Cookbook Watch: Joe Bastianich's 'Restaurant Man'
Joe Bastianich, one of the most talented and successful restaurateurs of his generation, has written “Restaurant Man,” a guidebook to his profession that should be compulsory reading for anyone who dreams of someday opening an eatery. But beware, you’re going to have to wade through a lot of backbiting, tough-guy posing and petty score-settling to get to the meat of the matter.
For the last 20 years or more, Bastianich has been the more-or-less silent partner of star chef Mario Batali. He’s the business guy while Molto handles the food. That, of course, is a gross oversimplification, as Bastianich is a notable food-and-wine expert in his own right while Batali, for all his rock-star bonhomie, certainly knows how to count his nickels.
The lessons Bastianich has to offer are important and fundamental. Essentially, they boil down to the critical importance of understanding the economics of the business. All restaurants are basically real estate deals. Know who you are and what you can and can’t do. Know who your customers are and what they want, but don’t be afraid to lead them -- as long as they end up leaving happy. Be able to account for every penny that is coming in and going out. And know whom to trust (virtually no one).
As Bastianich says, it all adds up to being first and foremost a cheapskate, though in his telling, the description is of course more colorful. For some reason, Bastianich seems determined to hammer home just what a tough guy he is. There isn’t a sentence, it seems, that couldn’t be made more emphatic by the use of a couple of swear words. The problem is he uses them so often that they lose whatever impact they might have had. In the end, he comes off sounding like a bad Joe Pesci imitation.
A lot of the early buzz about “Restaurant Man” has centered on Bastianich’s feuds -- most notably with restaurant critics John Mariani and Steve Cuozzo. These have the feeling of those heated emails you should have slept on before hitting “send.” Bastianich comes off sounding petty and spoiled. Granted, there seem to be plenty of chefs these days who are taking shots at Mariani, but in this particular case, Bastianich admittedly sent out a rotten piece of fish -– and Mariani did give him a favorable review anyway. So why the vitriol –- particularly almost 20 years after the fact?
On the other hand, because of that raw, un-self-censored, stream-of-consciousness style, “Restaurant Man” does offer a fascinating look at the psychology of a certain kind of restaurateur. While chefs today are lauded as creative geniuses, it’s the front-of-the-house guys, as they’re called in the business, who have to interact with the patrons, making them feel welcome, catering to their every whim, no matter how unpleasant or wrong-headed they might be. If someone’s got a complaint, no matter how stupid, you’ve got to make them feel as if they’re right so they’ll come back again. Bow, smile and send them a drink. Just be sure they keep spending their money.
It's the art of appearing to overflow with generosity while at the same time counting every penny. Or in Bastianich’s phrase, “you give from the front and you pull from the back.” And given the tenor of “Restaurant Man,” it’s hard to believe the double entendre isn’t intentional.
-- Russ Parsons