Everybody's Gone Away

Why It’s Become More Tempting Than Ever for Chefs to Leave New York

See ya!
See ya! Photo: Photo-Illustration: Konstantin Sergeyev; Photo: Jim Hughes/Corbis

Any chef who dreamed of seeing their name emblazoned on a cookbook cover knew that doing so meant first making that name in New York. Chefs who dreamed of making it big — really big — had to build a reputation for him or herself in NYC. But things are changing: Thanks to a number of factors, chefs increasingly feel like they can avoid or leave New York without sacrificing the potential for fame. “The way that food has evolved now, you don’t have to be in New York forever,” says Brian Bistrong, who left Bouley to cook at Bottega in Yountville. “It’s not that necessary.” Here’s why this kind of thinking seems to be on the rise among chefs.

Other cities offer potential for less-fleeting attention.
It’s easy for diners to become distracted in New York — there are major new restaurants opening on an almost weekly basis. For diners, it’s great. For chefs, it can feel impossible to stay relevant in a city where even year-old restaurants can seem like old news. “When it came down to what I wanted to do next, I wanted to be able to create something that was my own,” says Gavin Kaysen, who recently left Café Boulud to open his own restaurant in … Minneapolis (his hometown). “I wanted to be able to have an impact in doing so — and have it not just be the let’s-write-about-it-for-a-few-weeks-and-then-it-goes-away sort of thing.” Sara Kramer, who’s headed to Los Angeles after becoming the hot new chef while cooking at Glasserie, agrees: “It feels now-or-never in terms of trying to do something that has some lasting and staying power,” she says.

Other cities are cheaper, of course.
The logistical challenges of opening and operating a restaurant in New York — especially a small or midsize one — push chefs farther and farther away. “It’s just becoming more and more expensive to rent a restaurant in New York,” Kramer says. “It’s really hard to balance the cost of what people expect to pay with the cost of renting.” At a time when the news is dominated by stories of big names like Danny Meyer and Wylie Dufresne falling victim to rising real-estate prices, the message being sent is that the city will willingly squeeze out even the most prominent operators — not the kind of thing that necessarily inspires would-be owners who don’t have a lot of money.

Smaller cities have much better ingredients than they used to.
Jonathon Sawyer, who moved to Cleveland in 2007 after working for Charlie Palmer and Michael Symon in New York, says one of his initial obstacles in the Midwest was simply finding high-quality ingredients to use. “The drawback was the food scene wasn’t where I wanted it to be — the supply chain, specifically,” he says. That’s not the case anymore: “Looking back, in retrospect, we’ve seen our farmers grow tenfold because of our initial demand.” Bistrong agrees: “Times have changed with the quality of product you get now in any city — not necessarily a major city.”

The entire country has a much stronger interest in food.
For better or worse, the Food Network turned a huge chunk of the American public into restaurant obsessives. “The customer is a lot smarter now, so they’re going to push you a lot harder as well,” Bistrong says. Vivian Howard started her cooking career in New York because she felt like “that’s where all the good things happened.” And then, in 2006, Howard moved to rural Kinston, North Carolina, to open Chef & the Farmer. “When we first opened, there was very little understanding of what we were trying to do, and few people who were interested in working with us,” she says. “But in these eight years, there’s been a lot more interest in cooking. As there’s more of an appreciation for my good food made from scratch; it allows people to do what I’m doing here, really anywhere.”

The weather’s just better in some other places.
Don’t underestimate the appeal of a less severe climate than the Northeast: “I moved to New York 14 years ago, and every winter got longer and longer,” says Trevor Kunk, who left Blue Hill in May to cook at PRESS in St. Helena. “It’s 70 degrees, there’s a light breeze, and vegetables are in full swing right now. The pace is a bit more relaxed … the perfect world.” And, in a world obsessed with local produce, better climates mean longer growing seasons, so chefs aren’t forced to spend their entire winters thinking up new ways to use beets and root vegetables.

There’s less competition for talented staff outside of New York.
Moving to a smaller city doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t attract world-class talent to work in your restaurant. Sawyer says that out of his ten chefs on salary, only one was born and raised in Cleveland. Kaysen has been approached by cooks who’ve never been to Minneapolis, but, he says, “are excited to be a part of something that’s meaningful.” After all, the internet allows potential cooks, a group of people that tends to be kind of naturally nomadic anyway, to look for jobs anywhere — and being the big fish in a small pond means you’re not necessarily competing with other brand-name chefs for the same employees. (Though Howard admits that the flip side of this is that cooks might feel less incentive to excel: “In New York, I always knew that there were several people right behind me, wanting my job,” she says. “There’s nobody behind my cooks trying to get their jobs. I often have to accept less than I really want for them.”)

Leaving New York has lost its “failure” stigma.
There’s even a whole book dedicated to breaking up with the city. “When I chose to leave, I felt like I was giving up in a lot of ways,” Howard says. “It seemed like going home and being a part of your family was giving up on your dreams. I’ve realized that you don’t have to leave home to do something special. Maybe there’s a shift in our culture toward that.”

Why It’s Become More Tempting Than Ever for Chefs to Leave New York