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Wednesday, August 2, 2006
Restaurants can be tumultuous places, and it's not just water boiling on the stove. Steve Bailey's story today in the Business section about chef Lydia Shire's $1.2 million-dollar suit for age discrimination against Excelsior owner and developer Ken Himmel is certainly a case in point.
The "he said, she said" details are outlined in the depositions and will be argued in court. But the underlying tension between creativity and containing costs to make money is a constant in any restaurant. Shire's genius at Biba when it was flying high, with Susan Regis as her collaborator, could be tasted on every plate. The food astonished you (although sometimes the service could do that, too -- less pleasantly). Whether the plates of offal, the tiny suckling pigs, the rich-as-could-be foie gras were cost-effective hardly seem to fit into the picture. Shire was always known for extravagance.
That tends not to be the model anymore. You can go into many a fine-dining restaurant and know pretty much what you're going to get -- especially those set up on a steak-house system -- and be confident you'll get the same quality and about the same flavors time after time.
Consistency can be good, and the better-financed restaurants are usually smoothly run these days. But don't we sometimes also miss those surprises?