Restaurants As Entertainment

I'm often concerned that when I express an opinion about the food business at large and/or food culture in New York or elsewhere, I'm speaking from a point of ignorance. The very fact that there is too much happening for any one person to track in a comprehensive manner proves this to be true. To boot, I don't have cable. I don't watch TV. I have never seen an episode of Top Chef, nor have I even seen Chopped (on which I've actually appeared several times as a guest judge). So, right there I've cut myself off, unintentionally, from an entire growth segment of the food industry. Soap operas have been replaced by chef talk show hosts, every ambitious kid, housewife or disenchanted banker has made his or her way into a "kitchen stadium" of one form or another to put his facility with food to the test and possibly launch a career. Build a restaurant in two days, win $100k to start your own restaurant, claim your title as an Iron Chef, a beleaguered culinary gladiator who will one day be slayed by old age or the next hot new haircut. We've been seeing these cats popping up in NYC for a few years now.

Point is, the business has changed (that's been documented ad nauseum) and the thrust of it has been geared toward public consumption, and I don't mean gustatory.

This is entertainment. And we get that. Opening and running a restaurant is entertainment, a production with countless moving parts that, if you are paying rent in New York, you are lamentably operating seven days a week. It's a rare night that the stage lights go dark, unless the fat lady hath sung. The whole production can be fun and often exhilarating. And, in the sense that restaurant operations and Broadway (and off and off-off) productions are analagous, should they be viewed through a similar lens?

It's 6 a.m. and I'm sitting in the predawn darkness of my hotel room in Malaysia having just read The New York Times Dining section. JJ and I will often go a month or more without reading the dining section, but when we travel we find time in airports, trains, planes and odd hours in hotel rooms to catch up with the haps in our hometown (still NYC but very soon to be the pastoral environs of Old Chatham, NY). There are so many food businesses opening up, so so many, it's unstoppable, like letters streaming into the post office. Most of these food businesses are more or less conventional restaurants...and not esoteric niche spots such as an organic-vegan-gluten-nut-free pre-k cafeteria featuring afterschool yoga for kids with names like Windswept and Tundra, businesses that play into the neuroses of the overinformed and underexperienced parents who are happy to overpay these apparently socially conscious businesses to pass along their own social incompetence to their children (I've patented this business model, so don't get any ideas). No, most of these places open are simple eateries, albeit catering more and more to our needy dietary hang-ups.

Who and where is the target demographic for this barrage of openings? Who is eating all this food and where is it all coming from? The economy has been sinking, people are literally building arks, but eateries are opening in NYC, a city that already has more than enough room at the Inn. This is a dull tangent, we get it, like all human folly we'll just keep pushing out until the bough breaks. What we find groovy is the spectrum of restaurants opening.

TV food shows don't fall into the spectrum of which we speak, but why chefs have been tapped to share their opinion on anything beyond making a sauce on these TV programs is a direct result of the spectrum. Chefs (not all) have gone from uneducated, ex-con, sociopaths to highly educated, socially conscious businessmen AND artists. Within my grand generalization of chefs today there are more nuances than I can entertain in this brief post, but what is notable is that of the new generation of chefs who are capable of shaping the "food" business in such a vast number of ways, very few of who are referred to as chefs aren't even chefs at all in the familiar or conventional sense. Many are producers and directors. In fact, many are producers in such the literal sense that they actually raise and grow their own products for their own restaurants. More specifically, we believe they are directors and producers in that they shape, or play a significant role in shaping, an experience that involves the consumption of food and drink.

These productions are performances, ones that are so varied, even daring, and on one end of the spectrum often more innovative than delicious. Does a great restaurant have to be delicious? Is a restaurant that serves delicious food necessarily a great restaurant? I've discussed these points with friends and colleagues without coming to a conclusion.

We've eaten striking, memorable meals that we will probably never eat again (not because we can't but because we wouldn't want to eat it more than once). Then there have been meals where we were treated like chumps and served food I crave on a regular basis. Restaurants are fleeting, time-sensitive and almost immediately irrelevant. Aspirations, set design, concept and the execution and theatrics that realize the concept create these temporal installations, good and bad. Some achieve such levels of high art that we refer to them as edible installations...a contrivance to remind us that this is indeed art. Some productions we may consider great art but that does not necessarily mean we want to eat there, even if they fill us with awe and admiration.

The money invested in restaurants and food concepts has so greatly eclipsed the money going into theater, yet every periodical of note, every valued publication insists on squeezing the reviews of these productions into a narrow-minded set of parameters often represented by some hokey icons. That we have come to accept the manipulation of food, the presentation of food, the production and set design of restaurants as art is clear, and if we are going to agree on this, critics need to start writing about the endeavor as well as the end result. Write about the motivations, the influences, brilliant strokes, the slight error, the attempt for balance, the voice, the lighting, the music — this all must be considered, and considered and understood as an organic, mutable idea.

The current fancy for competition cooking shows may portray cooking as a sport, and as entertainment, that's just fine, but like all art, these productions (restaurants) cannot be wedged into a lowest common denominator system of stars or numbers. This art is about nuance, timing and narrative, and there's no keeping score.

Read the previous installment of The Alimentary Canal.