patrons that the dishes had originated at the American restaurants.

I wish I had San Francisco travel plans…In Situ is the first new restaurant I’ve been excited about visiting in ages (for obvious reasons). Soon, hopefully.

David Chang’s Unified Theory of Deliciousness

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2016

Chef and Momofuku founder David Chang spends a lot of time thinking about food and he’s arrived at what he calls the Unified Theory of Deliciousness.

My first breakthrough on this idea was with salt. It’s the most basic ingredient, but it can also be hellishly complex. A chef can go crazy figuring out how much salt to add to a dish. But I believe there is an objectively correct amount of salt, and it is rooted in a counterintuitive idea. Normally we think of a balanced dish as being neither too salty nor undersalted. I think that’s wrong. When a dish is perfectly seasoned, it will taste simultaneously like it has too much salt and too little salt. It is fully committed to being both at the same time.

I’m not sure his observations are exactly unified, but they are interesting and also why I enjoy eating at his restaurants so much. A meal I had at Ssam Bar shortly after they switched away from the initial Korean burritos menu is in my top 5 meals of all time and a pair of dishes at Ko (both somehow simultaneously familiar and new) are among the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.

Recipe for making McDonald’s Egg McMuffins at home

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2016

Homemade Egg Mcmuffin

At Serious Eats, the Food Lab’s Kenji Lopez-Alt reverse engineers (and improves) the Egg McMuffin for the home cook. Clever use of a Mason jar lid for cooking the egg.

How to Make Perfect Soft-Scrambled Eggs

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 14, 2016

I love watching Gordon Ramsay make scrambled eggs. I first saw this video years ago and, possibly because I am an idiot, have yet to attempt these eggs at home. You and me, eggs, next weekend.

P.S. Jean-Georges Vongerichten makes scrambled eggs in a very similar way. Not quite soft-scrambled…Serious Eats calls them fancy French spoonable eggs.

P.P.S. Anyone have a square Japanese omelette pan I can borrow?

P.P.P.S. In Jiro Dreams of Sushi (now on Netflix!), an apprentice talks about making tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette) over 200 times before Jiro declared it good enough to serve in his restaurant.

That apprentice, Daisuke Nakazawa, is now the head chef at Sushi Nakazawa, one of the five NYC restaurants that currently has a four-star rating from the NY Times (along with the aforementioned Jean-Georges and not along with Per Se, which recently got dunce capped down to 2 stars by populist hero Pete Wells).

Noma: My Perfect Storm

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 20, 2015

Noma: My Perfect Storm is a feature-length documentary about chef René Redzepi and his Copenhagen restaurant Noma, which is currently ranked #3 in the world.

How did Redzepi manage to revolutionize the entire world of gastronomy, inventing the alphabet and vocabulary that would infuse newfound pedigree to Nordic cuisine and establish a new edible world while radically changing the image of the modern chef? His story has the feel of a classic fairy tale: the ugly duckling transformed into a majestic swan, who now reigns over the realm of modern gourmet cuisine.

The film is out Dec 18 in theaters, on Amazon, iTunes, etc.

How do you pick the 50 best restaurants in the world?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 05, 2015

From the New Yorker Food Issue,1Lauren Collins examines how the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list comes together. I haven’t eaten at any of these sorts of restaurants in years (for a lot of reasons), and this bit gets to part of the reason why:

The restaurants in the upper reaches of the list tend to fall into a certain mode. They are all the same place, Giles Coren once conjectured in the London Times, “only the face changes, like Doctor Who.” Just as there is Oscar bait, there is 50 Best bait. “It’s opening up in Beijing,” David Chang said, imagining the archetypal 50 Best restaurant. “It’s a Chinese restaurant by a guy who worked for Adrià, Redzepi, and Keller. He cooks over fire. Everything is a story of his terroir. He has his own farm and hand-dives for his own sea urchins.” Hearing about 50 Best winners, and having eaten at a few of them, I started to think of them as icebreaker restaurants — places that create moments, that give you prompts. This can be exhilarating, or it can be infantilizing. It is the dining experience as Cards Against Humanity.

  1. Not to be confused with the NY Times’ Food Issue, which was out this past weekend.

Danny Meyer: no more tipping at my restaurants

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 14, 2015

Eater has the scoop: Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group is eliminating tipping at all of their full-service restaurants.

Big news out of Manhattan: Dining out is about to get turned on its head. Union Square Hospitality Group, the force behind some of New York’s most important restaurants, will announce today that starting in November, it will roll out an across-the-board elimination of tips at every one of its thirteen full-service venues, hand in hand with an across-the-board increase in prices.

Why are they doing this? In part because cooks get the shaft at restaurants:

Under the current gratuity system, not everyone at a restaurant is getting a fair shake. Waiters at full-service New York restaurants can expect a full 20 percent tip on most checks, for a yearly income of $40,000 or more on average — some of the city’s top servers easily clear $100,000 annually. But the problem isn’t what waiters make, it’s what cooks make. A mid-level line cook, even in a high-end kitchen, doesn’t have generous patrons padding her paycheck, and as such is, on average, unlikely to make much more than $35,000 a year.

I hope this catches on.

Restaurant menu definitions

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 31, 2015

All the terminology on fancy restaurant menus can be overwhelming. From Judy Wu at Gaper’s Block, a glossary of common menu items and terms.

Gluten-Free: This dish contains a small trace of gluten, but a full dollop of bullshit.

Duck Fat: Duck fat fries, rillette, popcorn, confit, Brussels sprouts — never skip this menu item.

Amish: This chicken was raised without electricity and fear.

An appreciation of the ShackBurger

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 30, 2015

Shack Burger

From The Message is Medium Rare, an appreciation of the ShackBurger, “a straightforward, honest-to-goodness burger”. It includes a review of the typography used by the restaurant:

These three typefaces artfully express the ethos of both the burger and the brand. Neutraface is the bun: sturdy, reliable and architectural. Futura is the patty: basic but bold. Galaxie is the lettuce: wavy, quirky and fresh. To the layperson this comparison may seem like a stretch, but designers know they are purposefully expressive.

The Waffle House Index

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 23, 2015

The Waffle House Index is an informal metric used by FEMA administrator Craig Fugate to evaluate how bad a storm is. Basically, whether the Waffle House in town is open or serving a limited menu can tell you something about how bad the storm was and how much recovery assistance is necessary.

If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work.

See also The Economist’s Big Mac Index and other odd economic indicators. (via @naveen)