My love affair with food began early, thanks to gardening and jarring with Grandma and Grandpa and my Lebanese side family restaurants. The older I got, the more food related stories I was told about my younger self: eating green onions stalks while still in the ground, my accidental love of rendered butter, and a strange habit of stealing cold hot dogs from the fridge and eating them under a table somewhere. I used to deny doing these things because it was so embarrassing, but I do remember them clear as day. And what I remember was that I took simple pleasure in eating something—even as ridiculous as a cold hot dog—but for me it was a special treat. Shade had yet to be thrown my way to change how I viewed what I ate. For my young self, it was a simple as a stolen hot dog and a hallway end table. (I know there's a dirty joke in here somewhere; get your mind out of the gutter.)
I ended spending my 20s slaving behind the line in some of the best establishments around the US. It was then that food stopped just making me blush and started to foot the rent, and boy, did I pay for it: walking home crying after getting my ass handed to me by NYC cooks; covering my body in Icy Hot patches before going to work; getting humiliated in front of everyone by my chef, who asked if I cut the radish with my shoe; spending a New Year's Eve deep cleaning the kitchen because another cook ran out of lobster for the prix-fixe dinner. There's a duplicitous nature in truly loving something. There are moments that you'll suffer through and that you'd give anything for—when your broth and oil emulsify to coat your pasta perfectly, the transcendent feeling when the line behaves like one fluid machine, and ultimately, when you know you're creating something that will make another person really happy. Not unlike being in a personal relationship, there are then moments when you doubt its total existence and purpose because of outside influences and pressures. Suffice to say, my kind of old-school, Julia Child-style connection to food may cease to exist soon. The romantic experience that is eating, drinking, and cooking is now marginalized to gluten intake, locality despite supply, and basic fad. I wish Julia Child were here to give America the collective slap it deserves—and then feed us butter-laden cake.
Not unlike being in an unhealthy, off-balance relationship, I saw the signs long ago. It's hard enough to work in this business and master everything that is asked of you from a culinary perspective. How am I supposed to make sense of when the lady at table eight needs the burger on one plate, the bun on another, the lettuce, tomato, and onion in a to-go box, and another burger chopped up so that her dog—who sits at the table with her—has something to eat? (True story, and this was a four star restaurant.) Or when I had to argue with my owners over why it's okay to provide a grain salad underneath the "greens" section of the menu? Or the time I was asked by a four-year-old how old the Manchego was for her cheese and crackers snack? Was all this noise and confusion really for love of food? Did they even appreciate any of it?
Things were left to the neurotic mental state of the USA to swing the food pendulum from obsessively, politically picky to compartmentalizing food and nutrition so that "people make food just because it's beautiful—like gardening or painting." This quote is from 25-year-old Rob Rhinehart, who created Soylent, a beverage containing all the nutrients the body needs. He recently explained, "I'm looking forward to the point where food can just be art." Cooking for show? Wasting food just because? If we head down that road, then cooking, like he says, would become a hobby to learn about and admire from afar. The restaurant "era" would be just a chapter in our food history books as we move towards a Utopian, brave new world. I'm all for bettering the evolution of a product and love that it could help starving nations all over the world, but the whole "one-stop shop" mentality for all your food needs is sad to me, if not a little too creepy.
I wish Julia Child were here to give America the collective slap it deserves—and then feed us butter-laden cake.
Perhaps this utilitarianism is a reaction to the current state of restaurant culture. This March, an article in The Huffington Post touched on the fact that restaurants now provide us with too many choices when it comes to food. It goes on to quote Barry Schwartz, a food and economics professor at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice, as saying "It's really like an existential crisis to order in a restaurant." I just wrote about this very same thing recently, specifically the bizarre behavior that is ordering food. (Apparently, everyone feels strongly about this.) So it all begs the question: What are we doing to ourselves?
To escape this craziness, I think back to a time when food was less complicated. I was briefly living in Spain, where there was this tiny bar on the corner near where I stayed. It was standing room only, there was no menu, everyone ordered "vino rojo," and you had no choices. None. For me, this was a beautiful thing. The servers dressed in vests and ties asked if you wanted to eat; if yes, they provided you with some olives and whatever freshly-fried fish they had. If you wanted more, they'd provide something else. Clientele ranged from the very wealthy to impoverished students like myself, and no one questioned where the sardines came from or what the wine's terroir was. We merely stood chatting and enjoyed one another. The one thing we had in common was the appreciation of the experience this place was providing.
Europe isn't the only place where food is both prince and pauper: in the deep pockets of America, there are places that no one talks or writes about that embrace the true love of simple food and the community it creates. I know they exist because I'm from a small pocket of America, where life is simple and brown beans and cornbread was a four star culinary experience. Simply dining together—even if it was grocery store Chinese take-out—was all that mattered. America needs to remember these roots. Just think about it: "organic" food would have confused the shit out of Native Americans.
Louis CK once mentioned that we're so engaged technologically because in reality, we can't deal with our emotions any more. America needs to unplug and just be. I know that our scope of appreciation maniacally ranges from Portlandia to PB&Js, but somewhere in the middle, there's a balance. Let's find it and rekindle the romance that is food, cooking, and the restaurant experience. If a rocky relationship is your thing, don't worry: There are cooks suffering all over the world to put marginal food on white table cloths for you. But for the pure of heart, whether it be little kids or big adults, isn't simply enjoying some good food under a table better than any Yelp review?