On the chef’s table

The changing role of the restaurant in contemporary American society, from The Galloping Gourmet to homemade Campari. By A. S. Hamrah

Tank _autumn 2016_33The Four Seasons Restaurant was the place that famously coined the term “power lunch”, the first restaurant to have seasonally changing menus and the first to adopt a “farm-to-table” approach. Located in the iconic Seagram Building with high modernist interiors, it was the apotheosis of post-war New York. It closed in July 2016, and this photo, by Victoria Hely-Hutchinson, captures its final days. 

Minnie and Moskowitz, the revisionist 1971 screwball comedy written and directed by John Cassavetes, follows the romance between a parking valet (Seymour Cassel) and a museum curator (Gena Rowlands) in Los Angeles. Late in the film, the unlikely couple, having decided to marry, invite their mothers out to dinner to celebrate. Seymour’s brassy mother, dressed all in black as if she is going to a funeral, takes her seat at the table and right away blurts out a question for her son. Not a question about the future daughter-in-law she has never met but, instead, one about the restaurant. “What kind of food do they have here?” she wants to know. “They have restaurant food, Ma,” Seymour explains. 

Seymour’s mother uses her son’s answer to show Minnie she’s marrying below her station. “He doesn’t know anything. He eats in hamburger joints! Suavity he does not have. He eats sideways.” (This family speaks in italics.) “The food keeps going into the mouth this way,” she continues, demonstrating with a hand gesture how Seymour forks it in.  

Seymour’s answer, however, made perfect sense in the United States in 1971. The audience would have known exactly what he meant by restaurant food. And it continued to make sense in the US for about 30 years after Minnie and Moskowitz debuted. That is because in 1971, Americans largely ate three kinds of food: restaurant food, hamburgers and the food women made at home to serve to their families. If you were lucky, food at home was “ethnic”, with another country’s long tradition behind it. If you were not so lucky, you got the all-American dinner, sometimes dumped out of cans, sometimes torn from cardboard boxes stored in the freezer, an appliance that grew bigger and bigger until it separated itself from the refrigerator and moved out of the kitchen into the garage.  

Restaurant food meant a limited and predictable menu of steaks and fancy main courses with French names, served in heavy sauces. Fast-food chain restaurants were still few and far between in most of the US in the early 1970s, and family restaurants, decorated in a kind of dejected nostalgia featuring Tiffany lamps and wallpapered newspaper advertisements from the 1890s, were just starting to appear. Family restaurants did not serve restaurant food. They served an elevated version of fast food, but in a nicer, homier, old-timey setting. The same year Minnie and Moskowitz came out, Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California,
and the next year the Moosewood Restaurant opened in Ithaca, New York. These lone outposts of California cuisine and all-natural cooking would slowly transform American dining, until, in an evolutionary burst early in the 21st century, foodies appeared on the scene en masse, the final hominids of American dining.

Until then, blandness reigned in restaurants across the land. Eating out declined in the 1970s. Restaurant-food restaurants began to close as economic recession set in. Julia Child, on public television, cooked do-it-yourself versions of the same French classics found in restaurants serving restaurant food. Her innovation was letting women see that they could do it at home, the way other PBS shows showed men how to make furniture in the basement. A male version of Julia Child, Graham Kerr, was an English-Kiwi-Canadian with a syndicated TV show called The Galloping Gourmet. A self-conscious swinger who cooked in a suit and a tie, Kerr spiced up daytime television more than his recipes. He is one of the reasons the word “gourmet” fell into disrepute.  

The so-called pornographic depiction of food on cable television (“food porn”) was as distant back then as the foodie revolution. Kerr’s show went off the air in 1971 and Child ended her first series, The French Chef, two years later. After Child and the Moosewood restaurant began publishing cookbooks, the 1970s became a time of illustrations of food in print, not pictures of it on TV. The kind of celebrity chefs that came to dominate the Food Network on US cable television had to wait for bigger screens and high-definition transmissions. Huge close-ups of vegetables and meats in vibrant colour required digital technology to really explode off the screen. The plain old broadcast TV of the analogue days, with its flat and murky images and medium shots, was not full-frontal enough for foodie delectation.  

Later, with the fetishisation of Julia Child after her death in 2004, which culminated in the release of the film Julie & Julia in 2009, starring Meryl Streep as Child, her approach came to seem oppositional. Child’s classier, more authentic aesthetic contrasted with the hyper-masculine, low-class version of American foodie-ism represented by Guy Fieri, and the Southern-style, hyper-feminine comfort food of Paula Deen. (The two represented the strict gender binary to which reality TV adheres above all else.) Fieri and Deen, franchisable personalities whose egos inflated along with their serving sizes, were ubiquitous presences on the Food Network before the easy availability of recipes and instructional videos obviated it. The reputations of Fieri and Deen, twin frosted-blonde pillars of American excess, crumbled under the vicious reviews of Fieri’s monstrous Times Square restaurant and the exposure of Deen as a racist.  

