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If you read the blurbs about new restaurant openings and restaurant reviews on food websites, in newspapers and in foodie magazines, you’re bound to notice the phrase “chef-driven restaurant” or “chef-driven menu” thrown in here and there. “Chef-driven” is a descriptor that has been applied to tons of recent restaurants and it is thrown in to articles as though it is obvious what the term means when it is actually pretty unclear.
A “chef-driven” restaurant is one where the head chef designs all the items on the menu based on his or her own personal style using specifically sourced ingredients. A “chef-driven” menu is a menu featuring these types of dishes. The ingredients could be things chosen from the local farmers market, specifically imported from a foreign country that you can’t get everywhere, or simply a chef’s favorite producers. When this term first came into use, it was pretty specific to chefs putting on a local, seasonal menu with some signature twist. That twist could mean a comfort food twist, a fusion twist or even a shared plates-style instead of a traditional menu structure. As a diner, you would know that you were getting food from that specific chef – and if that chef left the restaurant, the food would most likely have a different twist as the new chef “drove” his own menu. That said, chefs at these restaurants were often owners or partners, so they didn’t leave too often unless the restaurant closed.
From this beginning, the term really grew to the point where it encompassed anything that wasn’t clearly a carbon-copy of another restaurant. Every restaurant with a head chef feels that their menu is chef-driven. One signature dish? Chef driven. Seasonally changing items? Chef driven. It sounds a bit cynical to say that – especially as I will certainly continue to eat a chef-driven restaurants and look forward to many more good meals – but all food culture right now is very “chef driven” and the term is becoming more of a marketing tool than anything else. There are plenty of corporate restaurants that use the term and their menus are primarily “driven” by corporate chefs, not in-restaurant ones, even though a local special might pop up ever now and again in a certain region.