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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Joan Ida....My First FSN Column

September 1, 2010

Dollar Diplomacy, Editorial

When Chef Joan Ida joined Blue Plate, some eyebrows raised. But, for the former upscale kitchen commander, it really does make sense.

• Two airline tickets to Seattle $1,140
• Three nights at the downtown Marriott $480
• Four tickets to Mariners baseball $440
• Booing A-Rod with your son…priceless!

By the time this publication makes its way into your possession, an incredible change in my life will have transpired. I will have become an empty nester. The youngest of my fold is an 18-year-old jock who will attend a small college in Iowa where his main focus will be on playing football.

Being guys, neither one of us wanted to discuss the importance of putting closure on this part of our lives. Instead, we figured it would just be easier to fly out to the west coast and watch Ichiro take on the Yankees.

During batting practice rumors began whirling around the ballpark that the “Evil Empire” was trying to trade for Cliff Lee (The Mariners All-Star selection) to solidify their pitching rotation. When my son heard this, he threw his hands in the air and cursed the Yankees for always trying to buy another championship.

As a father I was thrilled to be surrounded by this circumstance. It gave me a perfect opportunity to explain to my son that sentiment for dark-horse concepts never nurtures success, but obtaining the best personnel almost always will, and nobody should ever have to apologize for doing that, not even the Yankees.

A few days later when I went back to work, I had to chuckle because the culinary equivalent of this situation was happening in the Twin Cities. According to some of my hospitality sources on Facebook, I heard a rumor that Chef Joan Ida was no longer working at the posh Ivy hotel; instead she had taken on a position at the Highland Grill.

I can’t tell you how this switch of venues threw people off balance, but to be honest, I don’t know why. After all, I’d been an Ida groupie ever since Morrissey Companies gave her the reigns to their Tria concept years ago. The one thing I remember her telling me back then was that she wanted to add more “comfort selections” onto a menu that was steeped with decadent French recipes.

If you’ve ever worked in a kitchen, you know how convoluted peoples perception can become, so instead of continuing in cyber gossip, I simply called Joan at home to ask her about some of the new occurrences in her life. The first thing I wanted to know was if she missed working in fine dining, but before I could get the question halfway out I was met with a confident “No-No-No-No!” At this point we both began to laugh.

Joan went on to explain how a lot of the higher end concepts were struggling right now, and much of their demographic will only patronize these establishments once a year for special events like birthdays and anniversaries.

I believe this realization is so clear to Ida because she has never seemed to be rooted in ego. In fact she was very up front when telling me, “One of the things young cooks need to understand is that people don’t care who’s cut their meat. Whether the chef has status doesn’t seem to mean as much to people who are living in a challenging economy. I decided I’d be more than willing to work in a smaller kitchen if the venue gave me an opportunity to feed somebody a couple times a week instead of every couple of months.”

Then I asked if she considered going abroad to take a position at some exotic location. Her response was interesting.

“Not initially. When I was circulating my resume, I was looking for a place that I could call home. The ownership at Blue Plate was fabulous, but as much as I appreciated their kindness, I was impressed at the company’s growth over the last couple of years. These people knew what they were doing. In my interview we discussed things like price point and food cost but sometimes rules for making money are only part of the equation. I was hopeful that they would allow me to increase their concepts’ image of being more chef driven and creative.”

As she was finishing her point I began to wonder how natural this merge was, and if she was nervous being such a high-profile person, entering into an organization that was already successful.

Her explanation made sense.

“If I were younger that might have been an issue, but I had this exact same experience when I went to China. Working in Hong Kong taught me how to teach, to get what I needed. Everything revolves around respect and moving forward, and the other thing I learned was you can’t just tell people things. You need to take the time to teach them. That’s the essence of communication, and communication is essential.”

I guess only time will tell if this intriguing combination will turn into a juggernaut. In baseball, when a player gets traded, we are told to never try to analyze the swap for at least three years. This is based on the theory that public perception seldom aligns with the actual outcome, but I’m a guy who is influenced by trends and statistics, that’s why I just can’t help but think that Team Blue Plates’ acquisition of Chef Ida may be a move that will transform them from a perennial favorite into a champion. Whatever the outcome, I can assure you that there will be a huge fan base rooting for them.

Good luck.

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