The purpose of Grouchy Chef, located in a converted industrial warehouse in Mukilteo, is to introduce fine dining to the masses by making it affordable to most. To cut costs, French trained (?) chef Masumoto works solo — he’s the chef, host, server, busser, and dishwasher — at his 25 seat restaurant. There are also rules — lots of them — some to introduce diners to fine dining etiquette, others to keep costs down. Chef is renown for his grouchiness when customers don’t follow the rules.
I arrived hoping to learn how to improve the efficiency of my own operations and to see how chef Masumoto deconstructs fine dining down to its essentials. If we define “fine dining” as a special event, an elegantly theatrical experience where the food, service, and ambiance is extraordinary (but not necessarily innovative), then affordable no-frills fine dining is an oxymoron, or at least conceptually and pragmatically problematic. Something that’s typically associated with fine dining has to go — “will it be the long winded descriptions of each course, the theatrics, the fine china?” — I wondered as we approached his nondescript storefront. By the end of the meal, I left puzzled with many of Masumoto’s decisions.
Baroque and classical era music (the 80s of fine dining music). Simple, dark, clean interior design more reminiscent of a hip bistro than, say, the Georgian spendor at Herbfarm or the colonial revival at Rover’s. There’s candlelight. Soda, including Dr. Pepper, is offered in a can, which is left on the table, sharing space with heavy (and obnoxious) fancy goblets and fine china. No toasting because the goblets are expensive. Plastic over expensive white table cloth. Don’t wipe your mouth with the cloth napkin, use the paper one. Minestrone as soup course. Plastic menus. Limited service, don’t ask the chef/server any questions, because he’s busy and we’re trying to keep costs down so more people can experience fine dining. Let’s review some of these.
Masumoto scales back on fine dining service — customer pours own water and orders at the counter, limits questions about food and wine, and doesn’t hear (long-winded) descriptions of dish and ingredients (that few ever remember, it’s like listening to a porn star describe in detail his cock before fornicating). Pouring water for customers is an odd Western habit that promotes barbaric and feudalistic behavior and increases foot traffic for no good reason, so I’m all for getting rid of that custom in all restaurants (I’ll explain in another post). Ordering at the counter is a minor interruption of the meal. Not a big deal, it’s like having to take a quick dump during a meal. Dish and ingredient descriptions are essential, listening to them is not. Masumoto could’ve provided written descriptions for customers to read at leisure, like what they do for oyster orders at Brooklyn Seafood. We need know to why the food is extra-ordinary, a break from everyday life, “fine dining” special. If we don’t know why fine dining is what it is, some may think of fine dining as an irrelevant and exorbitant gimmick (sometimes it is), meant to trick the gullible into paying premium prices for the same shit served everywhere else (sometimes that’s the case). It’s not unreasonable to devote more effort to the educational part of the experience so he can better communicate his belief that fine dining is relevant and worthwhile. I left without a good sense of Masumoto’s food philosophy, how it can change our lives.
The food was solid — we had the leg of lamb w shrimp mashed potatoes ($17), duck breast w/idontremember ($24) — but not fine dining special, was uninspiring, and some of the contrasts didn’t make sense (candied carrot w/sweet duck sauce). Meal started with soup. Don’t think it’s appropriate to serve something as homespun as minestrone as a fine dining course. It doesn’t take that much more time to make a blended soup w/garnish. Second course, salad of mixed greens and fruit, was likely made an hour or two prior to opening and placed in a fridge, plate included. Tasted fine but the slightly frosted plate made the salad look prepackaged, not garden fresh. I’m fine with prepping the salad before opening, but it shouldn’t take much effort to arrange it during the meal. No comment on dessert, which was an assortment of small sorbets and cakes. Desserts are almost always too sweet for my palate. Oh, and the bread, which came wrapped in saran and was microwaved warm. That’s bizarre.
Atmosphere was a mixture of comedy (some coming in looked terrified and we thought one woman was going to cry as Chef Grouchy sternly explained the reservation policy she’d unknowingly violated) and surreal seriousness. Vibe felt serious yet I couldn’t take anything seriously. It was one of the most jarring, dream-like dining experiences ever.
Grouchy Chef is a good place for those seeking solid, boring, bistro style French-American food and maybe some entertainment. Unfortunately, Grouchy adds nothing to debates about the relevancy of fine dining and at times, emphasizes what I consider some of the more superficial aspects of fine dining (fancy goblets). For Masumoto, it seems, fine dining is just a series of rules and rituals that teach orderly and civil behavior, and less about extra-ordinary food or giving people an opportunity to experience something different, something special (unless his theatrics is the primary experience).
I think it’s possible for Masumoto to make fine dining more accessible without sacrificing what I consider its essential components. To begin with, he could hire a server-host so he can devote more time to food. The current system has customers paying for their meal up front, making it awkward to ask for an additional bottle of wine or sparkling water. Having a server who excels at sales would not increase menu prices because the server would be able to generate more than enough sales to pay for his/her salary. With better food and less harried service, Grouchy Chef may become better known for extraordinary food and novel vision than his (unintentional?) gimmick, his cult of personality.