Chef Week, or Restaurant Week, or any other special prix fixe event offers a great way to get a glimpse of a restaurant without going broke ($30 prix fixe 3 course meal, for example). My experience last night at Sepia left me with many questions regarding these specials.
The beauty is the price point, opening up places usually price prohibitive. These "weeks" should be a big bonus to restaurants and present an opportunity to expand their reach and grow their client base. That only works, though, if the impression and execution is positive. Of the many questions one is why do restaurants whip out an entirely new menu specific to the event? I used to think this was innovative and allowed the chef to showcase creativity and range. I am now quite skeptical of special menus, especially from the high end. If the items offered for Chef Week are the same quality, why are they not on the regular menu? Are these items better suited for mass production, anticipating high volume? Are they prepared en mass and not fresh to order? Are the preparers not as familiar with the ingredients and style? If the goal is to bring in a new audience, why not let them choose off the regular menu items to gauge flavor and interest for themselves?
I am not trying to suggest each chef and restaurant operate the same way and that any of my previous questions are valid. I have never worked in restaurant operations. But these are the reasons I am now skeptical of special menus. The other potential negative is the perceived value the customer receives. For example, Sepia's regular menu offers entrees priced more than $25 across the board. Had the Chef Week choices been off of that menu, I feel great appreciation for the restaurant participating in the special and for that value. Past experiences at Mercadito, Ceres' Table and May Street Market present an example of how this is done successfully. I look back and wonder if the bacon wrapped trout, or the vegetarian lasagna are worthy of the regular menu. Was the special menu constructed to optimize the business rather than the customer and not give away too much good food? Because even with the $30 menu, a dinner for two after drinks, tax and tip is still into triple digits; most would agree this is not a "cheap" night out.
After all of this is analyzed, the bottom line is to serve quality, good tasting food. Value can be forgiven for an exceptional dining experience, and very cheap food can still taste phenomenal (see XOCO, M Burger, and many other lower cost places serving great food). I still love and fully support specialty weeks where restaurants open their doors for cheaper than usual meals. I will still go to as many as I can afford to explore new places and revisit old favorites. My suggestion is to always serve the best possible product, and that could mean giving consumers proven dishes from the regular menu. However it is done, we should receive good value for participating and served the very best the restaurant has to offer.