Coffee Table Books

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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!).

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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?

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On Being A Line Cook

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When people ask what I do for a living, I don’t say that I am a chef. I usually respond, “I am a cook, in a restaurant.” Most people are quick to unintentionally correct me- “oh, a chef!” I am happy to take the implicit promotion, but in the professional cooking world, there is a distinction between chef and cook.

The comparison I use often is this: when a building is being constructed, there are people designing the building on computers, there are people calculating the exact shapes and sizes of the materials, and there are people nailing the walls together. Every person knows something about construction; all of them are building the structure. But they are not all called architects.

I, quite simply, cook the food of the restaurant, over and over. I am a line cook. I stand at my station, which is on the “line” of cooks, and I properly prepare the food listed on the menu as people sit down and order it. I am nailing the damn walls together.

“Chef” doesn’t apply to me. I am a professional in the culinary world, but I command no obedience; I have no creative control. I have a lot of knowledge about cooking, about food, about cuisine- but I have none of the chef’s glamourous freedom of taste, of vision, of execution. That is what line cooks are working toward: the chance to be at the top of the line, watching everyone else cook your food while you strut your chef self around the kitchen. But right now, I am cooking the food exactly the way that I am told to cook, because even the best chefs cannot produce their food for an entire restaurant alone.

I stand somewhere near the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy. But from my vantage point, with my hands in everything, I can see connections. I see the winding supply chains, questionable labor practices, and conflicts of interest. I hear the gossip no one thinks I know. I watch dropped plates and masterfully executed presentations. I see how women exist in male-dominated environments, and I see how men exist in male-dominated environments. I observe the explosive anger of chefs, the cynical pragmatism of cooks, and the constant drama of many people running around a tiny restaurant. I know how ingredients are sourced and cooked, and how they come back into the kitchen from your table. And I see how people interact with food, and each other, day in and day out.

This blog is an exploration of all of these things I see- from my position as a cook, from my position as a woman, and from my position spent sweating next to an oven for hours, hands calloused and itching to write.

Professional(izing) Home Cooks

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Fine dining, when executed well, is an art. The work is nuanced, complex, and difficult, and when I patron fine dining establishments, I take the craft very seriously. I critique each plate’s execution, the service, and every element of the meal, maintaining high standards and expectations. I know how fine dining restaurants work, because that is my work.

But whatever my fine dining standards, I do not visit my mother’s house and tell her that her salt usage is inconsistent. If my mom cooks, I eat her food, I thank her, and then I urge her to sit down and let me do the dishes. For if I am invited to someone’s home, I just eat. Food isn’t always a serious matter, to be dissected. Sometimes, the beauty in a meal lies in the way it simply brings people together. On my off days, I am probably hungry, and tired of cooking. A home-cooked meal tastes good because of the company, because of the love put into the preparation, or, perhaps simply because someone besides me made it.

However, there is a new breed of home cook, one who takes cooking very seriously. America’s culinary consciousness is growing, with the rise of cooking shows, hip cookbooks, and access to diverse ingredients and diverse cuisines. A serious home cook may never set foot in a professional kitchen, but can still devote time and energy to learning different techniques or reading about the craft. I love watching this trend, because I think that cooking at home encourages healthy eating, self care, and quality social time.

Nonetheless, as a cook, I do not always know how to navigate situations with these professionalized home cooks, with their gear and tools that rival my own restaurant’s. At a recent outdoor barbeque, hosted by the neighbor of an acquaintance, I found myself cornered by the large, enthusiastic host who had appointed himself “grillmaster”. After someone had told him I was a cook at a restaurant in town, he told me all about his techniques, his grill, and how he approaches cooking meat. He obviously devoted a lot of time to grilling at his home, and he was intent on impressing me with the particulars.

I always want to talk about food, so I gladly listened. Our conversation continued deeper and deeper, and I started to offer some of my thoughts on his seasoning techniques and the cooking temperature he had chosen. Immediately, the tone between us shifted- there was a tension in the air, and a defensiveness in his remarks. I became hyperaware of the dynamic between this young woman telling an older man how to cook meat, going against stereotypes and expectations. I changed the subject, going back to safer ground, but I kept thinking about our conversation.

In a professional kitchen, nothing I do is beyond critique. When I put food on a plate, or ingredients in a pot, the chef is peering over my shoulder, tasting spoon in hand. If my salt level isn’t right, I hear it yelled, loudly. If I try to do something differently than I was shown, I am interrogated. If I put one more piece of squash on this plate than I did on the last plate, I am reprimanded in front of everyone. And Lord help me if my sear on this steak isn’t exactly like it is supposed to be every time. Profanities and attacks on my work and character abound, and the only acceptable response is “yes, chef”.

The standards in professional kitchens are ruthless and competitive. I have developed the thickest of skins, being able to listen to criticism and then letting it go immediately. I have developed tenacity and endurance under pressure and literal heat. Those who take insults and criticism personally do not survive in professional kitchens. The work forces you to let go of ego, to let go of being right all the time, because it is impossible. A critique of your food is simply seen as feedback, not personal, because everyone in that kitchen is working toward the eternally unreachable Good Food goal.

At this grillout, while I thought I was offering gentle feedback on the food, the host saw it as personal critique. In some way, I do understand how he was taken aback- after all, I was a guest in his home. I confused a passion for cooking with the professionalism of restaurant cooks. The “restaurant quality” grill that he bought at the store does not also come with a restaurant quality executive chef ready to scream about his steaks. Home cooks may want to professionalize their cooking, but they are not looking to follow the intense, masochistic standards that define fine dining kitchens.

Home cooking is a hobby, a pastime. Why should I hold these cooks to the same standards that I am held to at work? After all, when I am the home cook, on my weekend, even I ignore some of the fine dining rules. Because on my off days, I may be drinking the same wine that I’m using to deglaze the pan, and my steak will not have a perfect sear. And I’m too busy relaxing to listen to any critique of that- can’t we just eat?