Food and Wine Column, April 2012

I was fascinated and perplexed (as were a couple friends, Chef Tommy and John) about the article in the April 2012 edition of Food and Wine Magazine entitled, Oenotri’s Cal-Ital Recipes from Napa written by Daniel Duane. 

 “line cooks prepare every dish on the southern-Italian-inspired menu, all at once, 

I understand the need to maintain a high standard in the kitchen, but tasting every dish, every day doesn’t make economic sense when the profit margin in restaurants is so thin. Here are the economics of every dish, every day. If I omit desserts and sides from the Oenotri April 7 menu, I’m left with 17 dishes for the line cooks to prepare. The simple average price on the menu of the 17 dishes is $17.44. I’ll assume an average food cost of 35%, certainly not low, but Oenotri is in Napa and the ingredients are of top quality; which produces an average food cost per dish of $6.10; multiply this by 17 dishes and Oenotri spends $103.77 per day in food costs simply to test their line cooks. Oenotri is open seven days a week and I’ll assume they take a few days off of work for major holidays, resulting in the restaurant being open 350 days per year. Multiply the average food cost of $103.77, by the number of days open per year, 350, for a result of $36,321 spent per year testing the line staff. This is exclusive of any labor costs to produce every dish and the assumption that desserts, sides, and lunch items are not tested. 

“Every day, at exactly 4:15 p.m., chefs Curtis Di Fede and Tyler Rodde of Napa’s Oenotri restaurant begin a ritual they call, somewhat prosaically, “tasters.”” 

Oenotri closes for lunch at 2:30 and reopens for dinner at 5:30. I find it hard to believe that at “exactly 4:15pm” just before dinner starts at 5:30pm in a popular Napa Valley restaurant, the line is knocking out 17 dishes just before dinner service on a busy Friday or Saturday night just after a busy lunch service to satisfy the obvious passion, but bordering on obsession, of the owners. 

“the “tasters” give Di Fede and Rodde a chance to ensure that every dish is as delicious as they want it to be

Some of the most highly respected chefs in America don’t have their staff prepare every dish, every day. There is a degree of trust and training that most executive chefs’ place in their line. The real “taster” is on the line, under pressure, when the executive chef is working the pass in the middle of the second turn of service and the line is “in the weeds” just trying to keep up. That’s when a chef knows who they can rely upon to cook consistently and efficiently.

I respect and admire the chefs' attention to detail and I can understand a little literary hyberbole regarding high standards at Oenotri, but this story borders on myth.