The plate full of lamb tagine and cauliflower risotto I'm having for lunch cost me roughly $10. The loaf of raisin-fennel bread sitting on my counter at home set me back about half that. My son is addicted to $4 orders of braised pork-belly buns. All of that adds up a bit over time, but looking back on 2011 I realize that it's been a year of small indulgences rather than lavish multi-course excess.
It's also been a watershed year for Rochester's food world, marking a moment in time when the foodie luxuries of thinking about exotic, artisanal, and locally sourced food became a bit more mainstream, and perhaps stole just a tiny bit of attention and market share from lower-priced "quick-service restaurants" and fast-food chains. The year may be remembered as a significant milestone in the way Rochesterians, affluent and less so, young and old, eat and think about food.
The changes have been both gradual and subtle. Rochester is still very much a meat-and-potatoes city with an overwhelming affection for hots and, inexplicably, all things "French." But the increasing number and variety of restaurants offering specialized international cuisines - Shanghai street food rather than food that is generically "Chinese," for instance, or the proliferation of farmers markets in the area, and the marked emphasis being placed by even large restaurant chains on fresh, local and sustainable food - suggest that significant changes are underway that could, over time, revolutionize the way we shop, cook, and go out to eat.
These trends are nowhere more visible than in some of the area's newest and most popular food venues, including the 10-month-old Han Noodle Bar on Monroe Avenue, and the year-old Flour City Bread Company at the Public Market. But the change can also be seen in the transformation of the 2-year-old Max Market on the edge of Pittsford, where chef Ryan Jennings is reinventing the meal-replacement-style carry-out for a public increasingly tuned in to - and willing to pay for - fresh, locally sourced food for themselves and their families.
It's 10 o'clock on a Thursday night, and Junting "JT" Wu, Tony Ko, and Sean Sun, the owners of Han Noodle Bar on Monroe Avenue, are closing up shop after a very busy evening. Sun is totaling up a 2" thick pile of receipts while Ko and Wu put things to rights for tomorrow morning - they will be back at behind the line in less than 10 hours. For the past 10 months, seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day, the trio has put nearly every waking moment into its fledgling restaurant. The eatery has only been closed four days since it opened: Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, Easter, and April 4, when the owners had to install new kitchen hardware.
Pausing briefly in his work, Ko, a Chinese immigrant, RIT graduate, and former software engineer, tells me how the initial idea for a dumpling and steamed bun take-out evolved into one of the most innovative Chinese restaurants in Rochester - a place that is changing the city's concept of Chinese food one pork-belly bun at a time.
According to the National Restaurant Association, there are nearly 600 full-service restaurants in Monroe County, and between 53 and 73 of them identify themselves as "Chinese," according to listings on Yelp and Rocwiki, respectively. But Han Noodle Bar is nearly unique in offering food identical to the stuff sold from carts and tiny stands all over China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong: lots of variety meats, unfamiliar vegetables and pickles, and far more saturated flavors than most American diners expect from their Chinese food. And according to Ko, patrons can't get enough of it.
The current vogue for all things pork made the restaurant's braised pork-belly buns an immediate hit with the public. But just as certain drugs are seen as a gateway to the hard stuff, pork bellies braised and slathered in hoisin and scallions on a fluffy bun naturally led customers to try pork stomach braised with sour pickled vegetables, or red-cooked pork hocks, or cuttlefish, or beef tendon with daikon radish.
At 10 months in, the restaurant is doing better than the trio had expected. In an economy where restaurants are closing left and right, and where dining-out dollars are increasingly harder to come by, they are even eyeing the possibility of opening up another location in the near future.
What makes Han Noodle unique isn't just the food, although that's excellent. It's that the owners have a serious sense of mission. Sun described "months of back and forth" on what to include in the menu. Ko told me that the three toured Chinatowns and restaurants in several cities, looking at food trends and briefly considering and then discarding the idea of opening up a high-end fusion place. In the end, they opted for opening a place that serves "dishes that have been around for more than 100 years," giving everyone who walked into the restaurant access to the sorts of things that are usually included on Chinese-language-only menus in restaurants across the country. And they wanted to keep the prices below $10 a person.
In some ways, their move echoes the success of restaurateur-chefs like New York City's David Chang, owner of the Momofoku family of restaurants. But in other ways the cuisine at Han Noodle is all their own - straightforward and simple, just like the dining room in which the food is served. And it's certainly cheaper than the star-chef interpretations of Chinese street food.
