by Andrew Luzmore, Cornell University
It is a central irony in high-end restaurants that those who prepare the food often never taste the fruits of their labor. With the exception of those involved in conceptualizing and creating the menu, the majority of the work force, consisting mainly those of Latin American, West African or Southeast Asian extraction, rarely have the means to dine at the restaurants in which they devote their lives. Instead, daily sustenance in the restaurant in which I spent my summer was taken from the quotidian tradition of the family meal: a meal made by a single cook on a rotational basis for the entire staff using whatever is lying around, and more importantly, cheap. Although considered a necessary evil by some because of the rushed and sometimes careless fashion in which it is put together, for most the family meal serves as a mechanism to share in the culinary traditions of others and a much-needed outlet to unwind after a long shift. Continue reading
I’m in Chengdu Heaven.
There’s a plate of pig ear chopped in thin chunks, absolutely drenched in chili oil and Sichuan peppercorn and covered with something green that tastes like scallion, and I’m stuffing my face. The chopsticks won’t stop careening from styrofoam plate to mouth; I want to stop and my tongue buzzes but my hands involuntary swipe at more ear, rubbery and crunchy like giant pale rubber bands. “This is some pretty good pig ear,” I say, in between bites, and Chef (who’s worked at all sorts of Michelin starred and otherwise applauded restaurants) just nods, his mouth full of dan dan noodles or tripe slathered in more of that ma la concoction, I can’t really tell because he’s really shoveling it in vigorously and enjoying it. Frankie From Seattle is taking a break from the tripe (which also comes with tongue) and is capable of agreeing with me in no uncertain terms: “The best ear I’ve ever eaten.” Continue reading
After I watched Smoke Signals for the first time, I sat in the dark and thought about Thomas Builds-the-Fire’s breakfast story:
Hey Victor! I remember the time your father took me to Denny’s, and I had the Grand Slam Breakfast. Two eggs, two pancakes, a glass of milk, and of course my favorite, the bacon. Some days, it’s a good day to die. And some days, it’s a good day to have breakfast. Continue reading
I am surprised that chefs do not regularly take curtain calls. After a final spoonful of (chocolate bacon) panna cotta that jiggles like Lucia di Lammermoor’s “Il dolce suono,” diners should bravo the chef into postprandial ecstasy; when polishing off a plate of hormone-free lamb-balls, the modern eater must rise and applaud. The charismatic chef deserves, no, demands praise. His food is an extension of his irresistible and indefinable and authentic personality.
Reading Zachary Woolfe’s piece in the Sunday Times, “A Gift From the Musical Gods,” I was impressed by how well his commentary on classical music charisma describes the economy of fine dining. Today, there are two types of successful chefs: the skilled technician, operating behind the scenes, and the celebrity chef mogul industry giant whose magnetism gives electric motion to a personal brand. If there is a Mary Callas of American cooking, it is Thomas Keller, a man whose “Oysters and Pearls” would send a dining room into bivalvular orgy—mouths open to receive Chef Keller’s winsome and terribly genuine “Zen and the Art of Fine Dining” philosophy, anuses expelling a continuous stream of savory tapioca pudding. And if there is a Christian Tetzlaff, Mr. Woolfe’s example of the “technically flawless” but uncharismatic musician, it is Eli Kaimeh, Thomas Keller’s chef de cuisine at Per Se. Continue reading
This summer, I took a class on “Reading and Writing Food” at Columbia. Over the next few weeks, I will post a sampling of essays composed for that class. For a final selection, something a little (alright, a lot) more academic in persuasion.
The Great Desideratum: Mastering Production in Douglass’ Plantation and Fisher’s Mill
Immense wealth, and its lavish expenditure, fill the great house with all that can please the eye, or tempt the taste. Here, appetite, not food, is the great desideratum.
—Frederick Douglass, from My Bondage and My Freedom, American Food Writing 62
In Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom, the gastronomical experiences of the slave and the master are antithetical. Whereas the slave eats “ash cake” (61), the master and his guests feast on “heavy and blood-bought luxuries” (62). Within the manor house though, a special class of slaves serves the masters their meals, and this “black aristocracy” (63) functions as the intermediate term between “the human cattle” (62) and the country lords; from wardrobe to discourse, they wear false white skins that camouflage their blackness. Production and consumption converge in the manor, a space in which nature and the black man “are made tributary” (62). M.F.K Fisher’s “Define This Word” advances a fundamentally similar representation: sites of proletariat production transform into loci of bourgeois consumption. Whether working in a plantation manor or dining in a renovated mill, the authors describe staggering overabundances. All that is wanting is appetite—the desire to consume. This “great desideratum” defines the relationship between master and slave in the manor house and in the restaurant. In both locales, traces of production infest the pleasures of consumption. Continue reading
Restaurant criticism leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Continue reading