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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Sourcing Local Food

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If a chef wants to make good food, he or she has to use good ingredients. That statement sounds intuitive, but it is difficult to convey exactly how much effort chefs make sourcing ingredients. Chefs spend an enormous amount of time searching out trusted purveyors, examining food shipments that come in, tasting samples from food company representatives, and checking out different markets. They spend time sourcing their ingredients because chefs know that good food starts long before they cook it in their kitchens.

We now designate some restaurant ingredients as “farm-to-table”, or “locally-sourced, seasonal” produce. Our new vocabulary comes from an old concept, spending our food dollars with small farmers and food producers in the local region. Many chefs advertise their buying habits on their menus or in their restaurant. “Farm-to-table” is a buzzword in the industry.

But what does “buying locally” actually mean for a chef? And when you know that a restaurant buys locally, what does that mean to you?

First, though a lot of lip service is paid toward the local food ethos, what most chefs are talking about, at the end of the day, is flavor. Many chefs certainly want to support local producers. And these chefs are actually supporting local advocates’ ideals, by putting their dollars into the local economy. But they are, first and foremost, concerned with flavor. Local, in-season food generally tastes better. Local ingredients make menus impress. Local products help them be great chefs.

Local ingredients on the menu mean that the chef is committed to flavor. But the story doesn’t end there- it’s not just that the chef is buying ingredients from somewhere new, and they’re fresher. Buying locally also requires a commitment from the chef to adjust the way a kitchen typically runs.

A restaurant, with many moving parts, is a logistically difficult enterprise. There is a pipeline of expectations, starting with customer demands for a full menu, at a certain price point, every night. Stable menus, with fixed plates and fixed ingredients, make a chef’s life easier. With a stable, unchanging menu, a chef doesn’t need to track a broad inventory or print new menus with last minute changes. Line cooks don’t need to be as specialized, and food costs are generally lower. Many restaurants choose this model for their kitchens.

Local producers sometimes cannot fit into this mold of predictability. At a former restaurant, I remember a chef’s frustration as a pig farmer delayed and postponed a delivery of a whole pig, until he finally arrived at 4:30pm on a Friday. An hour before a busy weekend service, the sous chef was frantically slicing the pig down into cuts that we could store in our small cooler, until we had more time to properly butcher the cuts we wanted.

We never did business with that farmer again. The meat was wonderful, the fat creamy and flavorful, and we eventually made delicious pulled pork, bacon, and sausage. But the chef could not stomach an unpredictable vendor, not when he needed to buy product so regularly.

At my current restaurant, we work with extraordinarily talented and reliable farmers and small distributors. But even for the most professional, there are unpredictable storms, improper storage in outside facilities, early frosts, or family truck issues. Their small businesses cannot absorb disruptions as easily.

It’s a trend that repeats itself in many industries: large food purveyors compete on their reliability, cost, and uniformity, and small producers compete on quality and locality. Many chefs, pushed toward low food costs, rapid deliveries, or customer expectations for fresh tomatoes in February, find it easier to buy from large food purveyors. The chefs who do opt for local food must be flexible in their menus, and have the creativity and commitment to respond to unforeseen changes.

Local products also can be more labor-intensive to work with. The large food-system apparatus that transports food from faraway places to neatly refrigerated trucks is an efficient and terrifying machine. This machine delivers uniform, sanitized, well-packaged ingredients that are easy to prepare. Lettuce is clean and dry; meat is neatly vacuum-sealed. Heads of cabbage have no dirt between their leaves, the garlic can come pre-peeled, and all the eggs are uniform.

Farmers and local food producers, on the other hand, tend to deliver a different product. In my kitchen, we spend an enormous amount of time scrubbing, soaking, and washing produce that comes in from the fields, because it is literally dirt-y. We shell field peas and fava beans by hand, because some of the farmers we buy them from don’t own expensive shelling machines. We buy foraged mushrooms, using small paintbrushes to brush forest dirt off of their stems. Cooks must be a bit more specialized and thorough in all of their preparation. All of this extra processing, before we have even started cooking, adds to the kitchen’s labor cost.

