Linda Guitard has been visiting the same family restaurant since she was a child in the 1970s. Formerly known as Rôtisserie Laurier BBQ, the aging Outremont district landmark was her favourite spot for a comforting meal of chicken, French fries and gravy.
So when British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay reopened her beloved neighbourhood joint as the newly remodelled Laurier Gordon Ramsay last week, Ms. Guitard was unimpressed.
“I was really sad about it,” she said, explaining that the big-name chef’s involvement takes away from the intimate connection she felt with the place.
As one of the many curious, long-time customers testing out Laurier Gordon Ramsay over the weekend, Ms. Guitard acknowledged the newly renovated farmhouse-style dining room looked fresh and bright, and the roast chicken tasted just as she remembered it. But she was neither sold on Mr. Ramsay’s lighter, thinner gravy, nor the restaurant’s slicker, worldlier brand image. She was doubtful she would remain a regular.
Mr. Ramsay, the famously fiery star of TV’s Kitchen Nightmares and Hell’s Kitchen, will need to win over locals like Ms. Guitard.
His new outpost faced a hiccup on opening night when a malfunctioning sprinkler in the kitchen forced diners to vacate the restaurant until the following evening. But observers say the restaurant has yet to face its greatest challenge: to keep diners coming back after the initial hype subsides.
Gone are the days when the star power of an internationally renowned chef all but guaranteed a restaurant’s success. Acclaimed chefs – even those such as Mr. Ramsay, with multiple Michelin stars to his name – are facing new hurdles when expanding their empires.
Diners are savvier than ever, cash-conscious business partners are more reluctant to give famous chefs carte blanche, and chefs face more competition than in previous decades, says Steve Dolinsky, a Chicago-based food reporter and an academy chairman for the S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, a prestigious ranking of international restaurants.
Culinary trends have also shifted in favour of local, artisanal food, forcing international chefs to work harder to build ties with local purveyors, farmers and producers.
“I think customers will only buy into a brand so much,” Mr. Dolinsky says. “People work hard for their money. They don’t just want to blow it on a celebrity chef’s name.”
Over the past decade, the number of restaurants backed by famous chefs has proliferated around the globe, from London to Dubai. The boom notablytransformed Las Vegas’s culinary scene, as recognized chefs such as Joël Robuchon, Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali and Bobby Flay, flocked to the city, turning it into a destination for luxury dining.
But Las Vegas’s gourmet heyday didn’t last long. Over the past three years, the restaurants of star chefs haven’t been drawing in high-rolling customers like they used to. Mr. Boulud closed his Las Vegas brasserie in 2010 . Star chef Charlie Trotter closed his two restaurants, Restaurant Charlie and Bar Charlie, last year as well. And award-winning chef Alessandro Stratta shuttered his fine-dining establishment Alex, earlier this year. Now that several big-name international chefs are hanging their shingles in Canada (Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened Market in Vancouver in 2009, Scott Conant opened Scarpetta in Toronto in 2010, David Chang will open two Toronto restaurants in 2012, and, after two short-lived restaurants in Vancouver, Mr. Boulud plans to open in Montreal in 2012), Mr. Dolinsky says they could learn from the mistakes made in Las Vegas and in other major cities.
While the recession no doubt contributed to the decline, Las Vegas also experienced what The New York Times dubbed “fabulousness fatigue,” the resulting indifference to the convergence of too many famous chefs in one market.
Mr. Dolinsky says the most serious error chefs made in Las Vegas is neglecting their outposts. Upon opening there, many signed contracts with the hotels or casinos in which they operated, which required the chefs’ presence for the first year of business. Once that first year was up, he says, a lot of chefs retreated to their respective home bases, returning to Las Vegas only to make a rare appearance or attend the odd media event.
“If you’re not there minding the stove, customers realize that,” Mr. Dolinsky says, noting that some casino owners have since begun insisting that chefs make greater financial investments, whether by purchasing their own equipment or by splitting profits based on achieving sales targets, so they have more incentive to stick around.
He wonders how closely Mr. Ramsay will keep tabs on his Montreal operation. Within the past five years, Mr. Ramsay has closed several locations in Britain, Cape Town and Prague.
“I’ve seen Gordon Ramsay open up places around the world and I just shrug it off because who knows how long they’ll be there?” Mr. Dolinsky says.
In a thriving food city like Montreal, the entry of two international chefs, Mr. Ramsay and Mr. Boulud, won’t likely elevate the already high level of cuisine, says Marie-Claude Lortie, columnist and food critic for Montreal’s La Presse newspaper. But they will provide opportunities for local chefs to gain valuable experience, and offer a familiar jumping-off point, from which visitors can explore the city’s gastronomy.
“If you’re a tourist … you have no idea what you will find in Montreal, and you see [restaurants by]Daniel Boulud and Gordon Ramsay, well, at least that’s a start,” Ms. Lortie says.
Yet appealing to tourists isn’t enough to keep seats filled throughout the week. Mr. Boulud’s Vancouver restaurants failed to thrive because their concepts and menus seemed imported from elsewhere, which didn’t connect well with local diners, says Lee Man, who writes about food for Vancouver magazine.
“I don’t think Daniel Boulud did make himself part of the city,” he adds.
Mr. Dolinsky says when opening new locations, the shrewdest big-name chefs get involved in local charities and community events to win over residents.
Canada’s top international chef Susur Lee, who operates restaurants in Toronto, Singapore, New York and Washington, D.C., says he tweaks the menus of each of his locations to appeal to locals. At his Zentan restaurant in Washington, for instance, he tailors his food to the capital’s power-lunch crowd.
As he’s discovered, what works in one city doesn’t necessarily work elsewhere. Mr. Lee says he initially struggled in New York because he opened Shang restaurant there just as the U.S. economy entered the recession.
Mr. Lee, however, says he’s looking to expand further, with possibly another venture in New York, as well as one in Miami, and another in Toronto. As important as it is to frequently visit his various locations (Mr. Lee travels to each about once or twicea month), he suggests there’s another less tangible factor that determines an international chef’s success in a given location: whether a city’s underlying culture jibes with the chef’s personality and style. It’s perhaps the reason why a fusion chef such as Mr. Vongerichten seems to connect with the Pacific West Coast tastes of Vancouver, and why Mr. Ramsay’s humble rotisserie venture seems odd to some Montrealers.
For his part, Mr. Lee says he imagines a Miami restaurant could work for him because the city has a flamboyant, spicy culture, and he’s a spicy kind of guy. “If you think of my food, putting it in the North Pole, I don’t think that would be a good idea.”