After spending 15 cumulative years in what I’ve called the most harrowing industry in two demanding dining cities (Chicago and New York City), here’s a behind-the-scenes comparison on the joys and glamour of operating in both towns.
Obviously expenses make entering the New York City market formidable. For example, water, which is free in Chicago, is more than triple our linen expenses in NYC (and our lead chef’s salary!). Rents are three-fold and every input costs 20-30 percent more. Salaries are justifiably that much higher, too. While costs merit it, charging three times the price for a dish or drink is infeasible. So it’s a constant cost-cutting and margin-watching game, and if you’re not careful, you’re drowning in the red before you can say “steak.”
Little things pose ridiculous obstacles in New York City. For instance, we share a Dumpster and have only the 2 a.m. window to dispose of our trash. In Chicago, having three dedicated Dumpsters in our back alley with constant access is luxurious. With no back alleys and street-level deliveries verboten (those would tarnish our glitzy midtown building image), every drop-off in New York City is our manager’s nightmare, coordinating loading docks and elevator permits — all billed to us, of course.
Even though restaurants are notoriously difficult for building a good team, this is far harder in New York City. We’ve had managers indicted for stealing (sent to jail by us), managers whose breath could start a fire (alcohol fumes) and one manager who functioned only with his left profile (an aspiring model). Retention of non-managerial employees is also fundamentally more difficult in NYC, where almost everyone is an aspiring Broadway or television star. In Chicago, our core team has been with us since our inception more than 10 years ago.
On licenses and permits: New York City has the dreaded twice-a-year health inspection — every restaurateur’s nightmare, with grades posted publicly. Violations can be arcane: Kitchen implements in use can’t be in the sink or on a clean cutting board, but in a stream of constantly running water (remember that water bill?). You’re fined heavily for each violation point, plus your manager spends a day in court for every inspection to justify your case. In contrast, our Chicago health inspection is annual, with no fines or courts, and our kitchen is equally clean. Our Public Assembly renewal in New York City was a multi-year runaround. In Chicago, we renew all our permits online with the click of a button.
Even though New York City has a vibrant, unparalleled dining scene from haute to street, food critics exhibit a xenophobic “not made in New York” syndrome. As Japonais Chicago can attest, being a Chicago import can be a death knell — they closed after three years of unrelenting nagging (“Is this how they do it in Chicago?”). Vermilion Chicago opened to warmth and acclaim: “Best New Restaurant” from Town & Country, Travel & Leisure, Bon Appetit, Chicago magazine and others. In contrast, New York City gave us a chilly reception: The New York Times’ Dining Journal declared our food bland and unsustainable; Eater “death watched” us; Village Voice, Gothamist and Bloomberg were equally virulent; and other local press studiously ignored our entry. Some local press rallied — Crain’s and the New York Post called our tandoori skirt steak a “standout.” And national press like Time, Financial Times, Esquire and Gourmet bestowed rave reviews.
All of which begs the question: Why do it? Why stay in New York? Because the lure of the Big Apple is unlike anywhere else. High-risk, high-reward is a trite but applicable aphorism. In five years at Vermilion in New York City, we’ve worked with the James Beard Foundation, the Food Network, the Clinton Foundation and the Culinary Institute of America; celebrities drop in regularly; and the jaded, discerning customer is an appealing conquest.
New York City throbs with visceral life, but there’s also no place like Chicago. I live in and love this city — and it’s indisputably easier to work in. Chicago is a smooth, zipping Autobahn, whereas New York City is a vicious roller coaster, leaving you both nauseous and high. Sometimes, you have to try both.