It's an old story, as familiar as Pinocchio: the innocent tempted by the city slicker. Only in this case, the innocent is a perfectionist midwestern chef and the city slicker a California dude with a computer.
The chef: Jimmy Schmidt, boyish-looking even with his sandy beard, who quietly and steadily built a national reputation over eight years at Detroit's London Chop House. The Californian: Michael McCarty, with slicked-back black hair and precision-casual white suits, the voluble and visible proprietor of Michael's of Santa Monica, which vies as one of the snazziest restaurants in the Los Angeles area. The plot: The two protagonists open a restaurant in Denver, the Rattlesnake Club, that immediately wins every critical star -- or fork -- the restaurant critics of that city have to give.
As McCarty put it (modesty not being in his repertoire), this was the first time two people "of the stature of Jimmy and me got together to do something in the food business." There they are, in the mile-high city, in a $3 million restaurant that opened last winter with 280 seats and plans for a 200-seat banquet room. Which is just a start; the Rattlesnake Club in Denver is merely the prototype for what might be the most glitzy chain of restaurants ever. The New York Rattlesnake Club next spring; Newport, Calif., after that; then spreading further. "This is not just a little restaurant," explained McCarty. "It is actually a big business."
It's all done with computers. The one at the Rattlesnake Club has 16 terminals and can instantly produce menus, training manuals, payroll, inventory. Computer sounds form background music all day long.
Schmidt had to learn to operate the computer, but was already comfortable with high-volume cooking at the London Chop House, which has 180 seats. "None of the other chefs in our category are as used to doing it high volume ," claimed McCarty. To Schmidt, higher volume is merely a matter of organization. The more people you are serving, the longer the line of equipment you need in the kitchen.
And, "You have to have a lot of firepower." The hood over the powerful range in the Rattlesnake Club's kitchen is 32 feet long. The dining room cooperates by filling only 10 new tables each half hour. The way he has it set up, said Schmidt, the kitchen can "just cruise" with 340 diners.
It would seem a big leap from running one large restaurant exquisitely to running several restaurants simultaneously, but McCarty considers it a breeze. After all, he said, sous chefs always go off to start their own restaurants anyway; Michael's spawned 11 restaurants by his count. Now they can do it and still stay with the Rattlesnake Club.
It's all in the system, says McCarty, the key being what he calls "total management structure."
McCarty is high on systems, and loves to create a vocabulary that turns them into theater. He talks of the Rattlesnake Club's downstairs bar as a "holding pattern" for the dining room upstairs. He speaks of "state-of-the-art food", and calls banquets "power food." As for the name of the restaurant, it was meant to be a catchy one, with no definition, that would work in many cities.
McCarty talks of people as "raw wood blocks, and we sculpt them." Schmidt adds that you have to start with talented people.
"It's like developing the software for a computer," elaborates McCarty. Once the kitchen is programmed, develop the software and then duplicate it elsewhere. The chef no longer needs to be in the kitchen. "I am the chef of Michael's," he declared by way of illustration. At the moment he was sitting in the Rattlesnake Club in Denver. "It's a real '80s way to open a restaurant."
Later, away from the computers and systems talk, Schmidt demurred a bit. "I cook every day. My first love is cooking."
And once you get past the toys of the trade, you see that the food is very important at the Rattlesnake Club. The chickens are flown in from Sonoma, Calif.; the veal from Summerfield Farms in Virginia; the beef from Chicago. Not only is the beef aged in-house, the lamb is, too. The kitchen stocks fresh crayfish, snails, lobsters, mahi mahi and soft-shell crabs. Every portion of vegetables is cooked to order; the steam table now holds only ice and watercress. The rolls are homemade, and so are the blue corn tortillas and tamales.
It is food of a high order of inventiveness. Downstairs in the grill, the tastes are Southwestern. The blue corn tortillas are crisped and topped with fresh morels and bucheron cheese for the world's most luxurious nachos. Tortillas are filled with superb grilled beef rubbed with dry spices; or you can get lamb tortillas with fresh cactus.
Upstairs, where the silver is Cristofle and the prices are higher (figure more than $50 a person for dinner), the style is more subtle. "All the sauces are built off emulsions," said Schmidt; no starches are used. The plates are works of art; Schmidt's aim is "clean presentation so the food doesn't look handled."
Appetizers run to ragout of fresh snails with black beans and fennel, salad of fried oysters with spinach wilted by a sharp pepper dressing. There are the still-trendy liver with raspberry vinegar and roast duck with figs, along with more original swordfish with ginger and grapefruit, and lamb with artichokes in a vibrant peppery sauce mellowed by sherry.
No less sumptuous are the side dishes, the likes of sweet potato gratin. Then there are desserts such as Schmidt's now famous white chocolate ravioli, blini made from genoise, Szechuan peppercorn and ginger ice cream with fried bananas.
It is a restaurant with decor as important as the food. An old brewery, it has retained the giant copper vats in the 25-foot-high dining rooms connected by a glass elevator. The floors are marble inlaid with tiles, the furniture is upholstered in fine leathers and Missoni textiles. The old brewery walls are stripped, left bare and shellacked in a haute mineshaft look, hung with a collection of 39 works of major artists (all kept up-to-date on the computer). Each future Rattlesnake Club, said McCarty, is going to be "architecturally unique and have an important art collection."
The forces of lite continue to make inroads. Now it's lite chocolate chip cookies made by David's (30 percent less sugar and 15 percent less butter) and Bertolli's Extra Light olive oil, from the first cold pressing of the olives. That one sounds like paying more for less taste, as with maple syrup, where the lower the grade, the more intense the flavor.
Nearly 96 percent of American households now eat pizza, says a recent "Pizza Study." A few of them eat Chinese food at the same time. Chef Tong, in Santa Cruz, Calif., makes Chinese pizza with a choice of sauces (kung pao, szechwan, sweet-and-sour or such) and toppings including zucchini (it is California, after all), water chestnuts, pineapple, baby corn, snow peas, raisins, barbecued pork or black mushrooms.
RATTLESNAKE CLUB GRATIN OF ROOT VEGETABLES (8 servings)
1 pound baking potatoes, peeled
1 pound yams, peeled
2 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup chives, chopped
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
Slice potatoes to thickness of potato chips. Repeat with yams. Rub an 8-by-8-by-2-inch baking dish with butter. Combine cream, salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Cover bottom of baking dish with a single layer of potatoes, slightly overlapping. Sprinkle cream mixture lightly over potatoes. Repeat with yams. Sprinkle layer of chives and parmesan. Repeat procedure until assembled. Cover pan with aluminum foil, dull side out.
Bake at 350 degrees on lower rack for 25 minutes. Remove foil. Continue baking until brown, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Remove to cake rack to cool slightly. With a sharp knife, cut into portions and serve.