Todd Schafer returns to Bistro 491 with changes in mind
In the three years that Bistro 491 owner and chef Todd Schafer was away from Augusta, much has changed in the local restaurant scene. Local, organic and artisanal are buzzwords in the industry, and restaurants tend to be less formal.
The thing is, these trends have been around a lot longer than most diners are aware.
“What people are doing now, this local, organic emphasis, we were doing that before. I sought out farmers. I sought out the best products I could find. Hell, I went to Boston to find a fish purveyor,” Schafer said. “I think now it’s more on everyone’s mind.”
Schafer opened Bistro 491 in Surrey Center in 1999 and headed to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with his family exactly 10 years later so that his wife Pascha, a cardiologist, could pursue a residency there.
“It was a great opportunity for Pascha because she went to one of the best places in the country for that type of medicine,” he explained. “And it was just time for something different.”
So Schafer left the restaurant in the hands of his stepfather Henry and did…
“Nothing,” he laughed. “Well, not nothing. I gardened. I grew things and we had a baby. We have a little 20-month-old named Bonnie. So that was my primary position: grocery getting, taking Lila [the couple’s 7-year-old] to school. Which was great because I didn’t get to do that. I never saw either of the kids when they were babies. I just didn’t have the time.”
Schafer also has a 14-year-old daughter, Isabella, from a previous marriage.
He may have been away from his restaurant, but he was never far from a kitchen.
“I cooked at home but it was ghetto cooking,” he said. “I used the least amount of pots and pans that I could. If I could cook the whole meal on the grill I would do it. In a second.”
It’s a far cry from the kind of cooking Schafer was accustomed to when he worked at restaurants in California. So when he returned to his hometown of Augusta from the west coast, he brought what he had learned.
“Everything there was so ingredient driven,” he said. “It was about the quality of the product you used. It was a great time for me because I was so young. I was young when we opened. In 1999 I was 28.”
Schafer said he found out quickly how different being a restaurant owner was from simply being a chef.
“People always asked me when I knew that I wanted to open my own restaurant, and I just never thought about it that way,” he said. “For me it’s always been about cooking. I don’t think I even recognized until the second year that it was going to be rough. The first year went by so fast.”
Bistro 491 quickly made a name for itself as one of the best fine-dining establishments in the city, winning awards left and right and gaining new diners by word of mouth. One of the restaurant’s greatest strengths has been its consistency but now, since he’s been back, Schafer says he sees a staleness in that consistency.
“The competition has come in and did what we were doing,” he explained. “We haven’t changed anything, and I think that may be part of the problem.”
The other part of the problem, he says, is the change in the economy. Before the downturn, being seen as a spot to go for a celebration worked to the Bistro’s advantage. Now? Not so much.
“Now, people are so much more conscious about money, probably because they don’t have any, that they perceive value in different ways,” he said. “And I think that’s what’s happened to us. People perceive us as a special occasion place.”
How, then, to change people’s perceptions? It’s something Schafer says he’s been working on since he and his family returned to town two months ago. He’s changed and tweaked the menu 20 times in those two months, has been toying with the idea of renovating the dining room and, because of skyrocketing food prices, has been looking for different ingredients.
“I’ve been trying to get away from that stock and those heavy sauces; just lightening things up. And I’m trying to make us more value conscious. In order to give that value to the customer, we have to use the ingredients more thoughtfully,” Schafer said. “And that’s hard for me because I never cared what anything cost. I never shopped prices. The kitchen was my lab, it was my place. I could do whatever I wanted. Now I’m having to rethink all that and be smarter about it.”
The first aspect of the restaurant to receive Schafer’s scrutinizing was the wine list, which will roll out in the next few weeks. Whereas the Bistro’s wine list formerly contained close to 250 wines with names like Lafite and other fine Bordeauxs, the new one, he says, will be “small, manageable and constantly changing.”
“We want to always be looking for that bottle that’s a great value, that tastes great but is off the beaten path,” he explained. “I’m looking at wineries with 5,000-case productions or less and we’ll have no wines that are available in grocery stores or are prominent in retail. They’re more artisan, like we are, and smaller. It’s about 50 bottles, so it’s about a quarter of the size of what we used to have.”
It’s a narrowing of the focus, something Schafer is applying not just to wine, but to the menu as well. It’s a delicate balancing act to try and maintain the reputation that Bistro 491 worked hard to earn while offering diners something new. And if Schafer didn’t love being in the kitchen so much, he might not want to take on the challenge. Fortunately for Augusta, he definitely loves what he does.
“We’re struggling with our identity,” Schafer admitted. “I still know who I am, cooking wise. It’s never been about anything but the cooking. If I didn’t have this love of it, this thought process — how it works, why it works — I wouldn’t do it.”
“It’s almost like a compulsion I think,” he said, smiling. “It’s terrible.”You Might Also Like:
For the Love of Cooking
Posted in Cuisine Scene