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.”
This wasn’t Beirut. Mardiros put in long hours. He tweaked the menu; his mother tinkered with the spices. It took a full year to find a groove. The first crowd of regulars brought in a second crowd, and a buzz began to grow among the network of foodies. How did they make the chicken so tender and juicy? The answer was a simple rub of salt and not trusting the rotisserie to do all the work but raising and lowering the heat and shifting each bird as it cooked. What made the garlic paste so fluffy and white and piercing? This was a secret the family intended to keep. Some customers swore it was potatoes, others mayonnaise. At least one fanatic stuck his container in the freezer and examined each part as it congealed. He pronounced the secret ingredient a special kind of olive oil. None guessed right. The ingredients were simple and fresh, Mardiros pledged, no shortcuts. The magic was in his mother’s right hand.
Juli Soler, the Spanish restaurateur who helped turn El Bulli into the most influential restaurant of its time, died on July 6 at age 66. “Without Juli, El Bulli wouldn’t have existed,” its famous chef, Ferran Adrià, told the Spanish newspaper El País. The restaurant closed in 2011. Michael Paterniti’s 2001 Esquire story captures what it was like to eat there:
In Ferran Adrià’s restaurant, nothing is for certain once his food crosses the Maginot Line of your mouth. He feeds you things you never thought existed, let alone things you’d think to eat: a gelatin with rare mollusks trapped inside (it was so odd, the cool, sweet jelly parting for salty pieces of the sea, that it tasted primordial and transcendent at once), tagliatelle carbonara (chicken consommé solidified and cut into thin, coppery, pastalike strands that, once glimmering on the tongue, dissolved back into consommé that poured down the throat), cuttlefish ravioli (the cuttlefish sliced with a microtome, then injected with coconut milk, another sweet explosion that seemed to wrap the fish in a new sea), rosemary lamb (we were told to raise sprigs of rosemary to our noses as we munched on the lamb, both of us now with rosemary mustaches, the smell of rosemary becoming the lamb as if the two were the same) … and it went on like this.
I will tell you: We were happy. We were served an eighty-year-old vinegar pooled in an apple gelatin with ginger, and vinegar has never tasted so gentle, so perfectly between sweet and sour, with a trace of gin, so unlike vinegar that it redefined vinegar. I would drink that vinegar every day, if I could, to start every day with a little pucker and smile. There was dessert, too … a first dessert and a second dessert and then more snacks. At the end, when we went to him, Ferran waved us off, saying, “Today you eat, tomorrow we’ll think.”
11:34 a.m. My first plate arrives. The mozzarella sticks are golden, dense, and huge. Each one is greater than the width of two of my index fingers. As a frequent and enthusiastic consumer of mozzarella sticks, I estimate that these are about twice the standard size. They are softly cuboid, not cylindrical, for reasons I assume are obscure and related to the maximally efficient, foolproof method by which they are packaged, shipped, and cooked. They arrive in herds of six, lightly dusted with shavings of “Parmesan” and “Romano” and flakes of parsley. (Over the course of several orders, this coating will become increasingly patchy, as TGI Friday’s and I stop standing on formality.) An order normally costs $7.50, which means I will have to eat at least two in order for TGI Friday’s Endless Apps to qualify as a “good deal.” Each plate of six contains 1,100 calories.
They taste like goddamn garbage.
I would prefer to stop eating after the first one. I seriously regret not getting the potato skins, which appear on the menu alongside the word “FAV” printed inside a white circle with scalloped edges. A key at the bottom of the appetizer page explains that the presence of this symbol indicates the potato skins are a “House Favorite.” The spot next to the mozzarella sticks listing that could conceivably be occupied by a “FAV” badge is vacant.
I do not blame the waitstaff of TGI Friday’s for the taste of the mozzarella sticks, which, for the entire length of my stay, will be marched to my booth piping hot and accompanied by an inch-deep cup (two, if I so request) of marinara sauce, as advertised.
Nor do I blame the kitchen staff that cooks the mozzarella sticks to what must be called, thanks to their menacing consistency across the span of the day, a kind of perfection, every time.
I blame the TGI Friday’s test kitchen executive chef (a prepaid cellphone that Guy Fieri texts recipes to while high on whippets) for making the prototype of these sticks accidentally one full moon—for by accident is the only way such an item could ever have been deemed suitable for human consumption—and then never copping to the mistake.
12:00 p.m. I order my second plate.
— Caity Weaver spent 14 hours alone in a TGI Friday’s restaurant, testing the boundaries of the restaurant chain’s “Endless Appetizers” promotion and chronicling the experience for Gawker. In the end, the only things that were truly tested were her sanity and waistband.