With the rise of crowdsourced restaurant reviews on Yelp and its many peers, you’d think old-school, print-media critics would be a thing of the past by now. You’d think wrong: as Jessica Sidman shows in her Washingtonian story, restaurant owners go to incredible lengths to identify prominent critics like the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema, in the hopes of manufacturing a flawless, multiple-star-worthy experience. A lot of the energy is spent preemptively, creating and updating dossiers with blurred photos of critics and detailed notes about their culinary (and other) quirks. But there’s also a field-level aspect to these operations — the intricate choreography that kicks into gear as soon as Sietsema or another top critic enters the house.
To communicate about a critic, some restaurants have their own code words. One Italian joint called Sietsema “Neapolitan,” because it didn’t sound too weird to say out loud in the open kitchen. Others, including the kitchens of Fabio Trabocchi, refer to Sietsema as “Papa Bear.”
“I heard ‘Papa Bear in the house,’ and it’s like a fire drill,” says a sous chef for one of Ashok Bajaj’s restaurants, which include Rasika and Bibiana. The sous chef was in the middle of butchering 150 pounds of salmon for a large banquet that night, but when the alert came in, sous chefs kicked line cooks off their stations and began preparing Sietsema’s lunch themselves. (In other kitchens, the executive chef might take over complete prep of a dish. That way, only one person is to blame if the review is terrible.) “It is a huge wrench in the operation, because what you’re basically doing is interrupting the regular flow of service to stop and concentrate on one table and the other tables surrounding.”
With the executive chef orchestrating, the sous chefs prepared triplicates of every component of every dish. Nerves, as always, ran high. “I’ve burned more shit trying to cook something perfect for Tom Sietsema than I ever would have if I didn’t know that he was there,” the sous chef says.
Kris Jenner and Rocco DiSpirito after an appearance on "Fox & Friends" in 2014. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
At Thrillist, Kevin Alexander reviews the life and times of Rocco DiSpirito — whose career trajectory has included leading much-lauded restaurants, being a reality television star, and hawking frozen foods. But once upon a time, he was just a gifted, audacious young cook: when Ruth Reichl was still reviewing restaurants for The New York Times, she described DiSpirito’s food as “shockingly unique. As a critic, you’re dying to find chefs like him.” Unfortunately for New York’s epicures, DiSpirito hasn’t been in a restaurant kitchen since 2004. Why? He got famous, and being famous became a job of its own.
He achieved celebrity status. And once you agree to the Faustian bargain that is celebrity status, every decision becomes a business decision, every utterance becomes a matter of branding. Your tweets and Instagram posts are agonized quid pro quos with other celebrities or boldfaced promotions of your products or shows. Your appearances are only to promote things, to further push your Sisyphean rock up Celebrity Hill. You tweet at Kim Kardashian when she mentions protein shakes, because she’s higher up the celebrity chain, and you hope she does you the solid of responding in front of millions so they can see that you two are just Two Celebrities Bantering On Twitter. You tweet at Dr. Oz when he wins a Daytime Emmy. You tweet reviews of your protein powder. You tweet nine consecutive times about watching “The Chew vs The View.“
Few restaurants have taken photo-friendliness as seriously as Bellota, a Spanish restaurant that opened in San Francisco last year. The entryway is enclosed, creating a pleasing shadowbox effect as you look into the dining room. The kitchen is open, and encourages patrons to take 360-degree videos of the space. Many Instagram posts feature pictures of “the ham wall,” which is just what it sounds like: a window that looks into the temperature-controlled room where Bellota stores $50,000 worth of Spanish jamón ibérico.
The most striking thing about Bellota may be the custom lamps at its 25-seat bar, which let patrons adjust the lighting in order to get the perfect shot. “I’m probably the most avid Instagram user of the group, so I kept bringing it up,” says Ryan McIlwraith, Bellota’s chef. He wanted the lighting to do justice to the restaurant’s tapas plates and signature paellas. “It turned out these lamps we got were just perfect for it,” he says. The lamps can be tilted or turned 180 degrees, and the light’s intensity can be adjusted up and down. An “advanced feature” allows patrons to rest their phones on the lamp’s neck so as to take a selfie. (I did, and must admit the lighting was lovely.)
