Power in the restaurant world is the ability to shape one of the most meaningful ways people come together in public space. It is the capacity to transform neighborhoods, even entire cities. It means deciding not just who gets to be in the room, but where the room is and what the room is all about.
In New York, power is building empires and running the hottest restaurants with the most coveted seats — the ones that diners wait hours to snag, the ones that awe friends and astonish colleagues. It’s deciding what people will eat, creating dishes so moving that their techniques and flavors inspire copycats across the country. It’s sheer, unrelenting visibility: winning award after award, popping up every time someone turns on the TV, endorsing an endless parade of products.
And perhaps inevitably, power in the restaurant industry has led to exploitation and even violence: Restaurants are notorious for sexual harassment, wage theft, and brutal working conditions, yet for years, an auteur with sufficient skill in the kitchen could charm it all away.
But who gets to wield power, and how, is changing, if slowly. Hospitality workers — mostly women — revealed the ugly side of chef glorification with MeToo, unmasking alleged systemic sexual misconduct by some of the industry’s most esteemed leaders, and passionate labor activists are slowly convincing the public that restaurant employees deserve better. The conspicuously ethical consumer, who expects both humanely farmed chicken and humanely treated employees, is louder, more demanding, and more influential than ever. The era of the celebrity god-chef is over.
In this issue, Eater New York considers power in the restaurant industry in its many forms, from the rise in hyper-exclusive restaurants where the wealthy have further sequestered themselves to how butcher icon Pat LaFrieda changed the way the city looks at meat. The often-anonymous movers and shakers who whisper in the ears of industry titans speak out, and the establishment — chefs and empire builders like David Chang, Andrew Tarlow, and Stephen Starr — discuss the foundation they’ve laid for dining in New York right now and gauge what will come after they’re gone.
Finally, meet the new guard that’s setting the stage for the future of New York dining. These chefs and restaurateurs show that in a crowded market of talented operators, diners now define excellence by more than brilliant food and inventive service. It’s about shared experiences. It’s about mission. Most of all, it’s about community.
The list of who has power is growing, and under new rules of engagement. In New York magazine’s December 1968 “The Power Game” issue, Goodfellas co-writer Nicholas Pileggi said of political sway: “Power, in fact, is held by so many people in New York that no one man or visible combination of men can actually control the whole city.” That’s New York, and that’s the way it should be.