"No fusion. No gimmick. We cook the way we want to eat," says the restaurant's website. And that's apparently just fine with the diners who crowd the restaurant most nights of the week. According to Ko, his meat vendor has told him that he moves more pork belly, hock, stomach, and beef tendon than all the other restaurants in the city. The restaurant does have a typical American-Chinese menu featuring variations on sesame chicken, kung pao chicken, and dishes like beef and broccoli drowned in brown sauce (it's ironically called "traditional Chinese" on the Han website), but Sun says that they don't sell much of it. He and his partners know the letter-number equivalents of the rest of the menu by heart, but they sell so little sesame chicken (E1) that they have to look at the Cantonese cheat sheet on the wall on the rare occasion that someone orders it.
Television surely has had a role in the transition. Food Network and other dining and food shows have increased public awareness of international cuisines and opened some viewers' eyes to new and different food choices. Sean Sun says that a few of those people end up converts to Han Noodle's brand of Chinese street food, like the bartender from down the street who came to the restaurant a devotee of sesame chicken and is now one of the restaurant's most adventurous customers. But many more customers show up knowing what they are looking for, or repeating recommendations from online restaurant guides or social-media sites like Twitter and Facebook. These people show up because Han Noodle offers them something they've heard about, something they've seen or heard about other people eating with evident relish, and the restaurant offers it without the inconvenience of having to hie off to New York City or Toronto. And, as if that weren't enough, it's cheap.
The combination of convenient, inexpensive, and local is a powerful driver for Rochester's foodie community. And those drives are not lost on vendors and would-be producers who sell their wares at that perennial foodie and food-business incubator, the Rochester Public Market. Wander down to the Public Market on any Saturday morning (and to a lesser extent on Tuesdays and Thursdays), and you will encounter throngs of shoppers out bargain hunting, who find themselves going home with quite a lot more than they set out to buy. The attraction of unfamiliar vegetables purchased for almost nothing - $1 for tatsoi, kohlrabi, dinosaur kale, delicata squash, tomatillos, and similar exotica - poses little risk to a customer's bottom line if a cooking experiment goes awry.
But in the same way that the Market - where many local chefs also shop for produce - is an incubator for Rochester's food tastes, it is also a crucible from which food businesses are born. Capitalizing on the relatively low overhead (some businesses start out as little more than an idea and some product on a card table in one of the sheds), countless businesses that have since become household names. Juan and Maria's Empanada Stop, the Pierogie Guy, and Jon John's Bakery, to name a few, got their start at the Market, offering homemade or at least "artisanal" products at price points low enough to encourage impulse buying.
Since Thanksgiving 2010, chef and baker Keith Myers, owner of the Flour City Bread Company based in the Public Market, has been intimately connected with the seasonal ebb and flow of the Market. As he tells it, Myers didn't exactly set out to become a baker, although he did always hope to become a chef. Educated as an engineer, Myers worked at Kodak developing package materials for a decade before giving up, as he puts it, his "professional, high-paying, lots-of-vacation job for $8 an hour at the Rio Bamba. With a 1-year-old. And a wife in grad school." Eight years later, and with three kids at home at that point, Myers says that realized that he "needed to get out of the restaurant business. It's not conducive to raising a family."
Myers paired his desire to get back to his family with an existing passion for bread, deciding to embark on a "personal quest for a loaf of bread I wanted to eat," he says. He had always baked bread for the restaurants in which he worked, but Myers became convinced that the "only thing that was holding me back was not having the right type of oven." So the former engineer petitioned the Irondequoit fire marshal for a permit, and built his own wood-fired brick oven in his garage.
Initially he only wanted to "bake good bread for family and friends," he says. But at the urging of Sue Gardiner, coordinator for the Brighton Farmers Market, he started selling some of his loaves at the Brighton Long Season Market in the fall of 2009. According to Myers, "it kind of took off."
From a 14-hour-a-day chef job with maybe one day off per week, Myers - at that point working by himself, and baking in his garage - worked literally 30 consecutive hours to do production for the Brighton Market each week, he says. He used the money he made at the market to purchase the special high-quality flour that he would use to bake the following week's bread.
