On Service

and what we miss when we miss restaurants.

Two weeks prior to entering mandatory quarantine on March 15, we moved into a new apartment where the stove was broken. In the time between confirming that we did need to replace the stove and the stove being replaced, there was no option other than eating out. There was nothing relaxing about it, because—much like quarantine—there was no choice. It was stressful, because it was expensive. It didn’t feel healthy, because we were eating our stress. In the end, I had gastroenteritis. Much like I can neither talk about France nor even read descriptions of French food without getting queasy because I got food poisoning the last time I was there, I have been in quarantine without much nostalgia for restaurants.

But even before this week of forced eating out, I had been wondering what the purpose of a restaurant could be. As a food writer, I wondered how I could do my job without covering them, without perhaps unwittingly being party to chefs who brag about breaking noses or star in TV shows where they display crass ignorance. Do I want to support an industry where its humanitarian stars go out of their way to enforce a completely unethical tipped minimum wage? Who do I serve when I act as though this is not just the unavoidable reality of our existence, but something to be revered—this 100 percent capitalist business model built on exploitation from soil to farmworker to cook being abused to bartender being harassed?

That’s, of course, a blanket and bleak description, and I, of course, miss a long meal at Cocina al Fondo followed by a couple of cocktails at Desvío, which are then followed by beers and shots at El Batey that are never really the right decision but always make me vibrate with the feeling that I’m actually alive. I miss La Penultima and its falafels and cauliflower wings and its Schaefers and shots or perfect martinis and chance meetings with former Yankees. I miss, in New York, the brain-soothing solitude offered by picking up a yuba verde at Superiority Burger, eating it in the park, and then going to read with a drink at Bua. I miss, in Patchogue, having oysters at Catch so much that it makes me tear up to think about it. I miss the places where, sorry to say it, everybody knows your name.

That’s the only kind of satisfaction I have been finding lately in going out to eat or drink, and all the rest that keeps the food media humming feels like fluff. In quarantine, through social media—the only form of eavesdropping that now exists—I see people wanting to go out to eat because they don’t want to clean up, because they want someone else to make the decisions, because they want to be served rather than to engage. And I just don’t know if we should allow ourselves that illusion built on strangers’ low-paid emotional labor anymore.

At Bon Appetit, a writer advises those who are anguished by their current state to create a fake restaurant at home. “They’re a venue for the willing suspension of disbelief from life, which is always, even under normal circumstances, a far cry from perfect,” she writes. “The best restaurants are transporting—they take us to a place where someone else has made decisions with our happiness in mind. They provide respite, however illusory, and feed us, too.”

With “a far cry from perfect” and “however illusory” she is hinting at the realities: the back-breaking work, the low pay, the questionable sourcing, but ultimately, what matters, is the “respite” for those able to pay. I’m on the record, of course, as questioning the value of “escape,” but if one writes about opening a pretend restaurant to help with existential angst and doesn’t conclude that dishwashers need to paid a lot more money and have health insurance, it feels a bit like the nonsense ramblings of a child who’s had a toy taken away. I feel similarly embarrassed reading about a grown man making pop-up versions of his favorite restaurants. Like… please… get a grip. Not being able to go out because of a major public health crisis means just that: Why doesn’t concern for other people’s wellbeing trump the significance of all other desires? (Which isn’t to say I haven’t had my own moments!!! I can despair with the best of ’em.)

There are people questioning what exactly it is we want back in the restaurant world, and I am grateful for the work of Jonathan Nunn in The Guardian who gave a picture of London:

We, as greedy consumers, have to accept some responsibility. In the same way clapping for nurses illuminates uncomfortable questions about their perceived value before this crisis, uncritically fuelling the demand for more and more restaurants at cheaper prices has masked the value of this labour to our daily lives. Not every fish needs to be ike jime and couriered from Cornwall, or every chicken corn-fed from Fosse Meadows, but we should accept that fish and meat need to be priced higher across the board if those behind the scenes stand a chance of being paid a decent wage.

At Grub Street, Max Falkowitz, in light of the fine-dining chefs who went to the White House, writes about how fine dining and fast food are two sides of the same culinary coin—a take I have been waiting to hear, as disillusionment had settled in my gut.

In her newsletter, Ways of Eating, Rebecca M. Johnson writes about a future where a canteen model takes off.

Hiding one’s body and one’s lack of money has become part of survival in London. I have hidden sandwiches or hidden myself where I should buy before sitting in places all over town: haven’t you?

And I cannot recommend enough reading Tunde Wey’s enter series, “Don’t Bail Out the Restaurant Industry,” on Instagram and then watch this video discussion with Wey on it from Scott Korb’s Eugene Lang College course on food writing.

All these things give me hope that it’s food media’s moment to fetch the bolt cutters and give up on chef visions and hone in on what we really want from restaurants and bars, what they can really mean and provide, even if figuring that out will be a work in progress.

Published:
On shrimp at The New Republic. On sustainability as a consumer good at Epicurious. On accepting the domestic at Refinery 29.

Reading:
Making headway in Deborah Madison’s An Onion in My Pocket for review and have the whole piece figured out in my head. What a thrill! Otherwise doing a rewatch of The Sopranos (forgive my English major’s broad definition of “reading”) with an eye toward the food but more so having a lot of insight into how it depicts the class and respectability issues faced by ethnic (Italian, Irish, etc.) whites of the NYC suburbs. I touched my own leopard scrunchie as Adriana La Cerva appeared with hers.

Cooking:
Let me tell all of you in temperate climates that come summer, if we are still in quarantine, you will probably be baking a lot less bread. The sudden shift from livable winter in San Juan to humid as hell summer has slowed down both my brain and body. I only want to put tomato on sourdough toast. I only want to eat my non-dairy Ben and Jerry’s straight from the container. I only want cold, cold, cold Tuxedo No. 4s that perfectly combine my favorite things: dry-ass gin and fino sherry. But we did make excellent flour tortillas, and pita bread, and kidney-bean falafel. My dull use of all this Napa cabbage, though, will haunt me for the rest of my days.