Global warming is not the only force of nature likely to effect what happens to The Four Seasons. While Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall appear to be changing before our very eyes due to the on-going effects of global climate change, a more creative, welcome and constructive force is at work in the kitchen of the legendary, 50 year-old, Philip Johnson designed, Park Avenue, New York City restaurant, known as The Four Seasons. Chef Fabio Trabocchi, formerly of Fiamma in NYC and Maestro in McClean, VA just outside of Washington, D.C., took over the kitchen of this venerable institution this past October, as the restaurant moved to fill the position vacated in June by the untimely passing of Chef Christian Albin. In Chef Trabocchi they secured an experienced, but still young chef with skill, creativity, vision and a respect for tradition. His approach at Maestro and Fiamma was to use Italian traditions as a base, influenced and colored by global perspective.
Like with global warming, the climate shift at The Four Seasons is likely to be gradual. The restaurant is most well known for being the center of the Universe for the so-called "Power Lunch" as was recently highlighted in The New York Times. As such, it has many rich and powerful clients, "60-70%" of whom, according to Trabocchi, already have their minds set on what to order, when they sit down for lunch. That is not necessarily a bad thing when they are doing 250 or so covers in an hour. On the other hand, many repeat clients just look to order the special of the day, rather than choosing repetitively from the regular menu. To "test" things, Trabocchi has begun introducing "specials" based on his own dishes and has so far received "a good response" from those clients. When he started, Trabocchi was most concerned about resistance to change from the restaurant's regular clients, but based upon the response to his specials that hasn't been a problem.
In addition to working with the restaurant's generally conservative client base, Trabocchi also has to work with the large kitchen staff, many of whom have been on the line there for years cooking a certain way. While they do what they do very well, many of the longer termed cooks haven't been exposed to much else or to newer techniques, something which has to be taught step by step. According to Trabocchi, "there are 26 people (in the kitchen) to train and it is going to take a while" considering that they all have to continue to perform their usual routine on a daily basis. The chef anticipates that it will be a year or so before he is comfortable instituting his full culinary vision at the restaurant. He is not in a hurry and wants to make sure that it gets done right. The last piece of the puzzle involves training the front of the
house to know the details of his cooking intimately. That may be even
more important at a restaurant like The Four Seasons with so many
empowered regulars as it is elsewhere, as they are likely to be less
tolerant of a menu that is not very well known by the waiter.
I came to The Four Seasons when I did, because it was
the first chance I had to visit since Chef Trabocchi took over the
kitchen. My wife and I used to attend wine dinners such as their annual
Fete du Bordeaux back in the 1990's, but for a variety of reasons our
interest and ability to attend those events waned. I was thrilled,
however, when last spring, we were invited to attend The Four Seasons 50th Birthday Party.
I had forgotten just how wonderful the room and the restaurant could
be. The place has an aura that is magic and rare. Even though we drove
down and back three hours each way just to be there for the evening, the event
had a can't miss feel to it and we were exhausted, but glad that we
didn't miss it. Then, just days later, Four Seasons Chef Christian Albin sadly died, creating the void that would ultimately be filled by Chef
Albin had run the restaurant traditionally and though
it no longer had the cachet that it had once had amongst serious food
enthusiasts, the food was still very well prepared and delicious.
Trabocchi meanwhile earned the favor and enthusiasm of many a food
aficionado through his daring Italian based cooking, first at Maestro
and then most recently at Fiamma in NYC, where just 8 months prior to
his taking the job at The Four Seasons, he was the City's first high
profile casualty of the new Recession as the elaborate, but wonderful
Fiamma was closed. Having first met Chef Trabocchi at the 2007
Starchefs Congress and then having had an amazing meal at Fiamma, I was
dismayed at Fiamma's closing, but confidant that Chef Trabocchi would
resurface, hopefully somewhere within striking distance. When it turned
out to be The Four Seasons, I was both ecstatic and slightly nervous. I
was ecstatic, because, unlike the room at Fiamma, Trabocchi would now
be in a space commensurate with his food and nervous, because of a
concern with how he and his food would conform to the restaurant. Was
this to be a job or the seizing of a great stage? Hoping for the latter, I aimed to find out.
Part Two of this report, I will detail the meal that was served to me.
In full disclosure, I went to the restaurant not knowing what to expect
food wise, but fully expecting to pay my full bill. In the end, I
received a meal more indicative of what Chef Trabocchi is hoping to
serve a year from now, a meal cooked personally by him and another chef, one not currently available to the general public
and one for which my credit card was turned away, though a rather
sizable cash gratuity was not.