Today, even with a staff of two full-time bakers to back him up and a full-fledged bake shop behind his Public Market storefront, preparation for the weekend markets starts on Tuesday mornings. Some of the sourdoughs that Myers makes take two full days to develop, not including the actual baking. Other items, like Myers's excellent chocolate croissants, require stunning amounts of prep time. As he slides the first of many trays of finished croissants into a proofing cabinet, Myers stops to say, "One thing that makes artisan 'artisan' is time. And that's the one thing that always gets removed from the equation when bakeries get too big too fast."
Despite the popularity of his bakery - on Saturday mornings the queue snaking out the door of his shop resembles nothing so much as kids lined up to visit Santa - Myers is growing his business "deliberately and slowly," he says. He wants to make sure that quality doesn't suffer as he moves toward wholesale and restaurant production. Already he supplies some bread to both Good Luck on Anderson Avenue and Rocco on Monroe Avenue. For the past year he has also baked bread for the Good Food Collective, a CSA that grew out of the South Wedge Farmers Market. He'd like to do more, in part to sustain the momentum that Flour City Bread has built up through the winter. But that goal seems to be secondary to his fundamental desire to put good bread in the hands of people who enjoy it.
Myers isn't the only chef in town who has staked his fortunes on the cachet of fresh, local, and artisanal fostered at the Public Market and the emergent, and somewhat more rarified, markets in the South Wedge and Brighton that attract well-heeled foodies and those in search of organic produce at reasonable prices. Chef Ryan Jennings, who was installed as executive chef at the 2-year-old Max Market on Monroe Avenue early in 2011, is banking on educated consumers who recognize the importance of quality ingredients and careful preparation offered at fair prices to be his best customers.
Where are those consumers coming from? Not restaurants, in Jennings's opinion. "What goes on in restaurants isn't changing the way people eat every day. The biggest impact anyone is going to find is going to the farmers' markets," he says.
The growing popularity of farmers' markets in the area, Jennings suggests, reflects a greater consciousness about food - really, a food culture - that can support what he's doing at Max Market. Today, "it's easier for the everyday person to have the same relationships with purveyors that restaurants have," he says. That changes the way customers think about the food they buy. That, and the shrinking economy, have led to more people cooking at home, making it that much harder to sell what is referred to in the trade as "meal replacement" services, which has forced Jennings to reinvent Max Market for a new, pickier, clientele.
"In the past," the 27-year old graduate of the French Culinary Institute told me one afternoon as the lunch rush at the market was winding down, the Market "tried to cater to things that people were comfortable with. Now I'm offering food that you can't make at home... food that showcases the talents of the company." Tasked with re-envisioning the take-out shop and market, Jennings started with a simple concept: source as much product locally as possible and use it in dishes that customers can't make themselves because they simply don't have the time or the skill to do so.
He is, in short, bringing what he describes as the "high-quality experience" his customers have come to expect of the 10-year-old Max brand of local high-end restaurants (including Max at Eastman Place, Max Chophouse, and, most recently Max at the Gallery and Max on the Lake) to an informal setting at a somewhat lower price point than the other Max enterprises.
In some ways, it's as much of a gamble as the low-butter-low-fat cuisine Jennings was attempting to sell at Farm Fresh Kitchen, the now-closed Pittsford restaurant where he was head chef from 2008 through late 2009. Jennings's work at Max Market - every takeaway container of mushroom bread pudding with sausage, or beet salad, or roasted root vegetables - is an argument for chef-prepared food in an age when people are spending less to eat out, and the market for meal-replacement restaurants like Boston Market and similar places is shrinking rapidly.
At first glance, that looks like it could be a tough sell. At $15 per pound for chocolaty brown, silky-smooth lamb tagine, or $8 for a pound of creamy cauliflower risotto, it takes someone with a bit of imagination to see how this carry-out food is a viable alternative to your typical fast-food joint. But order up lunch from the case and you discover that an abundant meal - with leftovers - won't run more than $10 per person.
But, like a popular clothing chain, Ryan is hoping that an educated consumer is his best customer. "You can tell on my end of things how much better educated consumers are," he says. "People know the importance of eating fresh and local." What's more, they expect it, and they are willing to pay a premium for it. What Jennings is offering, and hoping to offer more of, is an alternative to continuing "to shop at Wal-Mart and eating out of a box."