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Dining Out — as Chefs See It

This article by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1

Newspaper on April 28, 1999. All rights reserved.

One can’t live "by bread alone" — or by

street-corner hot dogs, tacos or even pizza. So, what to do in a new

place when dinnertime approaches? How do you choose a place to eat?

Or, how do you recommend to someone asking you the same thing?

Beth Hawkey has a few suggestions. And when it comes to cooking, eating,

and related activities, Hawkey, the newly installed president of the

Professional Chefs Guild of Central Jersey, has been there, done that.

Reached during a Friday evening meeting of the Women’s Culinary Club

at Mercer County Community College, Hawkey agreed to solicit her colleagues’

thoughts and share their collective dining-out survival tips. From

the get-go, she modeled the customer service principles she wound

up talking about.

To either select or recommend a restaurant, Hawkey says, in culinary

lingo, "it all boils down to knowing who you’re talking to."

Or, what she might like for her own good reasons could be an awful

choice for someone else. It’s necessary to know what the would-be

diner-out wants. Is there a special cuisine? (No point recommending

a great Spanish place to a meat-and potatoes guy.) How about the price

range desired? (Don’t fasten on an upscale hot spot if a hoagie budget

is involved.) Is a "dining experience" the goal? (Or are we

talking down home?)

Hawkey says you can’t tell by looking at a place. Nor can the phone

directory suggest quality. And if you ask the maitre d’ or any other

representative of a restaurant under consideration, "they’ll hype

their own." What to do?

For a new place, consult one of the magazines that carries spreads

on cities or cuisines. Try the Internet (though negatives might be

scarce there too), and check guides like the Zagat Survey. Drive or

walk around town, scoping out both the main streets and those a little

off the beaten track, Hawkey suggests. Check the menus often posted

or available at potential eateries, or even contact the local branch

of the American Culinary Federation, the parent organization of chefs’ guilds

around the country.

A hotel concierge could be helpful if asked about specific

kinds of places, per the categories above. And finally, and maybe

the best bet of all, Hawkey advises asking the locals. But avoid the

big, blanket question that might find you at someone’s cousin’s start-up

— instead, focus on a specific cuisine, mention a price range,

a desired atmosphere. Residents can tell you what kind of foods the

area’s known for, what kinds of local ingredients are available now.

"Despite the urban myths about what can happen in kitchens,"

Hawkey says, "it’s all really customer service." Front of

the house — ambiance, wait staff, overall service — and back

of the house — food — are equally important, and both contribute

to a diner’s total experience, she insists, giving the example of

an area family restaurant she tried recently. "The food was just

average," she says, "but the service was unbelievably good."

And she’s sure people will come back to that place because of the

service, and the comfort it fostered, not because of the food. "Only

with the rare one percent of celebrity chefs, where they’re going

to come anyway," is the food the main draw, she believes.

The more the front and back of the house can "walk in each other’s

shoes," the more successful a place will be, Hawkey says. That’s

why she stresses the importance of culinary students knowing about

restaurant management, and vice versa.

Talk of food and the dining out experience probably leads inevitably

to the subject of tipping and the recent story in the press about

restaurants that provide, unsolicited, "gratuity guidelines"

— to the delight of some waiters and the chagrin of some diners

wishing to reserve the right to vote with their tips. Hawkey mentioned

the reason why tips are built in to the bill for six or more diners:

too often, otherwise, the resulting gratuities are inappropriate for

the work involved.

Hawkey sometimes takes "culinary vacations." Bound for New

Orleans, she asked chef-friends for tips about where and what to try.

Then, armed with a small notebook for impressions, she put in four

days of earnest eating — a classic case of "dirty work but

someone’s got to do it." And she still remembers the barbecued

shrimp. But variety isn’t necessarily the spice of life, or even necessary,

she says. Travelers who aren’t writing reviews or doing some kind

of food research don’t have to keep trying new places after finding

a winner. They only have to please themselves, she says. So, go ahead

— keep going back to that Cuban place with the flank steak special,

plantains, and the rice and beans like no other.

Now a corporate chef with Wakefern Food Corporation (Shop Rite), Hawkey

spends part of her time on the road as a consultant to the markets

where she’s needed in the food-to-go and meal-preparation areas, and

the rest of it at headquarters in Elizabeth. No longer in restaurant

food preparation, she enjoys cooking at home — and eating out.

Although she’s the first professional chef in her family, she says

both her mother and grandmother were excellent cooks. Her grandmother,

from Germany, made family members try everything, and in retrospect,

Hawkey knows that was good for her. A brother is in the food business

and a sister has worked as a baker.

Installed last month as president of the Professional Chef’s Guild

of Central New Jersey for the next two years, Hawkey presided over

a black-tie awards dinner at the Hyatt Princeton for more than 300

chefs, both guild members and visiting cooks, and their partners.

It included a cast-of-thousands program and sophisticated videos of

members who had been nominated for recognition. All this besides the

multi-course meal, fancifully described in the program booklet and

— as might be expected for such a clientele — masterfully

produced and served. A fine example of front of the house and back

of the house harmony.

— Pat Summers

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