It's Waste Not, Want Less for Some Chefs

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

At Colorado Kitchen these days, Gillian Clark winces when she drops an egg. Who could blame her? When the chef opened her neighborhood American restaurant in Brightwood Park seven years ago, eggs sold wholesale for $13 a case. Now a case goes for $32.50.

You won't find foie gras on the menu at downtown's Equinox anymore, and it's not because chef-owner Todd Gray has lost his taste for the delicacy. Rather, "cutbacks on entertainment dollars" by his upscale clientele spurred the duck liver's disappearing act, he says.

About a month ago, Robert Weland noticed that his customers at Poste Moderne Brasserie in Penn Quarter were ordering fewer appetizers and desserts, and that requests for the restaurant's private party rooms -- typically booked months ahead for end-of-the-year holidays -- were not forthcoming.

"It would be extremely hard to open a brand-new restaurant" right now, figures John Manolatos, the chef-owner at the 13-year-old Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan. He says he has watched his dinner-check average drop from about $65 to $50 a person in the past year. Weekends are as crowded as ever, though he thinks some of those diners are regulars who used to come midweek as well.

Along with gas prices and home sales, the behavior of restaurants and their patrons provides a good measure of how consumers feel about the economy. Interviews with a dozen Washington chefs paint a picture that includes gray skies -- lunch business is down, food costs are soaring, regulars are less regular -- but also clever recipes for riding out any storm.

Cooks have always been taught to minimize waste and create new uses for leftovers in the kitchen. But local chefs say they're being extra-vigilant and super-frugal these days. The mantra of chef R.J. Cooper at the Southern-themed Vidalia downtown is "Watch for waste" -- and he does, down to the smallest detail. The ends of chives are saved for salad decoration. And any leftover butter rolls are ground up to make crumbs, so there's no need to buy the costlier panko (Japanese breading). Staff meals might incorporate even the ends of house-made pasta.

Vidalia has lots of company in the savings department. When Kaz Okochi noticed one of his staff tossing the bones plucked from a fillet of Japanese snapper, the chef at Kaz Sushi Bistro downtown reminded him that they make a nice snack when lightly salted and warmed in the oven. The spreads that show up in lieu of butter with the bread basket at the 35-seat Mark and Orlando's in Dupont Circle give new life to apple, beet and other scraps, says chef and co-owner Orlando Hitzig.

Among other secret weapons in Hitzig's arsenal of budget boosters: liver. The organ meat goes for a little over $5 a pound, and the chef says he can get 20 orders from 10 pounds of the stuff -- and turn around and sell the leftovers in say, liver mousse. "Utilization is the key to staying alive in this business," he says.

At the same time, says Clark of Colorado Kitchen, "if I see something I want, I'll do it." She recently shelled out $80 for five pounds of ramps, the prized wild onion with a short season. "I couldn't resist," she says of the treasures, which were picked by hand in West Virginia. "But I clean them carefully. I trim them carefully."

Indeed, eager to preserve their images, restaurants are reluctant to withhold popular foodstuffs (Vidalia is keeping purple asparagus, which wholesales for $60 for 11 pounds) or pare back in an obvious way. But at a time when "every dollar counts," says Gray of Equinox, "we've got to be creative."

Labor is one of the most expensive ingredients in a restaurant. Workers are also an easier cost to manage than food. That's why three prep and dishwashing staffers are doing the work of four at Equinox and why James Alefantis, the co-owner of the arty Buck's Fishing & Camping and Comet Ping Pong in upper Northwest Washington, can be seen playing host more often in his restaurants.

Not all the news is sour. Chefs say they continue to do robust business on weekends. And among the beneficiaries of what some are calling a recession are neighborhood eateries. "Business has gone up in the last two months," reports Hitzig. Two months ago, he recalls selling an average of $800 of food and drink at dinner on a Monday. More recently, that work-night figure has shot up to $2,500 -- and Hitzig is considering adding a line cook to help him out.

Sales are also up, by 12 percent, from last year at Stoney's in Logan Circle, an increase that owner Tony Harris attributes to a "quick and cheap menu" featuring burgers and pizza. The restaurateur recently raised the prices of several items by a quarter or 50 cents to absorb his increased costs, which include $6 diesel fuel charges on invoices from his food deliverers.

Some chefs see a happy ending to the story: the presidential election in November. Regardless of who wins, says Gray, echoing a few of his peers, "a change of administration" -- and with it, an infusion of hungry newcomers -- "always helps restaurants."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company