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The Shaw Bijou closed over the weekend after less than three tumultuousmonths in business. “The concept was good, we just weren’t able to execute it,” co-owner Kelly Gorsuch told Washingtonian, which broke the story. In a Post article, Gorsuch plays the blame game, saying he tried to convince Chef Kwame Onwuachi and general manager Greg Vakiner to change the concept, but they refused.
What’s done is done, but what can we learn from it? Here are seven takeaways:
1. Most of the priciest restaurants in the city have a built-in way for customers to test-drive a chef’s cuisine before springing for a big-bucks meal. If you’re thinking about Metier, you can dine at Kinship, for example. Same goes for Rose’s Luxury and Pineapple & Pearls; Little Serow and Komi; Casa Luca and Fiola; and more. This algorithm could have worked well for Onwuachi. After all, Komi’s Johnny Monis got started by serving pizza.
2. There was too much story and not enough substance. Washingtonian’s two-star review nailed it when it came to the long-winded, disjointed speeches servers delivered with every course. Critic Corby Kummer wrote: “The stories don’t add up to a narrative flow through the meal—particularly when the chef isn’t even introduced at the start, physically or by name. (His first formal meeting with diners sometimes comes toward the end of the meal.) Instead, you get the uneasy sense that you’ve wandered into a cult when servers sincerely relate the story of the time Onwuachi discovered a dish of crabs prepared by a wise old Indian cook or practically brush back tears when describing the fisherman’s pie Onwuachi’s mother made for his birthday when money was tight and she couldn’t afford a gift.”
3. Some articles leading up to the restaurant’s opening touted how Onwuachi was planning to use high-end ingredients in his tasting menu such as caviar, foie gras, lobster, dry-age beef, and more. Maybe the tide is turning and diners are more impressed by innovative chefs who use sustainable, local ingredients in new and interesting ways rather than chest-thumping expressions of “look what we’ve got” luxuries. I’m in awe with what chefs are able to do with vegetables these days.
4. More so than reactions from diners or critics, the Shaw Bijou was in trouble when even the chef community turned its back on the concept when the restaurant reduced its base price from $185 per person to $95 (before drinks, tax, and tip). My phone blew up last night with a text storm of messages from chefs and other industry professionals. Granted, some were saying they were going to do everything they could to help former Shaw Bijou staff members find gigs (bravo!), but most continued to carry the tone I’ve heard in industry circles since the Shaw Bijou opened. One writes, “What happens when you hire two 26-year-olds to be the main decision makers in a restaurant opening for a high-profile fine dining restaurant. Maybe instead of traveling, trying to build Instagram followers, and feeling famous, they should have had their heads down to work on the restaurant.”
5. Service does matter. Did the front-of-house team do their homework by visiting places like minibar or Pineapple & Pearls to note the standard of service expected at top-dollar restaurants? I’m not so sure. My dinner at the Shaw Bijou saw food that wowed, but service that didn’t.
6. Could this foreshadow the decline of the “celebrity chef,” where appearing on a television show counts just as much as experience on a resume? Maybe. One component of dinner at the Shaw Bijou struck me as particularly strange. After spilling a drink on myself in the upstairs bar where we were able to linger only for a short 10 minutes, my dining companion and I were escorted to the kitchen for another split second. There, a staff member said, “It’s now time for your photo opp with the chef.” Onwuachi took his position in front of his colorful backdrop of spices. I can’t help but wonder what the Shaw Bijou would have been without the chef’s appearance on Top Chef.
7. National media doesn’t bother to scratch below the surface. In November, Rolling Stone named Onwuachi one of the “10 Breakthrough Rock Star Chefs of 2016.” Meanwhile, Forbes named Onwuachi one of its “30 Under 30” in the food and drink category. These major mentions are the product of a public relations chop job that focused all its attention in the national arena and did little to quell the local backlash against the restaurant’s high price tag at home.
Here’s hoping those publications were right and Onwuachi finds a new gig where he can shine without all the pressure and pretense.