This is Dispatches from Dirt Candy, a new column from New York City chef Amanda Cohen that explores the realities of working in the restaurant industry. In today's installment, Cohen tackles the pluses and minuses of the PR machine.
Amanda Cohen, Dirt Candy, New York. [Photos: Daniel Krieger]
Two weeks ago in the New York Times Magazine food issue, the cover story was devoted to a 15 year old kid who wants to be a chef. Apparently, this kid flies around the country trailing at high end restaurants, and has a manager, a lawyer, and an agent. Back in September his life story became fodder for a workplace comedy pilot picked up by NBC (where his grandmother was an executive), he's writing his memoirs, and is developing "an unscripted travel series." My problem with this kid isn't his age — although I firmly believe that if the New York Times is going to put a 15 year old on the cover of its magazine then she should be working on a cure for cancer — my problem is the fetishization of chefs.
At the end of the day, this kid will be a chef. Maybe he'll be a talented chef. Maybe he'll even be the next Grant Achatz. But so what? Because the fact is, no matter how amazing Grant Achatz is, he's making dinner. So why all the fuss over chefs? Why all the high-powered representation? Why all the cross-platform brand extension entertainment deals?
I am very serious about what I do, but I do not take what I do seriously. And why should I? As hard as I work on my dishes, within a few hours of being served they are going to be flushed down the toilet, followed by about twelve cents in Charmin Ultra.
And yet everywhere I go, there's a hushed, quasi-mystical reverence about food. "Chef would prefer you to begin eating on the far side of the plate, and then proceed on your flavor journey from left to right," a waiter breathlessly intones. Chefs give interviews about how they don't place ingredients in the center of the plate because they are telling a story about their childhood and the negative space gives the customer a place in which they can project their own childhood memories. Instead of bursting out laughing, the reporter earnestly copies down their words.
Running a restaurant with a high price point involves smoke and mirrors.
BS isn't necessarily bad. Running a restaurant with a high price point is show business, and show business involves smoke and mirrors. It's part of the fun of going out for dinner. When five waiters crowd around your table to serve your next course because it requires a cloche to be removed, broth to be poured, smoked hay to be wafted about, and a sous vide egg to be cracked, it's the Broadway equivalent of the big, show-stopping 11 o'clock number. When I agree to go on a staged photo shoot at the greenmarket where I pretend to be "inspired by nature's bounty" as I plan a dish, it's all part of the show you put on for your diners, and it can be fun.
The problem is that the Broadway glitter is being mistaken for reality. Working in a high-end restaurant, your job is to transform mundane ingredients into things that people will pay money for, but people have become so divorced from cooking that what we do is starting to seem like magic.
I'm constantly being asked where I "source" my produce. What does that even mean?
Snobbery is replacing knowledge. Bits of PR have been repeated, picked up, re-used, and recycled so many times that diners, chefs, and reporters are starting to think they're true. I'm constantly being asked where I "source" my produce. What does that even mean? I get my vegetables from the exact same place almost every other chef in the city gets them: in a box, off a truck.
But boring old reality isn't as fun as fantasy, and while there should be room for the two to co-exist, the fantasy has started to dominate. Over the next few columns I'm writing here, I want to do my best to dispel some of the woo-woo that's grown up around certain aspects of the restaurant world. I want to talk about food, money, the internet, and puncture some of the myths and legends of the restaurant business. Because as much as I love the fantasy, at the end of the day reality is where we all have to live.
In that same New York Times with the 15 year old chef on the cover there's a piece buried on page A15 about how immigration policies are killing farmers in Southern California. We're importing 80% more foreign produce than we were in the late 1990's because American farmers can't find the labor to keep up with domestic demand. That's a real story about food that will have a real impact on chefs. But without a publicist, a manager, and a television deal, is anyone even listening?