Editor’s Notebook: Eating Together

I cannot help but mention the passing of Anthony Bourdain, the news of which broke while I was writing this introduction for our fourth issue. If there is one thing that Bourdain understood better than the rest of us and was more desperate to demonstrate than anything else, it was the power of food, and specifically restaurants, to unify people. His travels to the farthest reaches of the globe in search of different places to pull up a chair and eat were not finally about exotic foods themselves, though of course we were interested in those. Fundamentally, Bourdain was interested in the bridges that food builds between people, and I suspect that he will be remembered more for his restless pursuit of those friendships than for eating bugs or telling seamy secrets about restaurant kitchens.

Kitchen Work wasn’t founded as a magazine about restaurants, but neither can it escape its DNA as a publication with an editor who has spent most of his life working in restaurants and who presently operates one. Restaurants as we currently perceive them might be said to be the foremost examples when it comes to food and social connectivity, constructed explicitly to feed a room full of strangers seated side by side to eat and drink. They are places where people don’t know what’s coming next, and where all kinds of secular faith are on display. Guests trust that they’ll be served good food and drink, and everyone trusts that a shared sense of decorum will prevail. I’ll say here what many who read this journal already know: I love restaurants and I think they are vitally important to the health of society.

While only two pieces in this issue are explicitly about restaurants — Dan Kagan-Kans’s account of an over-the-top, multicourse, international chef–swapping evening at a New York restaurant, and Leigh Biddlecome’s profile of two partner-restaurateurs trying to build community through food in Napa — nearly everything included here is about interpersonal connections built on food and wine. Included are essays about family food traditions, a recollection of working a grape harvest in France, and a wonderful piece about the way ceviche unites fishing communities in South America. There’s also a short, metaphysical, almost surreal inquiry about human beings, wine, and our relationship to the planet, written by the esteemed Tuscan winemaker Luigi Anania, maker of La Torre Brunello di Montalcino for nearly forty years.

It is an especially momentous time to be thinking of these connections, and even more so as they regard restaurants, when many of our social institutions are bearing the stress of the current political landscape. On one hand, in my own work I sense a change in the atmosphere at my restaurant that suggests that serving dinner is more important than ever. Guests seem to relish the experience of going out to eat more than they did even a couple of years ago. The compliments on our food are more direct and the embraces from patrons seem more heartfelt — even purposeful. More people have told me recently that they appreciate me personally and the work my team does than ever before. It feels, for lack of a better way of saying it, like we need each other.

And yet: as has been mentioned in publications here and there, and by many people recently who work in the restaurant industry, in some ways our business feels like it is hanging by a thread. Restaurants have always been under pressure to manage food costs, keep staff trained, and handle the general rigors of serving the public. But today there is a secret circulating in restaurants all over the country: it has become nearly impossible to hire qualified people to make food. The situation is dire and the possible causes are many and hard to pin down.

It seems likely that San Francisco, where I work and live, might be experiencing the worst of it. Real estate prices here are astronomical and more or less insurmountable for anyone earning a modest wage. The last few years have also seen the proliferation of non-restaurant professional kitchens, like the ones that have been established privately by large technology companies, which feed thousands of employees every day on-site, and like the commissary kitchens opened by companies that offer home delivery of prepared or semi-prepared food. Operations like these are often backed by substantial capital that allows for better compensation and benefits, and they provide an alternative to the nocturnal hours restaurant cooks usually keep. These employers are now competing for the same diminishing pool of applicants.

Assuming that current trends continue, it’s hard to imagine that cities all over the country won’t be grappling with these same realities over time. The greater the stratification of wealth, the more likely it is that cities will become a mix of poor people and very wealthy people with not very much in between. The companies that are rumored to be successful and ascendant in the world of delivering prepared food to private homes are likely catering to another aspect of that stratification, which is that people might generally prefer to keep to themselves and their immediate friends and family rather than venturing into a space that entails mixed company.

When a longtime guest of my restaurant mentioned to me recently that he and his wife had been considering investing in one or more of the prepared-food delivery services, which either ferry their own food or transport food already prepared at a restaurant, it started me thinking about the history of restaurants. The general consensus of historians is that restaurants didn’t exist as we know them until after the French Revolution, when scores of seasoned cooks who had previously been working for aristocratic families fanned out across the streets of Paris and began to establish their own eateries. The history of restaurants is actually rather short, dating back only a couple of hundred years, and even though none of us has ever known a world without them, there is no guarantee that they will continue to exist.

As is the case with so many other things churning in the maelstrom of our present moment, it seems as though we are about to make some discoveries about what we really value. The restaurant equation is complicated because it involves so many factors. Will people continue to patronize restaurants designed with diverse clienteles in mind, as opposed to just the most expensive and the least expensive ones? Will a new generation of cooks emerge to staff those restaurants? Will Americans experience a shift in their thinking about what food should cost, and will restaurateurs be able to create living wages for their staffs within the financial models afforded by their businesses?

As I think of how much our society stands to lose if people stop eating out together, of course I hope the answer to all of these questions is yes.

Matthew Straus, Editor

www.kitchenwork.com

Chef, Sommelier, Restaurateur, Editor