Breaking Down the Food Chain

An analytical look at Grub Street's chef's pick feature.
Fried-oyster omelette at Prune.

Arthur Bovino

Fried-oyster omelette at Prune.

When it comes to pursuing the country's best food, or unearthing the next trend, writers often turn to chefs. The questions are familiar. Where are you eating? What are you eating? What do you eat when you’re alone? What’s your favorite restaurant right now? All-time? Or, no matter how many times you’ve eaten it, what dish do you always crave? These questions sometimes lead to interesting answers. But as the saying goes: show me, don't tell me. That’s one of the reasons why the Food Chain on Grub Street is a feature any food writer has to wish they thought of themselves.

If you’re not familiar with the Food Chain, it’s a regular feature that with each installment, highlights one dish that a chef recently enjoyed courtesy of another chef. In its own words:

One of the many pleasures of being a chef is, of course, the eating — and you can be sure that the gurus of gastronomy are, in their off hours, enjoying some of the most delectable dishes around (besides whatever's coming out of their own kitchens). Thus we bring you the Food Chain, wherein one chef tells us about a dish they enjoyed recently courtesy of another chef, and then that second chef tells us about a dish they enjoyed courtesy of yet another chef... and so on and so forth. You get the idea. So let's start spreading the love.

The feature was an idea hatched by Grub Street editor, Daniel Maurer. It kicked off in New York at Aureole in July 2009, with Charlie Palmer who described Chef Jason Berthold’s duck cassoulet at RN74 as “flawless.” That word could almost be used to describe the Food Chain feature too. Simple. Informative. Declarative. Even better? Self-perpetuating and democratic. These are chefs' picks, not those of an editor.

A Year in the Food Chain

More than a year has passed since the Food Chain premiered. There have been 60 posts. Sixty chefs across the country named dishes they enjoyed at their peers’ restaurants (61 technically, if you count the Torrisi guys separately, this count didn't). There were only two breaks in the chain, one at O Sandwiches in Philadelphia (which seems to have closed), the other at Tanuki Sushi in San Francisco after the feature spent several weeks in Japantown. In those two cases, an editor rebooted the chain. But at one point there was an unbroken streak of 43 dishes in a row selected by chefs.

That’s some impressive determination by Grub Street's staff in following up on chefs to make sure the feature happens regularly. For the most part it has been authored in pairs, by about eight different writers, with Helen Rosner having the most frequent involvement. It also demonstrates laudable cooperation on the parts of the chefs. (Apparently, Philly is the place to reboot—Zahav's Michael Solomonov kicked the feature off again in September after another break in the chain).

Among the dishes that have been highlighted are classics and innovations. The 'big ass' pork plate, stewed tripe hero, sautéed spinach, chili and bones, boudin blanc, the list goes on. It’s a veritable checklist of must-try dishes. A collection of some of the country’s most well-respected restaurants, and some of the nation’s best food.

Or is it? On one hand, it most definitely is. April Bloomfield, the Torrisi guys, Grant Achatz, Daniel Boulud, Tom Colicchio, Masa Takayama, they’ve all weighed in, among many more of today’s hottest chefs. But when you start to look at a year’s sampling, this declarative feature starts saying interesting things. Taking a Talmudic approach to it creates a quasi culinary census.

Without making the kind of declarations that might draw disapproval from Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, a look at a statistical breakdown of data in the Food Chain provides anecdotal information that raises interesting questions.
 

Most Popular Cities: Miami, New Orleans, DC...Where?

Restaurants whose dishes have been chosen from chef to chef.

Will it surprise anyone that New York’s restaurants monopolize the feature? Out of 60 restaurants whose dishes were featured, almost half were in New York (24). Second and third places? San Francisco (11) and Los Angeles (9). How about the fact that restaurants broke down East and West Coast, 31 to 24? Well, a major food event was kind of just predicated on that. But it's interesting that Chicago and Philly tied (5), with Oakland landing on the radar (3), in fact besting Boston, though barely (2).

