Do Something With Your Food

Yesterday I spoke to a group of culinary students about farm-to-table restaurants. Finding that they had not had any courses on the history of restaurants in general, we started with a brief, oversimplified accounting of how modern restaurants came to be, and then talked about farm-to-table cuisine in that context.

The ancestor of the modern table-service restaurant looked something like this: English aristocracy in a luxury Paris hotel or nearby chateau, their meal being cooked by a brigade of French men who had studied in culinary guilds and/or the French Army. With no refrigeration available, only slow transportation, no cultural emphasis on sanitation, and no guarantee that the food was grown nearby, the quality and condition of the food coming into the kitchen was, at the very least, undependable. Only the skill of the chefs could create alchemy — turning the unremarkable and perhaps foul ingredients into a meal fit, literally, for a king. In this context you see both the origin of the heavy classical French sauces, and of the macho chef-strutting later to become embodied in the caricature of pre-Food-Network Anthony Bourdain, among many others.

Meanwhile, in seaside towns and farming village throughout Europe (and to some extent in the New World), people worked with local ingredients and traditional local recipes to make dinner for their families and neighbors. Sometimes this cuisine would also express itself in an inn or a rustic restaurant, probably in which only one type of meal would be cooked each day — no menu from which to order. The cooks were generally women, and the cooking was an expression of the place, people, and culture that had, over time, naturally coalesced into a cuisine.

This division in restaurant styles persisted, more or less, into modern times. In the US, serious restaurants were all of the French Brigade variety, and without much of a rustic tradition to call upon, in much of the country the local foodways that would uniquely inform a community cuisine simply didn’t exist.

In the 1970’s came the inception of farm-to-table cuisine, often called in its era “California cuisine”. While several restaurants pushed the idea forward more or less concurrently, it is of course Alice Waters and Chez Panisse — a restaurant named after a character in a movie about life in seaside France — that are most iconically associated with the idea.

The promise of the farm-to-table restaurant is simple: all the skill of great chefs, applied to the best possible ingredients. With the freedom now to not hide the flavors of the ingredients but instead to explore and celebrate them.

Within the farm-to-table narrative the chef is not much of hero. And it turns out that a lot of people — including chefs, restaurant patrons, and TV audiences — prefer stories with heroes. Thus you have the bemusing situation of certain diners seeking out places with mediocre ingredients and a chef that can make them taste good, rather than places with excellent ingredients and a (almost certainly lesser-known) chef that starts with good tasting food, and the intention of making it excellent.

In the farm-to-table paradigm, the preparation of the meal starts with attention to the soil. The farmer’s work is realized at the point of a fork — by the time the ingredient reaches the kitchen, its potential has largely been determined by the work done to grow it. Oftentimes, the ingredient may be so excellent that the chef feels called to do very little to it beyond presenting it to the guest. When the instinct to not interfere with great ingredients becomes a culture and a cuisine, people who are passionate about cooking find the results highly unsatisfying. Thus David Chang’s poignant and frustrated lash: “fucking every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate. Do something with your food.”

Chang exaggerates, but he has a point. In a farm-to-table project, the line between cooking the food and fetishizing the food can get pretty thin. In order for the restaurant to meaningfully contribute to its community, it has to have a point of view, a sense of who it is and who it serves, and to express that through its food, and through its clientele. This is more the case than ever, now that restaurants have evolved to perform a unique role in American life, something which will be the topic of a forthcoming post.