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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Seeing the Gorilla in the Kitchen

A few years ago, Time magazine published a now-infamous cover article about the “Gods of Food”. It quickly became controversial for a notable omission: while some women were profiled for their roles as activists or businesswomen, no female chefs were included in the article. Even the detailed chef family tree, mapping famous chefs and their spheres of culinary influence, consisted of only male chefs.

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Courtesy of Time Magazine

Immediately, there were think pieces, discussions with the editor, interviews with famous female and male chefs, and alternative lists published. In further interviews, the author, Howard Chua-Eoan, revealed that he was aware that there were no women on the list, but that he saw that as a reflection of the industry, not of his coverage. They, “did not want to fill a quota of a woman chef. We wanted to go with reputation and influence.”

I’m not interested in debating the particulars of the article’s culinary merits. Time, as established of a news publication as it is, is not a leading voice in the culinary world; it is not an authority. No chef or restaurateur is checking Time magazine for rankings, reviews, or critiques of trends or culinary traditions.

The fact that Time doesn’t specialize or hold much prestige in the culinary world makes the list even more fascinating to me. While the Time team certainly included people who knew about food, the article was meant to explore influence, rather than hand out culinary accolades. It was coming from a journalist’s point of view, chronicling people thought to impact our food on a broad cultural or economic level. The Time team presumably spent months researching and debating these diverse figures and their significance.

And, at the end of it all, they did not find any female chefs as having noteworthy influence. They saw, and included, only male chefs.

In a post-article interview with Eater, when asked if the media plays a role in the gender gap of famous chefs, Chua-Eoan claims, “I don’t think the media has to advocate for anything.” He somewhat retracts his statement a question later, clarifying that if female chefs advocate for themselves and cause the news media to pay attention, they’ll “cover it”.

Chua-Eoan’s statements make me think of the infamous basketball/gorilla experiment from the late 90s. Psychologists asked subjects to watch a short video and count the number of times basketball players wearing white shirts in the group passed the ball. Halfway through the video, a woman in a gorilla suit walks in the middle of the group and pounds her chest, and then walks off camera. Afterwards, when asked if they saw anything unusual, researchers found that about half of the participants hadn’t noticed the gorilla.

This particular study focused on what psychologists called “inattentional blindness”, or a psychological lack of attention to certain visuals that are in plain sight. Something that is unexpected, or beyond our scope of attention, can go unnoticed. There are a ton of related concepts in psychology, from implicit bias to unconscious discrimination: our intuition, or expectations, can affect how we perceive the world, even if we believe we are being objective.

We tend to see what we are already looking for. This is true of you and me, and it is true of journalists. It’s in my language, when I refer to chefs as “he” before I know their gender, and it’s in a news article, where those chefs deemed “influential” all come from a particular demographic.

Journalists play a role in shaping and defining narratives. They are public figures. Perhaps more than most, they are obligated to question their intentions and biases. If they don’t believe that they need to advocate for anything, they are forgetting that by producing content to be consumed, they are already advocating for something. They are already influencing the public discourse.

I don’t want there to be a category for “female chefs” and I don’t want there to be a quota. As I’ve argued before, cooking is not a gender-specific task, and gender shouldn’t be an important factor in deciding awards or merits. However, when there is such a slant in media coverage, we would do best to ask ourselves- is this because of the reality of the industry, or is there a bias influencing the people we choose to cover?

The women chefs are the gorilla on the basketball court, running around while the other players pass the ball back and forth and get all of the attention. If you associate great chefs with male chefs, as has been the trend in recent times, you will see great male chefs. The women doing the work, who may not look, talk, or present in the same way, will fade into the background.

Where are the female chefs? They’re out there. They’re doing the work that isn’t profiled in the magazine, isn’t “godly”, isn’t exactly what picture in your mind when someone says “chef”. They are running different kinds of kitchens, in different areas, doing different food. They exist. And they’re already doing the work.

It’s time to see them.

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Footnote: This article is a few years old, and there have been many relevant and compelling pieces written since. In a way, the debate around the article provided the “huge stir” about gender in haute cuisine that Chua-Eoan insisted wasn’t there to cover. I would be remiss if I didn’t point toward my favorite response, a submission from Gabrielle Hamilton (also one of my favorite chefs) to The New York Times’ Room for Debate section.