Let me be clear: the quality of produce we get from local food producers is extraordinary, and the pre-packaged ingredients pale in comparison. Fresh, local, in-season produce is beautiful; it is what real food tastes and looks like. It is better for our health, it is better for our environment, and it is better for all involved. I am in no way advocating for the sterilized, mass-produced food that comes from large purveyors.

But I do want to point out that the fixed menus and the food and labor costs that we are used to expecting in restaurants are, in part, due to reliance on large food purveyors. Standardized, mass-manufactured ingredients provide stability, cost-efficiency, and uniformity. These massive food systems are the easy option for restaurants, and chefs, when they need to meet customer expectations.

When chefs buy locally, they are making a choice to do what is not easy. Buying locally comes with its challenges, namely, logistical stress and higher food and labor costs. Chefs who buy local food, not just paying lip service to the “farm-to-table” aesthetic but genuinely spending a large portion of their food dollars in the local food economy, are admirable to me. I want them to be admirable to the dining public as well. They are taking the challenging route, going against what the economics of a notoriously tough industry tell them to do.

These chefs are sourcing good ingredients, and cultivating relationships with the producers of good ingredients. And these good ingredients wind up on your table, on your plate, in your stomach. They do this even though it means needing to adjust a menu when the local distributor runs out of shishito peppers, and even though it means paying line cooks like me to brush the dirt out of locally foraged mushrooms for a couple hours a week.

These chefs are buying their ingredients consciously, for flavor, for local economies, and for the sake of good food, and they are making adjustments in their restaurant to do so. Buying locally changes the way restaurants are run, the kind of food we eat, and the experience customers have. Chefs are in the middle of the local food movement, examining the trout bellies, savoring their farmer’s fresh cherry tomatoes, and making conscious choices about what they put on your plate and why.

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Much has been made of the way that Instagram, by emphasizing the visual, has affected food trends and restaurants. There are countless accounts devoted to beautiful food, showing plate after plate of photogenic meals. I myself follow quite a few chefs and restaurants on Instagram, watching what they’re cooking and how they present it.

It’s easy to complain about the new obsession with appearance rather than taste, or to label Instagram as “good” or “bad” for food. Instagram is shallow, of course, but it is also just one tool among many to connect with customers. As one of my former chefs would remind me, if my plating grew sloppy, “customers eat with their eyes first, mouth second.” Popular food-centric accounts reflect the fact that the visual has always mattered in restaurants, and especially in fine dining.

Enter Rick Venutolo.

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“Pepito mixto – grilled chicken, grilled steak, cheese, potato, sauce.” 
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“Queso dip. Chorizo enchilada. Al pastor, barbacoa, and chicharron tacos. Esquite.”

Someone recently pointed me to Rick’s Instagram account, a subversive take on the perfect Instagram-worthy plate. Rick posts photos of his meals, after he’s eaten them. His feed is a series of empty plates, baskets, and bowls. There are bones, containers, and dribbles, but no recognizable food. His Instagram bio tagline self-deprecatingly sums it up: “This is so dumb. Why would anyone do this?”

Rick’s photos push back against prioritizing aesthetic over taste, or stepping out of a moment to document the moment. But there is something else in his feed that is more beautiful, more laudable to me: all of his photographed plates, baskets, and platters are clean. There are tidy piles of bones, or scraped out sauce cups, but for the most part, he has eaten everything on his plate. He is visually documenting his membership in what my mother used to call “the clean plate club”.

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“Beef rib. Death row last meal good mac and cheese. Baked beans.”
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“Burrata (with a great tomato jam). Cacio e pepe. Porchetta. Panna Cotta with peaches.”

