March 25, 2011

Chicory journey part III: Cafe Du Monde and open kitchens

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Rolando and I started our day with coffee and beignet at Cafe Du Monde. This place is very well known, sort of a landmark in New Orleans. The place is built for seriously high volumes. I’m always on the lookout when traveling for high volume operations. There are very unique problems that arise when you’re forced to push your service volumes and I love seeing creative solutions.

This is sort of a non-Chicory aside: you might think of a place like Subway as high volume, but take a peek at their processing speed. They get 1 customer every 40-60 seconds max. That’s 1-1.5 customers/ minute. A place like Du Monde probably serves more like 10 customers/ minute at peak, maybe higher. That’s a massive difference. Peak at Du Monde might serve as many customers in 10 minutes as Subway would serve in 1.5 hours. It takes a special place to pull that off and the operations usually evolve over many years.

Check the technique in the picture above. This guy was actually pretty sloppy. He was replaced 3 minutes after this picture was taken by somebody much more skilled. Probably because the restaurant was starting to fill up. It’s a bit hard to see but on the left is a conveyor belt, then the dough is stamped by that drum, and this guy tosses the squares into hot oil.

Two more things before I close this chapter: (1) notice that the guy is frying these on site. When was the last time you saw donuts being fried at your favorite donut joint? (2) I have a picture of the full operation. Why is that? Kitchens were open EVERYWHERE in New Orleans. It was amazing to me. Obviously we work really hard to make sure you can see the food we’re making. I always thought of that approach as new and forward looking. Now all of a sudden I feel like a throwback!

I have a theory for the food scholars out there. I see amazing food in New Orleans everywhere, at all price points. Made on the spot. In an open environment. People there love their food. I talk to people here in the Northeast and they are telling me that they love everything about Clover EXCEPT the open kitchen. They think it’s gross to see food being prepared. “The best restaurants in the world keep their kitchens completely hidden. Nobody wants to see what happens back there.”

I suspect that the architecture of kitchens is culturally driven. The more afraid of food people are the more they want it hidden. I think having food made from scratch and having it visible and transparent are linked by some deep cultural attitudes.

So are we going to change attitudes here in Boston? I’m not sure. It’s sort of intimidating to think about it that way. Much easier to work with people as they are than to try to make them change.

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