One thing you won't learn from all the flowery coverage of celebrity chefdom is that chefs, by and large, are assholes. It may be a hard pill to swallow, but even behind the smile of elfin Bobby Flay and the bushy eyebrows of cuddly Emeril, there has to lie an egomaniacal wicked streak that's made many a cook cry.
This isn't criticism, it's fact. Chefs, by nature, must rule with an iron fist because, when left to their own devices, the cooks they oversee are lazy. Another thing you'd never know watching reruns of Martha Stewart Living or flipping through the pages of Gourmet is that cooking, as a profession, is a tough, sweaty, back-breaking gig. When a cook has no one checking his work, chances are he's going to start finding places to cut corners: not making things fresh daily, not regularly cleaning the bins where the food is stored. So when Bistro Lancaster at the Lancaster Hotel decided to let longtime executive chef Tommy Child go in July, it was effectively handing the keys to the inmates and letting them run the asylum.
The corner-cutting cooks have been serving the über-loyal clientele that frequents downtown's oldest luxury boutique hotel. And the patrons are none too pleased. Reports of bloody quail and bread so stale it isn't fit for birds have made their way onto the desk of Dish. Time to investigate.
A former Lancaster employee who wishes to remain anonymous (he wants to use the reference -- we understand) says things began to change shortly after the firing of chef Child, during the period when management was twiddling its thumbs about a replacement.
"For about a month we didn't even have a chef," he says. "It was total chaos."
Today's menu lists former sous chef Bobby Kesee as Bistro Lancaster's top dog.
"Well, after not having a chef for so long, he asked if he could give it a shot," says our source. "I think management didn't want to spend any extra money and decided to roll with it."
Lynda Graham, Lancaster's director of sales, says the company promotes from within whenever it can. Kesee is undergoing a performance evaluation, and his fate will be decided in January. In the meantime, he's considered a temporary chef.
And how's it working out?
Temporary chefs, like interim football coaches, are usually in charge of a team that's already quit. Anyone with the word "temporary" in his title won't exactly inspire change. It means corner-cutting utopia, and now is the worst time for a place like the Lancaster to allow for such a thing.
Over the last couple of years, a number of luxury boutique hotels have sprung up downtown to give the Lancaster a run for its money: the Sam Houston, the Magnolia, the Icon. Even the venerable favorite the Four Seasons had to renovate its outdated hotel restaurant, DeVille, and turn it into the fresh, sleek Quattro. These new properties have made the Lancaster, and more specifically its bistro menu, look like a dinosaur standing in the doorway of extinction. And poor execution of that menu by lazy cooks might be all it takes to push it across the threshold.
Graham puts it in perspective: "We update as needed. If there is a ripped chair, or if something needs to be touched up or improved, we get it done. We're a very traditional hotel; it's what our clientele expects."
So there are no plans for full-scale renovation to help the older Lancaster compete with the other hotels in the area?
"We don't use the words 'old' or 'older,' " says Graham. "We use the word 'traditional.' The bistro's dark green interior, for instance. It's very traditional and will most likely stay the same, yes."
So the interior will remain untouched. What about the food?
"It's regional cuisine and it is a Lancaster trademark," says Graham. "There are no plans to change it, either."
A recent lunchtime trip to the bistro found Dish grimacing over a smoked tomato bisque that tasted like a hickory tree (we think a little bit of the ole Liquid Smoke was used), setting aside the soggy-with-grease crawfish beignets and opting out of dessert after a cotton candy-sweet chicken entrée. And that bread. You could patch a flat tire with it.
Our source explains: "Yeah, we get lots of complaints about the bread. What happens is the morning crew cuts too much of it and we're never that busy."
There were 12 people in the dining room during Dish's midday visit.
"They cut tons of it and then leave it out for days, exposed to air."
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"If customers are complaining about the bread being stale and rubbery, then that is something I'll certainly look into," says Graham. "Obviously those are two words we'd like to eliminate from the vocabulary of our bistro. I'll bring it to the kitchen's attention, and we'll correct the problem. Thank you so much for notifying us of this."
Dinner was less painful. The empanada of pulled pork seasoned with cumin and chipotle was tasty enough, but at $10, it's a little pricey. And the portobello gratin was the best plate served during Dish's dance with the Lancaster. The weighty mushroom carried the crabmeat and creamed spinach well, but the sauce -- the age-old red-pepper coulis -- would have had Auguste Escoffier himself saying, "Man, that's an oldie."
The place simply needs new ideas and cooks willing to execute them. Much of the menu reads like a '70s-era cookbook: brown-sugar-infused greens, brandy demi-glace. If you don't like your meat with butternut squash whipped potatoes, you're out of luck, friend. Those fluffed critters accompany nearly half of Bistro Lancaster's entrées. Exactly half, if you eliminate the grilled vegetable lasagna, which comes to the table sans side. Dish was almost surprised to not find fondue on the menu.
Some advice for the Lancaster: Either hand Bobby Kesee the job this minute or sit down with half a dozen qualified candidates for the executive chef position. Whoever strikes you as the most arrogant, self-absorbed, no-nonsense straight shooter, hire him or her on the spot. Have the new chef put a moratorium on butternut squash, and you'll be just fine.