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Fine-dining spots, dinnerhouse chain restaurants, finding common ground

I met in an Outback Steakhouse with an editor from one of those fancy, glossy, monthly food magazines.

She expressed fascination at being in a fast-food restaurant.

Naturally, I told her that she was not in a fast-food restaurant, that the generic term for the multiunit operations she was thinking of was "chain restaurant" and that she was, in fact, in a dinnerhouse.

I delineated for her the different restaurant categories that make up the vast array of eating establishments that are not fine dining.

She was fascinated or at least interested. I find that people outside of the foodservice industry often are intrigued by industry terms like "dinnerhouse." The use of those terms can make for good cocktail-party conversation.

Such fascination doesn't last for long, though--certainly not long enough for self-proclaimed "foodies" and others who pride themselves on their culinary erudition to bother to learn about the actual restaurant world.

However, that's changing as fine dining and all of the other kinds of restaurants out there begin to share more characteristics. But we have a long way to go.

This was made apparent to me when Edna Morris was named interim executive director of the James Beard Foundation.

Morris, as anyone who reads this publication probably knows, was the president of Red Lobster. She was a founder of the Women's Foodservice Forum and, in general, a major player in the foodservice world.

Some of Beard Foundation's staff said they never had heard of her until she was named director and they were concerned that someone from such a "pedestrian" chain was darkening the exalted doorstep of the Beard House.

I wanted to tell them that their lack of knowledge about Morris was a shortcoming on their part, not hers, but I couldn't figure out how to do so politely. So instead I simply pointed to the power and influence that Red Lobster commands and to its ability to drive the global markets for lobster and shrimp.

Despite the disdain with which many people in the fine-dining world hold chain restaurants, a few chains actually have cooked at the Beard House--one of many signs that mainstream chains and high-end independent restaurants actually do inhabit the same universe.

Not Your Average Joe's, a casual chain in Massachusetts that now has 10 units, cooked there a few years ago. And chefs from The Oceanaire Seafood Room, a seven-unit Minneapolis-based chain, cooked two of the best meals I've had at the Beard House.

The Beard Foundation added a new award category this year for outstanding restaurateurs.

Award committee member Michael Bauer, restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, says: "The award was conceived because of the changing demographics of chefs. For example, people such as Todd English, Michael Mina and Wolfgang Puck have multiple places in many cities and aren't cooking behind one stove. However, they still have raised national standards. The award seeks to address this broader issue of traveling chefs."

And now you have fine-dining chefs using tools that long have been used in the quick-service world.

For example, New York-based chef David Burke worked with a flavor company to develop his bubblegum whipped cream.

And of course the buzz-phrase of the moment in the country's hippest restaurants is "molecular gastronomy," which simply means using a knowledge of science to make better food.

Chain restaurants have used stabilizers and flavoring agents to do that for years. That fine-dining chefs are using lecithin to make their foams stay together longer is just a continuation of that process.

And, as Washington, D.C.-based chef Jose Andres--himself an avid molecular gastronomist--says, "Scientists are helping cooks learn the 'why' of things."

That, he contends, will make all food taste better in the future.

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