At my restaurant, I get a glimpse of who, exactly, is in the clean plate club. I cook your dish, and then I watch it walk out of the door. I never get to see you eat the food. I don’t hear what you say, how you react, or what you grab first. But, later, I see your plate come back in the kitchen. There will be a server balancing it on his arm as he unloads the leftover food and dishes into the dish pit.

It’s then that I see what you did, or didn’t eat. I always talk to the server, because I want to know if there was something wrong with my cooking. What made them avoid all the olives? Why did they leave those greens on their plate? Why didn’t they finish the snapper? And why don’t they want to take any leftovers home? The server frequently has no constructive criticism; more often than not, the customer simply seemed sated with what they had eaten and then left the rest.

There is food waste in every step of the restaurant industry. Food spoils, or fails to meet certain standards during harvesting, packaging, transportation, storage, and preparation. Some food waste is seen as inevitable in our current system, the product of long supply chains and unrealistic expectations in the industry. But food waste is an enormous contributor to methane emissions, food insecurity, and misused natural resources. There are so many ways to cut down on food waste in the restaurant industry, from buying more locally to composting food waste during kitchen prep. It’s is a pressing topic worth examining in detail (anyone want to see Wasted! with me?), because food waste can be stymied at many different points in our food system.

But, tonight, as I watched servers throw away meticulously prepared vegetables or the last delicious bites of uneaten pork, I kept returning to that last link in the long chain of food production to food consumption: the customer. Who is reminding the customer that they are part of the food system as well? And that, by being conscious of what and how they eat, they can affect a change?

“Finish your food” is something you say to children, to picky eaters and spoiled youngsters. Rarely is it promoted as a value for adults. After all, we can make our own decisions, order our own meals, and act on our own dietary preferences.

But our choices, as diners, as consumers, matter. The pursuit of a clean plate will change the way you eat at a restaurant, how much you order and how you think about your meal. It will change your food waste footprint. This is why I love Rick’s Instagram account: this man is glorifying, and beautifying, cleaning your plate. Perhaps he is just one very, very hungry man who finds it easy to finish his meal. But he also makes it look enviable.

The next time you’re at a restaurant, take a moment to think about what you are going to order, and what will be left after you are full. See if you can visualize yourself, as an adult, being a member of the clean plate club. If you need some motivation, do like Rick does, and take a picture afterwards for Instagram. Write what your meal was, in the caption. Make everyone you know jealous of a meal so good, you had to eat every last bite.

The Nudge

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When you go to a restaurant, you look at the menu and order a dish based on your preferences. You have your own tastes, certainly, and those tastes determine what you choose. You make your own decisions about what to eat. Most customers think that this is the end of the story.

But like grocery stores are designed to maximize your purchases, and survey questions can be written to sway your answers, restaurants can influence what you decide to eat. Of course, you are the one who ultimately places an order. But every step along the way, the restaurant is trying to nudge you in a certain direction. Chefs may have a menu-ful of possible meals, but every chef knows what they want their customers to order- for financial, culinary, or inventory management reasons.

There are signals and clues that the restaurant is trying to nudge you in a certain direction, if you know what to look for. Here, I outline the three general methods American restaurants use to influence your order, and whether you should listen.

 

  1. The Server

Most professional servers will greet your table just as you are settling in, before you’ve had time to look at a menu and make ironclad decisions. There will be an opening speech- a note of welcome, perhaps a bit of probing to find out your dining history at this restaurant or the occasion of the evening. The server will then probably walk you through the menu or highlight specific recommendations or specials.

This opening speech and introduction to the menu is where the server is most overtly trying to nudge you in the direction they want you to go. The best servers, at the best restaurants, will actively try to steer your meal. Servers are your most direct link to the kitchen, and they will pass on more useful information than the menu does. You may think that the halibut looks delicious, but had you noticed it, before your server gushed about its addition to the menu?

