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Frank Bruni was named restaurant critic for The New York Times in April 2004. He stepped down in August 2009 to become a writer with the Times' Sunday magazine and[…]

Former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni predicts that the farm table movement is here to stay.

Topic: The farm table movement

FRANK BRUNI: I think chefs and restaurateurs are constantly fiddling with and tweaking the degrees of formality and informality that they put in their restaurants. And one of the things that’s really interesting to watch now is the ways in which different chefs and restaurateurs – both in terms of settings and in terms of what they put on the plate – try to find some sort of perfect sweet spot between formality and ceremony, and informality and total laid-backness. The ways in which they’re trying to figure out what are the bits of coddling and pampering that diners really, really need; and that you want to hold onto to keep the restaurant experience as it’s always been. And what can you jettison, and for many diners actually improve the experience by jettisoning? So this constant search for a perfect midpoint between coddling and utter informality is just not so much a trend as a preoccupation that I think we’re going to see worked out, and thought about, and sweated over for years to come.

The whole farm to table movement, as it’s called, which is kind of over named because you don’t exactly have many farms right here in Manhattan that the food is coming from. But the quest to bring people dishes and a menu that is as reasonably seasonal and local as it can be. I think that’s here to stay, and I think that’s going to be amplified in the coming months and years.

Not many restaurants are gonna be able to achieve that sort of proximity to their food. If you look really long and hard at the menus – even at restaurants that claim to be doing this sort of, you know, low carbon footprint, Alice Waters blessed, you know, as organic as possible to the extent that organic has meaning. There are always exceptions and asterisks that come into play at the end of the day when you want to give diners a certain range of foods.

For instance Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which is often held up as the model of this kind of approach to food – in order to serve a broader diversity of things at any given moment of the year, it’s using an enormous greenhouse on the property to stretch out the existing seasons. And there are times there when you will get a piece of produce that seems suspiciously ahead of its season or behind its season, and that’s because they’re using another set of seasons in this greenhouse.

My point is this ideal is not really possible for almost any restaurant to achieve in a four season climate like ours where there are just kind of certain times of the year where what the land would yield is not going to be sufficient. It’s funny. In winter I see a lot of restaurants in Manhattan still have a page of their menu which says seasonal stuff. And on it there will be a lot of dishes using citrus – which that is seasonal in terms of where that citrus is coming from. But at that point the word “local” has exited the local, seasonal cuisine emphasis. So it’s a difficult ideal to achieve. And I think what everyone is trying to do is get as close to it as they can without asking people to eat only root vegetables during a certain month.

Question: How will the recession impact the trend of fancy/casual balance?

FRANK BRUNI: Well that’s something that predates the recession. And that’s something that is about things that are larger than just price. That’s about the way people wanna address and feel they have control over their dining experiences. So I don’t think the recession is going to affect that in the sense that I don’t think that quest could be any more intense than it is. I also think that in New York there are an astonishing number of people with a lot of money. And there’s an astonishing amount of money from outside New York cycling through the city. So I don’t think the formal restaurants are going to suffer as much as one might off the bat think they would. Or I don’t think you can use some economic ruler or barometer that’s going to affect restaurants the exact some way, or maybe it would retail or something else. Restaurants inhabit a peculiar universe that isn’t influenced as directly as some others might be by economic indicators.

Question: Will some restaurants be hit harder than others?

FRANK BRUNI: You know I don’t know. I don’t know. I think more than anything else it’s going to boil down to in large measure to how good certain restaurants are and the degree of enthusiasm, you know, for them. Restaurants that are terrific, and that have won the affections and the loyalty of their diners are probably going to be okay. Their margins will probably be eaten into. I’m sure many of us affected by a recession are going to look at that wine list in a different way; buy a less expensive wine, on which the kind of markup differential means a little bit less profit for the restaurants. So I think everyone will be affected, I mean I don’t know. I’m not an economist, so this really isn’t a great question for me to answer. I don’t think, or at least I hope, that the really good restaurants are certainly not going to be put out of business.

Question: Do you think this new found environmental consciousness will change restaurants?

FRANK BRUNI: That is so hard to say because it’s a question that’s predicated on a certain common sensical assumption that people are learning more through writers like Michael Polland about what it takes to produce their food; about the carbon footprint that leaves. And people are approaching eating, or at least presumably they are approaching eating with a higher degree of consciousness because of these books and all that. But it’s hard to know whether that population of people is really, at the end of the day, large enough to have a big influence on the restaurant scene. At the same time that people were growing more conscious of the stuff already in certain ways and more health conscious in certain ways, we’ve seen a boon in steak houses in New York over the last couple of years. Probably the openings of new steakhouses over the last three years probably outpaces any similar three years before. So for every move in one direction, there’s other universe of people who are either impervious to it or don’t have the same sorts of concerns. And it makes it really difficult to predict where this stuff all ends.

Recorded on February 22, 2008