Category Archives: Restaurants

Gopnik on Cafes and Restaurants

I quoted yesterday from Adam Gopnik’s beautiful book The Table Comes First. As one who tries to write about tables and food, I bow down to writers like this. Gopnik not only writes well and ranges broadly, he sees in food so much more than food. The book is a delight to read.

I don’t have the time right now to do his work justice, but over the next day or so, as with yesterday, a few quotes from here and there.

Gopnik reflects on the common role of cafes and restaurants in modern urban life:

‘Most modern urban people mark their lives by their moments in cafes and restaurants, just as ancient people marked their time on earth by visits to the local oracle, or medieval people by pilgrimages: we are courted, spurned, recruited, hired, fired, lured to a new job, or released from an old one at a table while a waiter hovers nearby. There are few marriages that did not begin at dinner at a table leased for the evening, and few divorces that did not first show signs of approaching doom in a sigh of resentment or an eye roll of exasperation in a similar setting.’

‘Places of hope, restaurants and cafes are also places of reassuring mystery, and the mystery reassures because, in reminding us of lives and appetites beyond our own, they remind us of worlds we have yet to enter.’ 

‘Home, Robert Frost wrote, is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. A restaurant is a place where, they not only have to take you in but have to act as though they were glad to see you. In cities of strangers, this pretense can be very dear.’

And on the difference between the two:

‘though joined at the hip, the temperamental difference between the two is real. The restaurant belongs to its cook. You come to eat, and though, as Brillat-Savarin saw, anyone can eat there, still you come to eat. … The cafe, though, belongs to its habitués, and pleasure can be rented for the price of a coffee.’ 

the-table-comes-first-family-97961l2Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, London: Quercus, 2011, 14-15, 31, 52, 53.

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A restaurant shepherd

A few years back I had the pleasure of meeting Esther Lou, a Chinese-American woman who has a ministry to kitchen workers in the Chinese restaurants of Los Angeles. She calls herself a ‘restaurant shepherd’.

chinese-foodIndustry statistics tell of more than 1 million immigrant labourers working in some 42,000 Chinese restaurants in the US.  According to Esther, many of these workers speak little or no English, are at the bottom of the social scale among their own ethnic community, often work 12 hour days, 7 days a week, and, if they are in the country illegally, have no access to labour unions or social services.  To cope with their circumstances, many fall into gambling, drugs and alcohol — even prostitution.

In an interview about her work, Esther is quoted as saying, ‘In every kitchen, there’s always the same tired old man hiding in the corner near the stove that is his life.’  She tells of the Taiwanese pot washer who laboured for long hours, 7 days a week for 30 years to support his family.  When he died, Esther says, she asked his two daughters to speak at his funeral, but they couldn’t. They said they hardly knew him. Indeed, Lou says that people in this business speak of a regimen they call ‘going from the pillow to the stove.’ There is no other life for them.

Esther Lou is an extraordinary person, driven by a passion for a people group hidden from view for most of us. Her own experience as a restaurant owner has included its own pain, even financial ruin. But it was through these experiences that she and her husband found their faith in God. It’s this that now motivates Esther’s commitment to service within this community: ‘For all these people, I want to serve as a bridge, not only to religion, but to a better life.’  

It’s an inspiring story.

Bill Buford’s ‘Heat’

Another good kitchen read.

images-2Staff writer for the New Yorker, Bill Buford was commissioned to write a profile of celebrated New York chef Mario Batali. To do so, Buford wrangled his way into Batali’s kitchen as his ‘slave’. Eighteen months later, Buford had progressed from lowly kitchen hand to line cook, along the way spending time in Italy with the people who nurtured Batali’s skill and passion–learning the craft of pasta making in a hillside trattoria and the art of butchery in Tuscany.

Heat is a fascinating book, masterfully written, full of the most gratifying kitchen voyeurism, endearing characters, intelligent reflection and priceless insights into the complex world of food and why it matters. I like it!

A concluding paragraph:

When I started, I hadn’t wanted a restaurant. What I wanted was the know-how of people who ran restaurants. I didn’t want to be a chef: just a cook. And my experiences in Italy had taught me why. For millennia, people have known how to make their food. They have understood animals and what to do with them, have cooked with the seasons and had a farmer’s knowledge of the way the planet works. They have preserved traditions of preparing food, handed down through generations, and have come to know them as expressions of their families. People don’t have this kind of knowledge today, even though it seems as fundamental as the earth, and, it’s true, those who have it tend to be the professionals—like chefs. But I didn’t want this knowledge in order to be a professional; just to be more human.

On food critics: the kitchen con

Food critics can be a pompous lot. I have said before that much restaurant criticism is little more than posturing: ‘Look at me! Don’t I write well and with such sophisticated culinary wit!’ The truth is, as one deeply interested in food and restaurant culture, I find most reviews boring and unhelpful. Granted, jealousy could be a factor. A prominent Melbourne critic recently tallied up the number of restaurant meals he eats in a year. The total was obscene. After drooling uncontrollably over his column, I was indignant!

The book Kitchen Con: Writing on the Restaurant Racket, is an insider’s account of the critic’s role. Written by veteran reviewer Trevor White—an Irishman who for several decades has written restaurant reviews for magazines and newspapers from London to New York—it provides a unique perspective on restaurant culture and those who hover on its edges professionally.

White is the first to admit that much that happens in the name of restaurant criticism is nothing more than a con and deserves to be exposed. Routinely loathed by chefs—‘asking a chef what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp post what he thinks about dogs’—White says critics ‘are like very bad lovers. They only come once a year, they don’t care if you’re not ready, they leave without saying a word and then they tell everyone what you did wrong.’

Furthermore, that a critic’s review is treated by readers as the authoritative last word on a restaurant’s worth is laughable:

‘The implication that another person can describe what your meal is going to be like on the basis of their experience is no more rational than announcing your horoscope, which is also full of pompous fictions. When you see a restaurant review and the astrology column on the same page of the newspaper, you know that the editor has a sense of humour. They are two great rackets, and the public can’t get enough of them.’

That said, the con is not only the purvey of critics. In a burgeoning restaurant culture, the kitchen con is alive and well. Diner beware! In this context, the role of the critic is to nurture our relationship with a lively and diverse eating culture while exposing both practices and places that treat the diner and the business of hospitality with contempt.

Perhaps the most helpful point that White makes is that good restaurant criticism needs itself to be hospitable–welcoming to and empowering of its readers. There is no place for pomposity. The great food philosopher Brillat-Savarin once described a top gastronomic experience as ‘good food cooked simply and eaten in surroundings in which everyone can feel at home.’ As White says: 

A critic is not someone who is paid to keep the peasants off the land. We are supposed to open the gates to all, not hide behind some culinary dogma. If we promote the myth that good cooking is some esoteric French art that you fools will never understand, or indeed that dining rooms should feel like sombre, self-important shrines, we are failing to serve the public.’

Hmm … perhaps writers of theology could do with the same advice!