Apr 292011

Moving around – I want a chef’s job in _______________________ .

Judging from the number of cover letters we receive stating, “I will be moving to XXXX in June and will be seeking a chef’s job,” South Carolina is the new culinary hot spot. Judging from the number of resumes we receive from South Carolina chefs trying to find a job elsewhere, it isn’t.

Somehow I missed the memo or the Food Channel Show or the culinary article pronouncing that particular location the new Mecca. For those of  you who were on the distribution list,  however, I have news: Their predictions tend to be inaccurate.

Food writers, always thirsty for material, like to play follow the leader. At the moment one chef manages to establish himself with a positive national review or television piece in his homeland,   food writers eagerly begin a game of telegram (remember that from junior high school?) each going a bit further out on a limb to proclaim Arizona, Seattle, or Denver the new destination where food will be reborn.

Sorry. It ain’t gonna happen. Let’s do some history, a bit of it Ancient: Mark Miller’s Coyote Café put Santa Fe New Mexico on the Culinary map, inspiring droves of young chefs to travel to the Southwest, where there were neither jobs nor a sufficient appreciative public to support really interesting restaurants. Swift on the heels of the Southwest hysteria came Seattle and Portland, from whence we received many calls from desperate, rain drenched young chefs who couldn’t find the jobs lying on the streets indicated by the ever optimistic food trend predictors.  Seattle and Portland do have some fabulous restaurants, but not nearly the employment potential indicated by the media.

Texas, Arizona and Florida – West Florida in particular – were among the new culinary hot spots which cooled off after the next group came up. San Diego promised and offered a fair number of fairly good restaurants but many more family style chain spots.

Why? People. Demographics. Who eats in restaurants determines what restaurants succeed. If a location doesn’t have a great restaurant usually does not mean it is a void waiting to be filled, but that the population will not support a good restaurant.

California is a culinary miracle thanks to a combination of fabulous produce and a highly sophisticated young urban population with discretionary income. New York  is the incubation spot for the nation’s most adventurous young mating aged  economic and  intellectual elite with tiny kitchens and social appetites  that drive them to restaurants. California and New York are each the touch down spot for people from other continents. We have Hollywood. New York has Wall Street.  The New York Times and the publishing industry drive food and eating ahead of just about any other pleasure.  San Francisco did in fact have a resurgence in the eighties, but it was already a restaurant town with more or less staid cuisine until Jeremiah Tower and  Joyce Goldstein followed by their graduates from the Chez Panisse days kicked off a culinary revolution which brought people into fine dining with approachable and exciting foods.Chicago, the third obvious front line culinary destination lacks some of the international influences of the two coastal Mecca’s but has youth and money on it’s side and is the nation’s food trade hub.

What makes all of these towns work is a combination of money, singles including a considerable gay dining contingent, plenty of high end transient and business travelers,  intelligent  young adults  and sophistication. The country’s three main dining spots, furthermore, are the three most multi ethnic and multi cultural cities of the country. New Orleans, too,  falls into the big restaurant town category, while Las Vegas does a fair job of imitating restaurant towns, but without the same cutting edge daring.

For an area to burst out in restaurants all of the above are necessary. San Diego and  Florida have retirement communities and nice weather. Sedona and Santa Fe enjoy some tourists, albeit it not culinary, and people who believe in the powers of crystals. For tourists to drive a restaurant economy, they have to be the kind of tourists who go places for the food.

Places without the demographic prerequisites to spawn multiple fine dining restaurants may have one or two great ones, but they will not have a restaurant culture. A pioneer chef who settles Omaha or Denver with a restaurant worthy of national praise will do well there. Those who follow probably won’t. Going to

One or two great restaurants in a new spot can be an indication of a sufficient dining public and population change to support one or two great restaurants, but dining  demographics don’t change quickly. People want what they want. If they are currently eating fried fish or bisquits and gravy and are accustomed  to large amounts of reasonably priced food on their plates, they will not frequent any location offering anything else.

Chefs can  have all kinds of reasons for moving – family, spousal transfers at the top of the list – and if you have to go to Hawaii, there will be positions there. If, however, you have read that the streets of Oshkosh are paved with chef jobs and full of great eateries, be prepared to stand at the trough with way too many pigs for the available challenging openings. Demographic changes promote food and beverage expansion, and places once home to only TGI Friday’s and Olive Gardens are getting some good restaurants, but it takes many years for restaurant cities providing many great career opportunities for culinary professionals. Of course, you only need one job, and if one of these locations calls, why not?

Chef: There’s a moral in here somewhere. I will leave it to you to find it for yourself.