Every April, the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list makes a little wave in the culinary world with its endorsements and snubs, comebacks and falls from grace. At Eater, Corey Mintz takes a hard look behind the clean, minimalist lines of these restaurants’ dining rooms to expose a rarely discussed reality: The proliferation of underpaid and unpaid apprentices. Along the way, he places this labor practice in its historical context, as the high-end kitchen has become the place where the Renaissance guild meets 21st-century-privilege.
Having had the same conversation with a hundred chefs, I’ve heard all of the justifications for the unpaid staff. I’ve even had chefs suggest that, for the education they’re getting, stagiaires should be paying the restaurant. This isn’t a new idea. In the Middle Ages, children as young as seven were sent to work as apprentices, sometimes paying to learn under a master craftsman of the highly controlled craft guilds, such as printmaking or goldsmithing.
But if we have to go to “once upon a time” to date the history of your employee practices, then your labor standards are literally medieval. The Industrial Revolution — which began in the late 18th century and stretched through the mid-19th century — created a demand for both skilled and unskilled workers that radically changed the labor market. The development of unions, the rise of professional education, and the idea that children should not be indentured slaves evolved the nature of apprenticeship. While informal internships persisted — copy boys, messenger boys, bobbin boys — they weren’t part of the post-secondary educational process until the late 1960s. Within a decade, universities systematized and incentivized internships through course credits, shifting the skill-building and networking opportunity into the mandatory experience it is today.
Patterson stepped out the back door onto a sunny patio where three neighborhood men worked as “ambassadors” — greeters, really, but also unofficial security guards and community liaisons tasked with convincing neighbors that Locol really was for them. Watts has such a deep history of economic betrayal and abandonment, such pervasive skepticism about outsiders making big promises, and such well-founded fear of gentrification — a billion-dollar “urban transformation” plan has the support of Mayor Eric Garcetti — that acceptance of a splashy new restaurant created by two famous outsider chefs who are not African American was not a given.
Patterson embraced an ambassador named Anthony “Ant” Adams, a 44-year-old poet who was in the middle of telling a visitor about getting shot five times with an AK-47 during a 2007 attempt on his life a few yards from where he was currently standing. Patterson then walked past an ATM/lottery/tobacco shop where floor-to-ceiling bulletproof Plexiglas separated customers from the cashier and inventory. He entered a store called Donut Town & Water, where a young man sold doughnuts, water, and other convenience foods, also from behind Plexiglas. Patterson ordered coffee to go and said, as if exhilarated by the speed and audacity of his own thoughts, “I can’t remember if I told you that Roy and I might start a coffee company, too. We’re bringing back the great $1 cup. The fancy coffee industry is not going to be happy with us. We’re going into institutional food, too. We’re already talking about prisons and hospitals and schools. It all comes back to this question of ‘Why does our society always serve the worst food to the neediest people?’ It makes no sense. And everybody always says, ‘That’s just the way it is, there’s no other way,’ but we are going to prove that whole paradigm is fundamentally false.”
To Taylor, Princess Pamela’s story is a case study in examining who controls narratives of excellence in cooking. For decades, the chains of influence and power in the culinary sphere have remained static and white, and so have those sentries who dictate the worth of certain people’s contributions. (That it took two white, male celebrity chefs to resurrect this book and assert its worth within the literary marketplace only confirms this.) “Food media tends not to focus on black stories and black cookbook authors,” Taylor says. “There are dozens more waiting to be told.”
It is a refrain I hear from countless others: that her narrative’s descent into obscurity is indicative of a greater systemic ill that plagues America’s culinary memory. It is a memory prone to historical amnesia. Look no further than Princess Pamela, a woman no one noticed was gone. It’s as if they weren’t even looking.