There may be forceful recommendations, or overenthusiastic suggestions, but the server is ultimately trying to point you toward a good (or expensive, and good) time. They may be reciting crowd favorites that are proven to please, or they may be judging your table dynamic and calculating your presumable budget. They may also be acting on a chef’s orders, to sell as much quail as possible tonight, because he or she accidentally ordered a double shipment this week and needs to sell it this weekend.

Trust that your server is not trying to bamboozle you, or point you toward bad food. If they seem open, and communicative, take their suggestions. They want you to be happy. Content, happy customers make serving a rewarding job, and also help ensure a rewarding paycheck. No matter the manipulation, at the end of the day, the server is trying to make sure that you have a thoroughly enjoyable meal.

 

  1. The Specials

The server has probably mentioned any specials in his or her opening speech. These featured dishes may be called seasonal offerings, a plat du jour, or a nightly special, but they are not on the regular menu. And they can be difficult to decipher.

Most of the time, at high quality restaurants, the special features an unusual ingredient, a product that is either extremely seasonal or too expensive to put on the menu regularly. Specials can be an adventurous and rewarding way to try something new, with limited availability. Some chefs create specials because they soft spots for certain dishes, even if they don’t make much money. Other chefs celebrate limited quantities of special products by only featuring them for a few days. If you trust the restaurant, and the chef, the special is probably going to be a more interesting meal than the standard house favorites.

However, specials can also be a way to unload product that is about to pass its prime. Anthony Bourdain famously revealed the secret to the masses in Kitchen Confidential, but restaurant workers have known for years: no one is getting in a fresh shipment of fish on a Monday. That half-price Monday night sushi special is all leftover fish from the weekend that the restaurant is trying to sell before it goes bad. And an unexpected “chicken stew” is probably made from the not-sold pre-cooked Saturday birds. Restaurants need to do this, to cut down on food waste and food costs. A dinner special, even though it uses the restaurant equivalent of leftovers, may very well be good. But if you aren’t sure about a kitchen’s commitment to quality, skip the special and go for a trusted favorite.

 

  1. The Menu

When the server is gone from your tableside, you are left with the menu. Here, too, there are layers of influence.

Look at the layout of the menu. At some restaurants, certain dishes may be highlighted to stand out- they may be bolded, boxed, or labeled as house specialties. These are the dishes the chef is trying to steer you toward, because they are house classics, crowd favorites, and, most likely, because they make the kitchen a decent profit margin (We all want to think that a chef is putting out food as an artistic endeavor, for the glory of the culinary arts. They may be. But, also, the chef needs to keep the lights on.)

However, there are far subtler ways to influence a customer’s order. In the most stereotypical American restaurants, dishes are usually sold by a featured protein, accompanied by some vegetables, starches, and sauces- think braised lamb, on a bed of lentils and greens, or seared prawns, with a spicy tomato sauce and grits. Most customers tend to notice the protein first, then the rest of the dish second.

When chefs are trying to influence the amount of a certain dish sold, they can adjust the accompaniments to the proteins. Say a chef makes a high margin on the steak dish, and wants to sell a lot of it over the weekend. The chef can pair the steak dish with the most popular sauces and vegetables- some creamed spinach, and fingerling potatoes, for example. Or, say on a Tuesday before a shipment arrives, a chef needs to deter a lot of orders of the fish that was very popular over the weekend. He or she can pair it with an unheard-of but still-delicious broth, and an unfamiliar vegetable. Fewer customers will order it, ensuring that the dish doesn’t need to be embarrassingly taken off the menu.

Chefs can also adjust prices, inflating or deflating the menu price. The menu cost of a dish is usually based on a food cost percentage, but it is a general rule. Some dishes can be sold at a high price to cover for an expensively-made but cheaply-sold plate, or a poorly selling dish can be made more popular by dropping down the price by a few dollars relative to similar dishes (more on food cost and meal price at a later date).

