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In case you missed it, over the weekend, the New York Post ran an anonymously sourced story breaking down the reasons why the Four Seasons and chef Fabio Trabocchi parted ways after just three months. “Chalk it up,” the Post writes, “to taste.”
Reporter Carla Spartos paints a generational divide between a modern, fine-dining chef who cooks with (gasp!) lard and the Four Season’s Old Guard who just want their crab cakes, out-of-season tomatoes, and low-fat, low-sodium lunch plates. Writes Spartos:
“There were issues with [some longtime] customers,” says one restaurant insider. “They complained that the food was not the same. They want grilled fish, steamed vegetables — hospital food.”
Brought in to add buzz to the menu and return the restaurant to its former three-star status, Trabocchi may have done too much too soon. While the famous crab cakes were never taken off the menu, classic dishes jockeyed for space with newfangled additions like spaghetti with sea urchin or crab and spicy chilis, much to the dismay of regulars.
“There are customers who have been coming in every day for 30 years — they spend thousands of dollars a week — they name their own salad or steak. It’s hard to break that,” says the source.
At the Four Seasons, if a regular wants endive and tomatoes out of season, the kitchen runs out to fetch them. It is this sort of high-touch service that has made the landmark a destination for New York’s rich and powerful for more than 50 years.
“These people expect good food, but they want their crab cake, they want their salad and their billi bi [creamy mussel soup] — they’re not looking for eccentric or imaginative food,” says guidebook magnate and Four Seasons regular Tim Zagat.
While Trabocchi made a good impression at his audition, with a non-stop parade of haute dishes, the honeymoon didn’t last long with owners Julian Niccolini and Alex Von Bidder. “There was always some complaint that an older person would [say] — too salty, too small, too much, I don’t get it,” says the restaurant insider.
The Post goes on to suggest that food costs and, even more obliquely, “clashing egos” may have had something to do with the split. Y&H has a more concrete scapegoat: the Four Seasons’ owners.
Nothing reported in this story indicates that Trabocchi misled them. He’s a chef who comes with a long history of preparing food, from Floriana in London to Maestro in McLean to Fiamma in New York. His style of food, his food costs, his quest for perfection, these are all matters of public record or least easily accessed with a phone call to a former manager, an e-mail to the Ritz-Carlton, or even a text message to Tom Sietsema.
It’s called due diligence, and it looks like the Four Seasons did little of it. More damning, perhaps, is that the Four Seasons doesn’t even seem to know its own clientele. Did the owners not know what kind of stress this would cause its regulars? Did it not solicit their input and comments on what they would like/not like to see in the future?
It doesn’t sound like it. It sounds like the Four Seasons marched blindly forward, picking the biggest brand-name chef available, and then hoping it would work out. The miscalculation has embarrassed all parties involved. And more important, it was so unnecessary. Fabio Trabocchi deserved a better return to the kitchen than this.
Speaking of return, Trabocchi is still talking up a return to D.C.