On a more myopic level, looking at neighborhoods, it's not suprising that the East Village was at the top of the list of New York neighborhoods whose restaurants' dishes were most often mentioned (4 times). But it is interesting that the Upper West Side tied it, and that's minus Midtown West and the Theatre District. Similarly, in San Francisco, the Richmond? With its taquerias and restaurants mixed in that people have been raving about, like Range, the Mission isn't surprising. And sure, ever since South Food and Wine opened (and closed), SOMA has been developing, but is there more to make out of the Richmond showing up twice?

To look at this from a wider frame, you would expect Chicago, Philly, and Boston to get love. And it's great Oakland was represented. But there's a remarkably low number of cities the chefs have chosen. Sure, chefs are on circuits for events and appearances, they work six to seven day weeks, and 12-to-16-hour days, with few vacations. So a little home-cooking in their own cities makes sense. Chefs in New York named other dishes in New York 10 times. In San Francisco, chefs named other San Fran places four times. And maybe some chefs named dishes made by friends, no harm in that. Still, it's a little surprising, no love for Miami? New Orleans? DC? Atlanta? Seattle? Dallas?

"Hold on a second," you want to say, "You hear chefs grumble about the media being focused on the big cities-- well, Chefs, there's good food out there beyond New York and Cali!" But this isn't actually their fault. According to Grub Street's editor, Daniel Maurer,  "Basically, while we give the chefs free reign to pick the dish, we do ask them to pick a restaurant within one of our markets (New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles)."

So the Food Chain isn't completely democratic. "I told you!" some chef in New Orleans or Houston is saying. Still, it's pretty cool.
 

Cuisine: Bye-Bye, Banh Mi?

European and 'American' cuisines reigned with fair equanimity, 22 and 17 restaurants, respectively. Fairly equal too were other expected cuisines, Asian (11), Italian (11), French (9), and Japanese (8). But with all the love for pho, banh mi, tacos and tapas, you'd expect to have maybe seen more Vietnamese, Mexican and Spanish restaurants noted by the chefs.
 

Notable Food Categories: The Rise of...the Vegetable?

Which was more popular, salads or pizza? Pastas or burgers? Doughnuts or vegetables? Breakfast or sushi? Turns out, these chefs were most interested in pasta...and vegetables. That's right, vegetables. Sautéed spinach, pear and escarole salad, beets, tiny vegetables-- dishes categorized by vegetables were at the top of the list (6). Burgers may be something many chefs feel the need to have on their menu, but on this list of dishes it was in the middle of the pack (3), just ahead of pizza, breakfast, tacos and dumplings, each mentioned twice. The less-glorified sandwich? Five mentions. Be on the lookout out for high-end sandwiches.
 

Room for Dessert? Order Another Entrée

Not to put down pastry, but desserts? Not high on this list. Out of 60 mentions, there was one featured dessert-- the marriage of two trends that just don't quit: the bacon doughnuts at Traif in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Entrées edged out appetizers 30 to 23.
 

Most Popular Central Ingredients

What would you have thought would have been the central ingredient most mentioned? Pork, right? Wrong. It’s seafood, 18 to 12. Bacon tastes good. Pork chops taste good. But could it be that given the chance, chefs actually prefer to order dishes like seafood salad, fried oysters, and grilled toro? And which was more the more frequent ingredient, tofu or truffles? They were both only mentioned twice. Potatoes killed lamb, four to one. Beef tied with eggs (7), and offal was just as popular as chicken (6).

Gender

Of the 60 dishes, 51 came from kitchens run by male chefs. Guys referred to other guys' dishes 44 of 60 times. Only seven female chefs’ dishes were mentioned. Should anything be read into that? Well, there is a lot more good food being made by female chefs than 12% would indicate. Just saying.
 

Conclusion

What does it mean? What to glean? Perhaps seafood is the next bacon. Maybe burgers are over. Maybe chefs are just as guilty for focusing on the coasts as anyone else. Two things are certain. It will be interesting to see what year two of Grub Street's feature brings. Two? To paraphrase Otis Redding, that's the sound of this man, reading a lot into the Food Chain, gang, huh?

Molly Aronica contributed reporting for this article.

Click here to follow the Food Chain dish-by-dish, and to feast on the stats.