I was making small talk with a stranger at a party this weekend, and the conversation shifted to what I do for a living: working in kitchens, and freelance writing on the side.
With those details, he was off. He had an idea for me- a killer idea, one bound to make my career. He proposed a coffee table book, all about “dirty kitchen secrets”. He looked at me expectantly- done. Career made.
I’ve had many of these conversations. It’s always someone wanting to know the real talk of restaurants, the nitty-gritty side of the work, the true confessions of a cook. It’s not the first time I’ve heard suggestions for a “tell-all” memoir, or pitches for a bold exposé on the restaurant life. Never mind that “kitchen secrets” might not be the juicy gossip he wants them to be (the lifestyle mostly just involves late-night meals eaten over a trash can). Never mind that I’m much too inexperienced to write a compelling treatise (I know he’s thinking of Bourdain, but that guy slogged through the grimy 80s before he had enough for a book). And also never mind that my career will most likely not be made by a hastily-blurted, vague idea for a “coffee table book” (no shade toward coffee table books, of course).
I always note the interest, though, because it makes me think about our connection to restaurants and food. I like to ask the person if they’ve worked in a restaurant. Frequently, the answer is a “no”, or a dim recollection of a high school summer job. But the restaurant industry employs a full 10% of the US workforce, and the people I’m talking to have certainly eaten at a restaurant. Everyone has an interest in restaurants, because they have had at least a tangential relationship to the industry throughout their lives.
And so this is where a discussion about food usually begins. This is where we start a conversation about how we eat in this culture, in this country, in this world. The entrance point is restaurants.
Last year, dollars spent at restaurants finally surpassed dollars spent at the grocery store. It was a predictable tipping point, based on the trends of recent years. Some lament this shift in the spending of food dollars; there were quick, dire pronouncements of the end of home cooking and condemnations of the lazy American cook (and it must be noted how many times it was attributed to those damn women entering the workforce!).
But I’m not one for simplistic blanket statements about the dynamic and diverse food scenes in this huge country. It’s a complex picture. Food sales seem to indicate that the average American may be cooking less, and eating out more, than their parents did. But the average American, today, is also spending less on food than their grandparents did. And the proportion of our income that we spend on food, on average, is still the smallest in the world1.
But if Americans are spending more eating out, there is undeniably a shift. Restaurants are providing a larger proportion of our food. We are spending more of our budgets at restaurants. What we eat is shifting, how we eat is shifting, and where we eat is shifting.
These changes are complex, and there could be any number of narratives behind the numbers. Perhaps, the way we eat is shifting from a personal, at-home activity to a more public, social activity2. Or, perhaps, we are shifting from knowing what is in our homemade food, to outsourcing that labor to underpaid cooks and obscured supply chains. Maybe we are becoming more interested in food as a form of entertainment, an activity, an art, rather than just sustenance. Or perhaps we are becoming distant from that very personal act of feeding ourselves.
There are any number of narratives that are attributed to these new statistics, and all of them, and none of them, will fully explain the trend. But what I think about most is the implication: restaurants are occupying a larger space in the way Americans eat.
This is why I keep reflecting on comments about that potential best-selling coffee table book, or on comments about Anthony Bourdain and obsessions with The Barefoot Contessa. Food, and restaurants, are a bigger part of popular culture than ever. In an ideal world, a screaming Englishman isn’t necessarily your introduction to caring about food, but I support any pop culture figure who piques interest in where our food comes from. When chefs become characters, the kinds of people who write tell-all memoirs and go on late night TV, they enter our popular culture and, hopefully, bring some culinary consciousness with them.
Restaurants are becoming more significant in our eating habits, and they are also becoming a larger part of our popular culture. This is why I pay attention to them, why I think that the work that is done in restaurants is important. Restaurants are places where our economic interests, public health, culinary momentum, popular culture, and globalized food chain all meet.
I don’t think I’ll ever write that coffee table book. But I may continue to bring it up at parties, because I enjoy talking to people about the way that they eat, and restaurants are a great segue to talking about our food systems. “Oh, dirty kitchen secrets? Let’s talk about it. I’ll tell you if you tell me what’s in your kitchen.”
1 Although it is important to note the proportional difference between people of different socioeconomic status, to understand how eating choices and health and income are all related. These trends have different implications for different people, which has been and should continue to be explored in depth.
2 I would love to see a breakdown of the types of restaurants we’re spending our money at, i.e. fast food versus takeout versus sit-down. While we’re at it, also how often we eat alone versus with other people. Who knows a survey statistician?