Two men in suits enter a long corridor; the camera swoops behind them in one continuous shot as they make their way through a series of back hallways, emerging into a restaurant kitchen, where they greet the chefs at work as they pass. They stroll up more stairs and down more hallways until they finally emerge into a crowded restaurant where they are instant stars, working their way through the room, shaking hands and kissing cheeks.
It’s Scorcese’s iconic Copacabana shot from Goodfellas, of course, but this version swaps out Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco for Eleven Madison Park’s Will Guidara and Daniel Humm. Instead of setting the scene for gruesome mob payback and nasty betrayals, it served to reveal the NoMad to the world on the day before the mega-hyped hotel restaurant opened to the public in 2012.
The restaurant trailer—a pair of words that sounds more Mad Lib than PR strategy—has become the splashiest way to promote a high-profile opening. From upstart food trucks to temples of modernist cuisine, short videos starring chefs pulling stunts and wearing costumes are de rigeur. It may sound like the world’s most embarrassing episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos, but as diners become deafened to the constant roar of restaurant-opening press, restaurateurs are looking for the Hail Mary that will help them rise above the fray.
“All the other media that creates the noise within a restaurant, the photos and all that stuff—people get excited about it and it’s everywhere. We don’t have a problem with it, but you have to top that,” says Sarah Rosenberg, founder of Wicked Good Media and director of marketing and publicity for Guidara and Humm’s Made Nice Group, which operates EMP and the NoMad. Rosenberg, who was a video producer with Nightline for 10 years before she left to work with Made Nice, was the one who came up the Goodfellas idea, and Guidara and Humm were game to give it a try. “We have a policy that you can’t say ‘no’ immediately when somebody brings up a farfetched idea. That said, I can’t imagine I was like, ‘Yeah, perfect!’ when Sarah brought it up,” says Guidara.
This is our new press release, in a way, where all the information isn’t spelled out for you—you kind of make your own assumptions as you watch the trailer.
Just like a preview for a movie, restaurant trailers offer a flirtatious peek into the aesthetic and emotional experience of eating in the restaurant while concealing more than it shows, leaving the viewer unsure just what is going on—and, hopefully, hungry to find out. The NoMad’s trailer doesn’t bother to show a single dish; with the dizzyingly long shot, it’s hard to even tell what the dining rooms look like. Instead, it trades on the mystique of restaurant culture, with the business-as-usual swagger of the bosses telling us all we need to know: These guys know what they’re doing, and you’d be lucky to be part of the magic.
While the NoMad borrows overtly from Scorsese, other restaurants take cues from other aspects of the classic cinematic trailer. The video announcing the 2010 opening of Next, the themed tasting-menu spot from Alinea’s Grant Achatz and Dave Beran, begins with words any summer blockbuster-goer will recognize: “From the creators of Alinea….” Since then, Next has made a short film to tease all of its limited-run menus, each in a completely different visual style. “Next is so conceptual to begin with, it would be silly to do a ‘here is how you peel a carrot, here is how you cook a carrot…’ ,’ Alinea and Next photographer/videographer Christian Seel told Chicagoist.
Rosenberg agrees that trailers give restaurants more control of their message. “This is our new press release, in a way, where all the information isn’t spelled out for you—you kind of make your own assumptions as you watch the trailer, and you’re intrigued enough to go in and find that information, as opposed receiving a boring list of bullet points: how many seats are here, where the chicken is from, that kind of bullshit,” she says.
It’s a savvy rebuke of the tired press process for new restaurants, which has remained largely unchanged for decades. A string of printed announcements are sent at strategic intervals in the months and weeks leading up to the opening; glamour shots of the hand-picked dishes they want to have end up on everyone’s Instagram feed make the rounds, and there’s a week or more of not-so-secret preview dinners to build up the ever-elusive “buzz.”
For writers at major food news sites, multiply that noise by 100, and that’s what you’ve got drowning your inbox every single day of the week. It becomes impossible to actually care about every single one; thirsty for content, bloggers scan for juicy keywords (why do you think every 15-year-old is “formerly of Noma” these days? Spend a week working for free and you’ve got a career boost for life) and toss them up in a post. Readers are bombarded with more empty dining room shots and yet another menu described, unhelpfully, as New American.
The surge in culinary moviemaking mirrors the rise of the chef as storyteller—not just a “celebrity chef,” but a mythical shaman-type who leads diners on an emotional journey with his hyper-personal flavor combinations and hand-selected dinnerware. How better to impart this mythology than with the moody, atmospheric drama of a trailer? Restaurants no longer have genres; at best they have concepts, and even straightforward-seeming spots like Keith McNally’s new French bistro Cherche Midi are painted with all the personality and history of its chef/owner.
The surge in culinary moviemaking mirrors the rise of the chef as storyteller—not just a “celebrity chef,” but a mythical shaman-type who leads diners on an emotional journey.
The inspiration for these films is an even less likely cinematic muse than a kitchen: books. As far back as 2006, major publishing houses like HarperCollins were creating short videos to boost their biggest releases of the year. At the time, the economics of the publishing world were finally being recognized as unsustainable, with big-name (and even brand-new) authors commanding advances of hundreds of thousands of dollars at the same time that the Kindle and eBooks were sweeping sales into the gutter. The industry needed a way to get the coveted preorder numbers up, a safeguard against overestimating market demand and ending up with a warehouse of unsold copies.
“The book industry is always a decade behind. This seems to be a case of people saying, ‘There must be something we can do with the Internet, so what is it?'” author Patrick Neate said of trailers in 2006—little did he know. From the experimental marketing of novels, it was a short leap to cookbooks: Alinea’s book trailer premiered in 2007, to breathless reception from food media. “The book already has a shiny website complete with a video trailer of, somehow, the book,” wrote Eater’s Ben Leventhal at the time. By the time cookbook trailers became old news, restaurants had picked up the baton.
Now in every corner of media, video is seen as the last great hope to snag the frayed attention spans of an overloaded, multitasking public. It’s why car commercials autoplay when you load up the New York Times, why Chipotle created a web series for Hulu, and why sites like this one are investing time and money into making Danny Brown drink weird liquor with Jim Meehan. By doing the creative work for us, restaurants that create trailers guarantee that their information will end up on the sites that need content to live, and that they’ll get your eyes (and, hopefully, your stomach and wallet) for a split-second longer than normal. The food industry has finally caught on, and we’ll be seeing more and more trailers from now on—at least until smell-o-vision is finally invented.