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A Florida Chef Is Inciting a Class War Over Ketchup

A Florida chef has banned ketchup from his restaurant, invoking widespread outrage. Is he embarrassed of America's devoted condiment culture?
September 4, 2014, 9:30pm
ketchup and fries
Photo via Flickr userChiot's Run

The jury might still be out on whether menu substitution is a total jerk move or a reasonable and oft-necessary practice. Even at Michelin-starred institutions, customers frequently ask for no cheese in a state of lactose intolerant desperation, or for a smear of mustard instead of mayo to cut back on empty calories. These tendencies are not restricted to any particular race, class, or gender; rather, they are the product of a society conditioned for friendly service and a wide-open door of customization. With a few expections (Shopsin's, anyone?), most restaurants will accommodate the requests of their diners, grumbling as they might be, and there exists a threshold of understanding between chef and guest. But take away ketchup, and you can expect a revolt. You have essentially just told 97 percent of Americans that their low-brow sensibilities are unwelcome.

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When chef-owner Xavier Duclos banned the use of ketchup for guests over the age of ten at his Fort Myers, FL, eatery Mad Fresh Bistro, his aim was to protect the integrity of his flavor profiles. A prominent note on his website states, "We simply ask that you trust us. We know what we're doing! Part of the MAD experience is to trust the chef, and not have preconceived notions of what your dish is going to need." He's far from the first chef to make such a claim about his food—that it cannot be improved upon; that it is compromised by addition or subtraction. But we can assume that he didn't expect such a massive internet shitstorm to ensue. And it's because this is about more than tomato paste. This is about class wars.

Duclos's ban is a thinly veiled attempt to elevate his culinary and social status by creating an "other," a straw man, and drawing a line in the sand between Those Who Eat Ketchup (the plebes) and Those of Refined Taste (the enlightened and educated, those capable of comprehending his cooking ethos.) Maybe he finds ketchup—or "ketsup," as he peculiarly spells it on his website—tacky, or at least unnecessary. Maybe he was unaware that last year, a Subway employee in a town just a few hours away had his life threatened for refusing to put ketchup on a Philly cheesesteak. But what he may not have realized is that it's the second most popular condiment in our hungry nation (comfortably nestled between mayonnaise and soy sauce), and to hell with you if you think you're going to pry it from the hands and Freedom Fries of America. A story about the ban that appeared on Yahoo! Food on August 20 quickly racked up more than 1,700 comments, the vast majority from those fighting for their right to bear condiments.

Is it Duclos's prerogative to ban ketchup in his own restaurant? Sure. Is it legal to ban it? Obviously. It's just deeply unwise and implicitly discriminatory, like telling anyone in the Western world that you think Beyoncé is a talentless hack. You are moving against a strong current, one that is already in a backlash against widespread gentrification and cultural pretense. Furthermore, to ban ketchup only for those over the age of ten is to equate ketchup affinity with childishness; you may as well place a sign in your front window that says "I scowl at the dining preferences of the general adult populace." Which is arguably even less advisable when your name is "Mad Fresh Bistro," and furthermore when Merriam-Webster defines a bistro as "a small or unpretentious restaurant." Mad Fresh Bistro's menu features three different kinds of burgers, as well as aggressively decadent truffle fries with tarragon aioli. (Interestingly, the $43 Kobe burger at New York's Old Homestead steakhouse is served with a side of chipotle ketchup.) To dictate that a burger truly cannot be improved upon is bold; to forbid it from being hypothetically worsened by a dab of Heinz is to look upon your patrons as a bunch of tacky babies. Can this be permitted to stand if the people demand ketchup? As Karl Marx said, "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains." We will not be denied our umami.