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Chef’s Corner: It’s Gotta Feel Good

04/30/2024

Chef’s Corner: It’s Gotta Feel Good

Chef’s Corner: It’s Gotta Feel Good

Welcome to "Chef's Corner," Daniel Asher's monthly blog, where he delves into the intricate world of food, restaurants, distributors, and all things foodservice.  Daniel is a chef and restaurant owner + the head of strategic relationships & hospitality at Cut+Dry.


I did a lot of traveling these past few weeks; immersing in the UniPro Spring Show with my incredibly talented Cut+Dry colleagues in National Harbor, right on the Potomac River. Then off to Denver for the Colorado Restaurant Show, and back East perched on the edge of the Atlantic in Ocean Beach, Maryland. I had the pleasure of working with the amazing team at Wagner Foodservice and met a few hundred of their loyal chef and operator customers at their Spring food show. Then to beautiful Portland, Oregon for the Northwest Food Show with our sales rockstar Karl Heiman, nestled right on the Columbia River near Vancouver, Washington. Flying East again to NYC, right along the Williamsburg Bridge and the East River, for the epic shindig that is Baldor Bites 2024. The Williamsburg Bridge began construction in 1896 and, until 1924, was the longest suspension bridge in the world! My New York adventure companion was Brandon Hayes, our Product Lead for Manufacturers/Suppliers. Needless to say, there have been many conversations about “the biz”.

I have had endless conversations with multi-generational independent distributors and independent restaurant owners - from line cooks to supply chain managers to chefs to warehouse teams. I heard Chef Dan Barber speak about the magic of heirloom seeds and restaurateur extraordinaire Danny Meyer speaks about the nature of hospitality. There have been conversations about the state of independent foodservice, where it is headed and what the future will look like. There has been much honesty, tons of vulnerability, some tears shed, some robots and lots of humor. 

This business is HARD. I don’t mean long day ‘hard’. I mean leap-of-faith, “will enough people dine in my restaurant this week to make payroll”,  “will enough chefs order food from me this week to have full trucks going out”, “will enough drivers show up to get the food where it needs to go”, “will enough cooks show up to plate the food”, “will FOH staff handle guests needs properly”, “will the guests leave good enough reviews to keep more people coming in so that we can order more food so that producers and growers can make more food so that distributors can stock that food and deliver that food back to the kitchens that need to prepare it and cook it and bring it to the guests that will eat it and come back again” HARD….. Do you see this incredibly profound loop of humans and animals, plants and vegetables and fruits, coolers and trucks and fields and farms and kitchens and tables and plates and ice and forks and service? It is the most remarkable dance of the human experience.

Margins that are notoriously thin and have been stretched to their limits. Labor costs are impossibly high, yet those dollars don’t go nearly as far as they used to, so families are not prioritizing dining out in the same way. Many independent full-service restaurants continue to close or modify hours, and key downtown office areas in major cities continue to suffer from partial occupancy. It is a precarious time for many in the independent foodservice industry. As a lifer in the restaurant world for the past 29 years, I’ve seen many storms weathered and countless changes to the commercial kitchen world that I love so deeply. All of these dialogues were weighing heavily on my heart, as Karl & I walked into Canard in downtown Portland. What followed was not just about the ridiculously amazing cuisine we enjoyed, nor was it just about the vibe of the room. It was how we felt from the moment we sat down. The line cooks were dancing while they cooked. The guests around us were locked into a celebratory mood that simply buzzed around and swirled into the fantastic soundtrack pulsing out of the wall speakers. The dishwasher leaned over the counter and whispered, “you guys are in for a real treat- this is the best kitchen in the entire country”. 

What followed were a few rounds of perfectly executed, lovingly crafted and brilliantly flavorful food that was equal parts fun and fancy, with no particular agenda and no sense of self-importance. It was simply the most perfectly enjoyable dining experience I have had in recent memory. Karl and I kept looking at each other to validate what we were experiencing on multiple sensory levels. It was just so damn satisfying, physically, spiritually & emotionally. It felt like I had unknowingly signed up for some sort of wellness retreat that was 90 minutes away from everything that didn’t make sense in the world. It was pure freedom, uncut bliss, and a feeling of complete faith that everything, everywhere, was going to be ok. To be given that gift on a random Monday night in Portland was something that I will carry with me for a very long time.

In their core level form, restaurants exist to solve the basic human needs of hunger and thirst. In their most elevated state, professional kitchens and dining rooms delight and enchant, whisking you away from your wheel of chaos to a place where you feel safe, loved, and understood. You can’t get that feeling by a drone-dropped plastic bag on your doorstep. You can’t get that feeling from a pizza box in a cubby, and you sure as hell can’t get that feeling by reading about it on Yelp. You must show up for it. You must be present in space and time. It must taste good, or you won’t remember it. It must feel good, or it doesn’t matter. This is the mission of the restaurant. 

That feeling of goodness begins on a farm; it begins in a bakery; it begins in a sauce blend that’s being bottled with a sense of purpose and hope. The distributor is the keeper of the magic, the collector of endless possibilities. That feeling must be held sacred and it must be passed along the circle. When a sales rep stops in to check on my culinary team, with a smile and new cheese to sample and a special price on potato buns and some seasonal apples to drop off, they are giving out that good feeling. Every point of the supply chain should be a part of that; we must remind each other to sustain it within ourselves and pass some along to others. “That is hospitality…” as Danny Meyer said in his talk on the Baldor stage, “It’s not just about being in a good headspace; it is about being in a good heart space…”

We all share an incredible industry, one that has been built with hard work and a love of people, a desire to craft something satisfying and delicious. It is at once so simple yet profoundly complex, but we must remember what really matters. From field to fork, from warehouse to stovetop, from truck to saute pan, it’s all just gotta feel good.

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