Now, in the US, gigantism and racism threaten to collapse the soufflés of various celebrity chefs who were supposed to be classier than those two. As cable ratings decline, and lip-smacking over food on HDTV becomes a thing of the past, the wealth gap continues its work of migrating super-chef excess into the brick-and-mortar world of destination dining, where only recognisable names can turn over enough tables every night to meet rising rents. While food trucks and nouveau ethnic food dominates the actual dining experiences of foodies below the level of the One Per Cent, above that line tasting menus with wine pairings that deplete bank accounts over 9, 10, 12, or 15 courses draw an international class of roving gourmands whose every restaurant experience is the meal of a lifetime – if they could only remember it. Those wine pairings really turn things fuzzy. Instagram photos of every course may annoy the chef, but they are a necessary memory jog for diners whose meals can become as hazy as a nostalgic photo filter with a name that sounds like a restaurant’s (Crema, Valencia, Amaro, Ludwig, Slumber). Oh, and did I say “the chef”? Of course I meant just “Chef,” that général who presides over his militarised Escoffier-brigade and must always be addressed in this pretentious-cutesy, no-article, embarrassing-to-hear way. That tradition, in America, goes back no further than the time of the Robber Barons, whose facial hair hip male diners now unconsciously imitate as they stuff themselves into forgetfulness. 

My own neighbourhood in south Brooklyn, which used to be considered part of Red Hook, the setting for Hubert Selby Jr.’s grimy 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn, and is now called the Columbia Street Waterfront, even though the waterfront is inaccessible to foot traffic, has gone, over the time I have lived here, from being a nascent foodie mecca to a barely affordable enclave dotted by the papered-over windows of closed restaurants and bars. High-rent blight has left only the fanciest, most expensive ones standing. Restaurants’ rents which used to be $900 a month can now reach $10,000 on Smith Street. Smaller, newer restaurants are pushed ever closer to the Gowanus Canal, an infamous Superfund site, an environmental disaster zone in which the green-purple water can supposedly melt bones.  

Restaurants and bars, once New York’s living rooms, are now too expensive to be simple gathering places. They force New Yorkers like me to eat at home, in the tiny apartments with kitchenettes that the California food writer Michael Pollan has described as too small for healthy cooking. I am now a member of New York’s jaded poor, who have tried everything and can afford nothing. When visitors from out of town came to New York, I used to enjoy picking out a spot to meet for dinner. Not anymore. Now I let them pick, and I have found that my friends here do the same. Let them have fun, we think. What difference does it make where we go? We locals have realised that above a certain price (excuse me, “price point”), the food is all the same. Once again in America, the fancy restaurants all serve restaurant food, and we all know what it is. I keep hoping that the regular food we long for will be rebranded as “normet” and make a comeback, just as fashion went normcore a few years ago. So far that hasn’t happened. 

Some tasting menu places thrive in out-of-the-way spots in this neighbourhood. There is Take Root, which Esquire has called one of the best restaurants in America, and which shares its space with a yoga studio, a perfect meeting of contemporary Brooklyn in one storefront. The average neighbourhood joint, however, has mostly been replaced by exquisite little boutique showplaces like Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, a three-star Michelin restaurant with 18 seats operated by chef César Ramirez. He demands “formal business attire” for diners and reservations must be booked months in advance. Ramirez, of course, also sells his own brand of coffee, ravioli and extra virgin olive oil. The fly in the EVOO, however, is that Ramirez has been accused by his own staff of racism. Allegedly, Ramirez does not like Asian people and “Upper West Siders” seated in his eyeline – he calls them “shit people”, we are told. Somehow in today’s Brooklyn, the Upper West Side is the new New Jersey. (Ramirez, needless to say, denies these allegations.)  

With this new attitude comes new patronage. The neighbourhood is also an Airbnb mecca and new condo development means an influx of Europeans are taking semi-permanent root directly across from the Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty now welcomes a new mass of immigrants who are rich, well-rested and have plenty of space – a far cry from the poor, tired and huddled masses welcomed by the statue’s inscription. These new denizens are huddled only in restaurants. Americans welcome them all. This is not the kind of country where a language barrier draws scorn in a restaurant. As long as you can point at the menu and pay, you’re good. It is not a problem that some of these Europeans are ugly in the same way that American tourists in Europe were once “ugly Americans”. Not too long ago while eating at the Vinegar Hill House in Brooklyn, my date and I were seated next to a quartet of Britishers dominated by a loud man in a pink shirt regaling his companions with stories about his tenants back in London. He described them at a high decibel, while simultaneously stuffing his mouth, as ungrateful pigs. He was quite agitated and for some reason kept inching closer to me as he excoriated people who were making him richer. By the end of his tirade he was so close to me I asked my girlfriend to take a photo so I would have something to remember him by.  

It was enough to turn me off eating out forever. Unfortunately for my health, it has just chased me into the hamburger joints, where I eat beef and contemplate becoming a breatharian, like the comedian and activist Dick Gregory, who claims he subsists on nothing but air and the pure rays of sunlight. I read an article about him once in which he also claimed that in the early 1970s, whenever he looked at a plate of food, he saw a map of Vietnam. And as for the health benefits of foodie-ism, he mentioned, “I look at the obituaries every morning and there ain’t nobody listed but you eaters.” I write that as a man who has sipped a locavore negroni in a restaurant in Oakland, California. When restaurants begin to make their own Campari, things have gone too far. The locavore negroni, I am here to report, tasted like Vicks VapoRub, and did nothing for me at all. Despite the mentholated tang of this healthy artisanal libation, it is the regular kind that makes me feel better. §