The first restaurant chain in the US, the late-19th-century Harvey House, popped up in train stations and followed the rapid growth of rail travel. It disappeared decades ago, but the project of connecting huge swaths of land with the promise of culinary sameness lives on. In a country that currently seems fractured and exhausted by its own divisions (at least from across the Canadian border, where I live), are chains a unifying force, a common denominator — or yet another arena in which cultural and political tensions play out?
Here are some of my favorite reads on America’s restaurant chains, from the generically upscale to the proudly down-home. They cover politics, economics, regional identity, and even (surprise!) food.
Tiffany-style lamps. Candy-striped uniforms and/or candy-striped tablecloths. And tchotchkes: tchotchkes as far as the eye can see. The 20th-century chain-restaurant aesthetic is immediately recognizable — but where did it come from? At Collectors Weekly, Lisa Hix digs into the history of restaurant kitsch right at the moment where its earliest proponent, T.G.I. Friday’s, is beginning to impose a minimalist, clutter-free look on its locations. Along the way, she unearths the surprising origins of Friday’s as a hip singles’ bar chain, closely aligned with ’70s sexual liberation movements and a new taste for cocktails:
The Commercial Appeal newspaper called it “a place with so much atmosphere you have to push it aside to get in.” Again, 20-somethings lined up for a table, and patrons mobbed the bar. This Friday’s became a hotspot for the Memphis counterculture, known for its boozy adventures, drug experimentation, and sexual subversion—including an underground queer scene. Bands played on a stage in back, while local rock stars like Big Star lingered at candy-striped tables under leaded-glass lamps.
“Friday’s was the first place in Memphis where you could actually go in and buy a mixed drink,” Rush Bowman, who took a job there as a bar-back before becoming a bartender, tells me over the phone from his home in the Dallas metro. “Before that, you’d had to take your own bottle to a bar, and the bar would hold on to it for you. They’d make your drinks with your own bottle and charge you a setup fee. Friday’s was first real bar in town, and the employees were young people with long hair, so they looked like the customers they were trying to attract.”
Writing for The Boston Globe, Neil Swideymakes a compelling case for how the rising tide of food allergy fakers may endanger actual sufferers, as restaurants begin to take “allergy” requests less seriously. But his piece is more than just an anti-faker missive, it’s also a fascinating history of food allergies in America, and their place in the restaurant world. Much of the history is interesting, but I was most surprised by the very newness of the term “allergy,” which is barely a century old:
The word “allergy” has been around only since 1906, when Austrian pediatrician Clemens von Pirquet coined it to describe altered biological reactivity. It didn’t gain traction until the mid-1920s, when it took on a big-tent definition describing reactions to everything from food and insect stings to mold and hay fever, says medical historian Matthew Smith, author of the new book Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy. For most of the 20th century, research-focused “orthodox” allergists, who insisted on a definition requiring a measurable immune reaction, battled with more flexible food allergists, whose main focus was bringing relief to their patients’ hypersensitivities.
Sam Kashner delves into the mysterious world of Michelin stars in the new issue of Vanity Fair, talking to top chefs about what it takes to gain—and keep—the restaurant world’s highest honor. Although restaurant critics are often recognized, Michelin inspectors remain virtually unknown. Kashner spoke on the phone with one inspector (even he wasn’t allowed to know her name), who described her life on the road, eating at least 200 restaurant meals a year.
When you start as a Michelin inspector, your first weeks of training are abroad, she says. “You go to the mother ship in France. Depending on your language skills, maybe you go to another European country and train with an inspector there.” There’s no prescribed path to becoming a food inspector, “though inspectors are all lifers in one way or another,” she explained, and they usually come from families devoted to food and the table. “One inspector was a chef at a very well-known, three-star restaurant, another came from a hotel…. I think you’re either built for this or you’re not,” she added. “You have to really be an independent personality. You have to be somewhat solitary but also work as part of a team. You have to be comfortable dining alone. Most of the time, I think, inspectors all live in a perpetual state of paranoia. That’s the job: the C.I.A. but with better food.”