Believe it or not, experienced chefs can usually guess what dishes will sell, when. They know that you are ordering your dishes based on description first, and taste later. They adjust and tweak their menus according to their own culinary ideas, undoubtedly, but they also tweak the menu to suit their financial or inventory needs. The menu contains all of this information, if you know where to look.

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I am either obnoxious, or valuable, dinner company, when I point out these nudges at a restaurant. There are no hard or fast rules of influence, and restaurants vary in their attempts. This is not meant to be an exposé, or a condemnation. Of course restaurants are trying to sell you something. You are buying their product, and they are feeding you. It’s a relationship- there is give and take, suggestion and compromise, prompting and prodding.

But once you learn some of the basic rules, you can see that nudge coming.

 

 

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.

On Cooking With Fire

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Growing up, I never learned how to make a fire. My family, led by my outdoor-adventure-adverse parents, didn’t camp. I didn’t learn how to roast skewers or s’mores over a campsite fire. Even though I grew up in a small town, attending country bonfires on cool summer nights, I stayed close to the fire only to avoid mosquitoes. I never gathered logs, or kindling, or offered to start the fire.

On some level, I thought of it as men’s work. It was the gangly teenage boys poking the embers with logs, or dousing our shoddily-made fire with lighter fluid, who seemed to be having fun. It was always someone else’s responsibility, someone else’s pursuit. I didn’t want anything to do with fire, because I was afraid. To me, it was hot, seemingly unpredictable, and dangerous.

Then, I started working in professional kitchens. And my relationship with fire changed.

It began when I first started working the “hot” portion of the line at my first restaurant. There was a standard setup for cooking the hot entrees: an open-flame grill with an attached flattop, stacks of ovens, and a long set of stovetop burners for sauté pans. Everything was burning or flammable. There were a lot of amateurs working in this particular kitchen. Things caught on fire, often.

The cook who loses his or her mind and makes jerky, panicked movements when flame is involved is certainly going to ruin some food, and possibly jeopardize other cooks. I had to learn, bit by bit, how to keep calm and see the flames as something I could control. I now work with a game plan for every potential type of kitchen fire, because I’ve encountered most of them. My fingers dance nimbly around open flames, flipping seared potatoes in the scalding hot pan. Small flare-ups of dripping fat from grilled meats don’t make me flinch anymore. And flaming sauté pan fires are quickly and efficiently put out. Flames became familiar, a part of the job.

When I moved to my most recent kitchen, my relationship with fire changed again. At this point, I was not an inexperienced cook. I knew how to cook steaks, and fish, and chicken. I knew how to do all of that, in sauté pans, and over a gas-controlled grill.

But this restaurant centered around a real, bona fide, wood-burning oven. It is the kind of oven where you stack wood logs in the corner, build a raging fire, and then maintain coals hot enough to cook with, over a 5-hour dinner service. You cook with heavy cast irons and sizzling metal platters, raking coals and flipping logs to maintain a balance between steady heat and growing flame.

By the time I started to work the wood-fired oven station, I had already been at this particular restaurant for months, calmly holding down the sauté stations. I was doing well, and I felt confident in the kitchen.

But I did not know how to start a fire.

I avoided the wood-fired oven for a long time, acting as though I wasn’t interested. There were some blustery, “veteran” cooks in the kitchen ahead of me, all men, and they were happy to work the oven. I stayed where I had experience, where I worked with the kind of flames I was familiar with, and where I didn’t need to compete. I cornered myself for months, avoiding that fire.

Eventually, staff turnover, sous chef encouragement, and self-candor forced me to the wood-burning oven. It was not a comfortable transition. I cooked bad food; I made mistakes with my plates. I blew smoke into my eyes, burned off all feeling in my hands, and sweated gallons every night. And as I have done with most other things, I put my head down and reminded myself, “fake it ‘til you make it”.

