Illustration: Carolyn Figel
Potatoes probably aren’t the first ingredient you think of when thinking up items that could quickly bankrupt an otherwise successful restaurant, but chances are you’re not buying 50 pounds of potatoes every week. This is the case of chef Matt Le-Khac, owner of the Vietnamese restaurant Bolero in Williamsburg. When he noticed the price of his favorite fingerling potatoes skyrocketing, he knew he had to do something fast. Last spring, a crate of long, gnarled potatoes might have cost Le-Khac about $50. “But in June it was up to $121,” he says. “It’s unsustainable.”
The reason: the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the world’s third largest potato producer, which, combined with Russia itself, is responsible for 10% of the world’s potato supply. Suddenly, there were far fewer potatoes for everyone, and Le-Khac made the decision to remove them from his restaurant’s $30 shaken beef plates.
It’s a minor tweak, which most diners would never notice, but it’s also a sign of bigger issues that continue to plague the entire restaurant industry. Chefs have always had to worry about what is called production. It is not enough to have an idea for a good aperitif; someone also needs to figure out how to execute and replicate that idea, often hundreds of times a night, while simultaneously making sure it doesn’t disrupt any of the other 1,000 details that cooks must consider during service. Now, with chefs beset by skyrocketing prices and persistent labor shortages, the business as usual way of doing business is untenable. To cope, restaurants have reduced menus, simplified garnishes and introduced simplified recipes that can be sent immediately to dining rooms, i.e. if they can find enough cooks to hire in the first place. .
“Ninety percent of restaurants are probably understaffed,” says Luis Herrera, who opened Ensenada in Williamsburg earlier this year. Owners may tell the public they just want to cook honest, hearty food, but cooks say those beef tartars and platters of burrata on menus are designed to take the strain off stretched kitchens.
“The dishes have been simplified because we can’t accomplish certain techniques with the number of hands available,” says James, a cook who has worked in various kitchens around the city this year (and who asked not to use a name of family to avoid limiting potential work). “The labor costs associated with prep have to be what we can afford, and we just can’t keep a full prep team and a full line up,” says James. As a result, many managers favor dishes that can be prepared ahead of time and assembled rather than cooked at the time of ordering. That’s why every restaurant seems to have a “raw bar” selection, and that’s partly why Cobble Hill June’s wine bar menu includes olives, multiple cheese plates, and multiple salads, but only two dishes (trout and grilled duck) that would fit the traditional definition of a starter.
“We do more prep and less cooking per minute,” says Diego Moya, the chef who oversees the two-person kitchen in June, as well as Brooklyn’s sister Rucola and Rhodora, where the night kitchen staff varies. from four or five people at Rucola to zero at Rhodora (the waiters run the whole menu). But this kind of upheaval is not unique to small establishments.
The original plan for Gage & Tollner, the revived 110-seat chophouse in downtown Brooklyn, called for 16 to 20 people in the kitchen each night with plans to hire more as business grew. Instead, when the restaurant finally opened after a year’s delay, only ten employees were working in the back of the house. “When one or two cooks get sick from COVID or the flu,” says executive chef Adam Shepard, “we literally don’t have the manpower to do the job at hand.” To manage, the restaurant had to cut up to five menu items at a time. He also suspended for a while a completely different menu served at his upstairs cocktail bar, the Sunken Harbor Club.
Some of the substitutions are simple: A career cook says a dish like chicken parmesan – made with breaded and fried cutlets – has taken over menus because it’s “infinitely easier” to prepare than half chickens and the pan-roasted whole chickens that were so popular before the pandemic. Other times, dishes are added in hopes of compensating for expensive, labor-intensive items that cannot be removed.
Jennifer Saesue, owner of Fish Cheeks in Noho, says she’s added fried chicken wings and grilled pork cheeks to her menu to help control costs, even though the restaurant’s specialty is Thai seafood. The signature dish is coconut crab curry, but when the price of chunk crabmeat rose from $26 a pound to $60, before dropping back down to $40, she had to raise the price to her $30 curry – a ceiling she felt she couldn’t exceed. She hopes the simpler, cheaper items will boost her results. “Before, our food costs were hovering between 25 and 27 percent,” she says. “Right now that number is 30-32 percent.”
Bereft operators can take more drastic measures – a waiter tells me that a restaurant he worked at in the spring, after cutting the menu as much as possible, made the unprecedented decision to eliminate the family meal, the time that staff ate before service (“That was a legitimate blow to morale”) – but the most common move is to default to a set of undisputed crowd pleasers. “When you look sideways, the menus are still kind of the same,” says James. “Tomato salad with basil; watermelon and feta; pork and cherries. Although that may change since, as James notes, “cherries are out of control and expensive”.
Still others have tried to keep disruption to a minimum, hoping they can wait as long as possible for their menus to be reduced or adjusted. “We’ve thought about it and we should, but so far we’ve only aspired,” says Ann Redding, owner of Thai Diner in Nolita with her husband, Matt Danzer. He adds: “We kind of accepted that we’re just going to make less money.” Even so, late last year the pair launched a raw bar menu that includes a shrimp cocktail, oysters and an $89 seafood tower called Suvannamaccha’s Offer. It is named after a mythical Thai mermaid believed to be a symbol of good luck.