Regarding the Economics of Saison, and How Much Labor Goes Into Each Tiny Herb Sprig
Former Bushi-Tei chef Michael Hung (who's making a one-night appearance on Monday at Jardinière, where he also used to work) recently did a stage (or unpaid internship) at Saison. He writes thoughtfully and compellingly today on the restaurant's blog about the much-blogged-about recent price-hike at the restaurant, breaking down various costs of ingredients and the day's labor and three dollars of firewood that goes into the brassicas dish alone, and makes a good case for what chef Joshua Skenes has been saying all along: It's basically a non-profit operation.
"There is a philosophy at work," Hung writes. "Buy the best products from people who are obsessive about the quality of their products, cook those products with the same obsession. Every item at Saison is treated this way." He goes on to quantify what several of the ingredients in the sixteen-to-twenty-plus-course menu cost when you add up all the time it takes to source, age, store, and prepare them.
Pigeons are lightly salted and hanged for three weeks; the rent for each bird, for which Phillip Paine charges $20-a-head, amounts to $4 before the bird ever nears the oven.
Pristine loins of tuna, which are purchased for $60-per-pound, are smoked daily for 30 days before they are ready to be served, and incur a similar storage cost as the pigeons.
Even the restaurant's herbs, which are collected every morning by a staff forager, are subject to the "cost of quality." At the city's minimum wage, with payroll taxes and health benefits, the labor cost for the day's herbs exceeds $100.
Much as critic Josh Sens recently said, Hung says that his own initial sticker shock about the price hike mellowed after he'd figured all this out and seen how people reacted to the food. "Value, in Saison's case," he concludes, "can't be calculated in spreadsheets."