I got to know the fire. I learned what worked to start the fire, how to coax that initial flare into an enveloping flame. I started to grasp, intuitively, how to design the airflow to my advantage. I learned by touch which logs burned brightly and which logs burned slow. I grew startlingly accurate in my ability to toss logs into stacks in the back of the oven. I learned how to shovel coals, and flip individual logs, giving myself useful surfaces and pockets of heat to cook my meats and fish.

And I started to appreciate the beauty in cooking with fire- I was responsible for feeding the beast, for starting and maintain the source that I used to cook all of my dishes. Instead of gas burners, turned on with the flick of a handle, or a flattop grill, mysteriously warmed from below, my cooking method was tangible. I could see it. I had to work for it. I had to maintain it. I was feeding the fire, and the fire was feeding the work that I was doing.

I am no longer scared of fire. I love the smell, the visual, and the incomparable taste it gives food. I lament the lack of an open flame in my tiny city apartment, and I approach a campfire with the affinity of an old friend. I feel self-assured, standing in front of the oven, knowing that I have overcome my own limits and fears about fire. Cooking with fire rewards confidence, and experience. In working with fire in kitchens, I have developed both.

A fire also requires patience, upkeep, and plenty of oxygen. In facing our fears, I think we thrive on the same.

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.

Sorry, All Out

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It’s a Saturday night, and you’re on the most special of dates. You two saw a show, so you made your reservation at the restaurant for a bit later in the evening. When you sit down and glance at the menu, the fish dish catches your eye. You put the menu down, already decided on your dinner.

The server comes over, and gives his opening speech. You hear about his recommendations, the wine by the glass, and finally, he informs you that unfortunately, the kitchen has run out of that fish dish you had been eyeing the moment before.

The kitchen has run out of the fish? What? What kind of restaurant is this?

As I’m going to argue, probably a good one.

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Selling food can be a logistical nightmare. Food products have a range of limited shelf lives, and the peak time to sell something can be quite narrow.

The better the restaurant is, the fresher and more perishable most of the product is. Those tomatoes only keep their firm texture and sweet crunch for a few days after they come from the farm, and that arugula started to wilt the moment it was harvested. If a restaurant is getting the freshest fish, they are probably getting shipments every few days, trying to minimize the time between the catch, the filleting, and the actual cooking for your plate.

There are also items that are prepared far in advance for your plate: the sauces that simmer for hours on the stove, right next to the long-braised greens and the slow-cooked pork shoulder. These are components that may have an extended shelf life in the cooler or freezer, but must be prepared far in advance of your dinner order, and used quickly to maintain their peak flavors.

Fresh and prepared ingredients contain a lot of a restaurant’s profit, because they are what the restaurant is selling. If the pork goes bad, that is profit souring. If there are items that are old and need to be thrown out, those are potential sales that have been wasted. Restaurants try to avoid food waste as much as possible.

Large corporate restaurants, with thousands of dollars in sales and sizable, stable menus, can somewhat hedge their bets against food waste. They have large amounts of diner data and streamlined systems for serving food. But for small, independent restaurants with changing menus and relatively tighter margins, this is harder to do.

Any restaurant faces the same unpredictable element: you, the diner, can walk in the door and order anything off the menu. An experienced chef can guess what will be a big seller, based on the clientele, the time of the year, the weather, or the past records. It is also possible to steer the customer through the menu phrasing, pricing, or recommendations by the server.

But the dining public is unpredictable, and the chef is left with a guessing game. The kitchen is trying to overestimate the ingredients needed to serve an entire dining room full of unknown people, but by the minimum amount possible. Over-preparation is expected, but minimized, as cooks try to estimate and prepare only for the maximum amount of particular dishes they think will sell a night.

Sometimes, there is a miscalculation: the chef didn’t anticipate the weather change, or the imperceptible shift in public opinion. Suddenly, it’s Saturday night, and even though the fish dish has been selling miserably for two straight weeks, the entire dining room has become enchanted. Fish dish after fish dish order rolls in, and the cooks are scurrying around, eyeing their depleted ingredients.

This is when you, the average diner, hears that we are out of the fish dish tonight, terribly sorry. And this is when I humbly urge you, the average diner, to stay calm and try to understand.

(First, a small caveat about timing- if it is late on a Saturday, for example, the last day of the week’s dinner service for many restaurants, the shortage is probably the result of the chef making a miscalculation on inventory. However, if it is 6pm on a Friday, which is usually when at restaurant is most heavily stocked with ingredients, something else has most likely gone wrong. Perhaps a purveyor forgot to include that week’s beef delivery, or there was a break in the supply chain. I’ve also witnessed a nightmare slow-motion spilling of an entire tray of prepared porchetta onto the kitchen floor, minutes after Friday service started, causing that dish to be taken off of the menu for the night.)

No chef wants to take an item off of the menu and limit diner choices. It does not reflect well on the restaurant. But if it happens, it is probably because the chef is running a tight ship that does not contain a lot of room for excess. Perhaps the chef uses very fresh ingredients, instead of relying on freezing or half-cooked components. Perhaps the supply chain is made up of smaller, local producers who are not as blindly reliable as international, corporate food companies.

Or perhaps the chef, even at the best of restaurants, runs a messy, human business. Good restaurant owners, who are trying to run a non-wasteful venture that keeps food at an affordable price, will sometimes need a little flexibility. They cannot predict the way a full dining room will order any more than you can predict the weather (which sometimes heavily influences how a full dining room will order, but that’s another story). Things happen in a business that is full of fire, perishable items, and humans.

————-

So yes, unfortunately, the fish dish is off of the menu tonight. But the restaurant is still here, still open, still serving you the best food possible. Could I recommend the porchetta, instead?

 

 

Where We Eat

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Restaurants are everywhere- from the food stalls in Hanoi, to the walk-by pastry windows in Bucharest, to sidewalk cafes in New York. I’ve eaten at restaurants, on occasion, my entire life. With varying frequency, you probably have too. You’ve eaten food prepared for you by strangers at a mutually agreed-upon location, paying them in exchange for their labor and product. We all gotta eat. But, sometimes, we can’t always cook.

In the United States, people frequently refer to this business as the “restaurant industry”. To be clear: restaurants are an enormous industry, employing 10 percent of the American workforce and bringing in nearly $800 billion annually. The restaurant industry covers everything from the fastest food at McDonald’s to the slowest at Chez Panisse, and everything in between.

I work in a particular subset of the restaurant industry, the small corner of chef-owned and operated restaurants. I believe in the importance of these types of establishments: they are small, and independent, and they usually are the ones driving culinary experimentation and risk-taking.

But as immersed as I am in this subsection, I still like to eat my way through the entirety of the dining landscape. There is an entire ecosystem of establishments and enterprises designed to feed people. I love going to greasy diners, or stopping by to peer into food trucks, and I have been known to swing through many drive-through windows for fries. Every different kind of restaurant provides me with different experiences, and, certainly, food. It is worth asking ourselves: when we do not cook for ourselves, where do we go, and why?

The question is layered, and lies at intersections of class and culture and a multiplicity of identities. Feeding yourself, or your family, is an immensely personal act of consumption- when it is outsourced to a restaurant, what do we consider? Is it just price? Is it taste, or speed? Is it the feeling of the place, or familiarity of certain foods, or the convenience of a location? Is eating at a restaurant just an act of sustenance, or does it have a social function? Where do we go when we are tired, and where do we go to celebrate? Where do we take our moms, and where do we take first dates? Where do we go when we have a lot of money, and where do we go when we want to feel like we have a lot of money?

For most, restaurants may only occupy the mind when they are hungry- but these establishments occupy a large space in our society. These questions matter, because they determine what an enormous portion of our food system looks like. Your food dollars shape our economy and local life on our neighborhood block. Restaurants reflect trends and indicate our current realities. They reflect our priorities, values, and tastes, both culinarily and culturally.

What do your restaurants look like?