- - Wednesday, March 21, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

CHEFS, DRUGS AND ROCK & ROLL: HOW FOOD LOVERS, FREE SPIRITS, MISFITS AND WANDERERS CREATED A NEW AMERICAN PROFESSION

By Andrew Friedman

Ecco, $27.99, 464 pages

When it comes to the American restaurant scene, we live in the best of times and the worst of times. Ingredient-wise, modern logistics and agriculture make America perhaps the most versatile and self-sufficient dining zone in the history of civilization.

We can seasonally produce — and off-seasonally obtain within easy reach — the top of the crop for most categories of fruits, nuts, vegetables, starches and legumes, many locally grown. Ditto most of the harvest from the animal kingdom, on land and sea. What more could one ask?

Well, for starters, perhaps one could ask for better cooks with more skilled food craftsmanship and less self-centered, self-absorbed culinary “performance art.” And for more competent, less fame-crazed restaurateurs who understand that it isn’t about them, it’s about the food and the hospitality.

But the problem starts closer to home. Especially in major urban markets, and particularly on the coasts, the customer profile is increasingly dominated by young, single or childless Generation Xers with fat paychecks, no kids and no kitchen savvy.

Lacking any understanding of what goes into making a good meal, but avid in the pursuit of brand prestige, they are the ideal suckers for a today’s culinary narcissists. The money they spend on dining out — sometimes while simultaneously whining about their student loan debt — is what keeps many of the celebrity chef-driven clip joints in business.

All too often, the result is funny-looking food served on funny-shaped plates by funnily-dressed service staff. While the stuff is often locally-sourced and organic, it’s not always all that tasty: Recipes for disaster.

As the late Kingsley Amis, a great trencherman as well as a great novelist, once put it: “I want a dish to taste good, rather than to have been seethed in pig’s milk and served wrapped in a rhubarb leaf with grated thistle root.”

Globalism has its purposes, but too many of today’s American chefs and restaurateurs are drawing their inspiration from a gimmicky, sometimes downright silly global pursuit of the exotic at the expense of the appetizing.

Thus a recent Washington Post Food Section led with an ecstatic paean to the “40-seat dining room at Noma in Copenhagen a calming oasis of oak, with fish skeletons hanging on the wall; Sea snail broth is the first course, and a fitting entry point to the multicourse meal; Venus clams are paired with a savory black currant wood fudge.”

Ah, good old savory black currant wood fudge, just like grandma used to make, assuming there really is such a thing as wood fudge.

Sane diners trying to figure out how we reached this pitch of culinary madness can find some of the answers in Andrew Friedman’s almost excessively detailed analysis of what an affluent generation of 1970s and 1980s young people who didn’t need to worry about where their own next meal was coming from ended up changing the way thousands of restaurant-goers dine today. Mr. Friedman clearly thinks all this is a good thing, not necessarily for the most commendable of reasons.

“The drug culture of the times certainly played a part in young Americans finding the freedom to beak away from the preordained professional pathways and veer toward the kitchen,” he stated in a recent interview. “LSD enabled many of them to simply see things in a new way and develop the necessary openness to a radical career path chefs became rock stars.”

Once they make allowance for his obvious cultural bias, readers will find Mr. Friedman a conscientious guide to the seething stockpot that is his subject. Hundreds of interviews with the pioneer chefs and contemporary food critics of the era capture what the culinary “scene” was like at the time.

But, like so many of those interviewees, Mr. Friedman seems more interested in the glitz and the melodrama than in the actual food that was produced.

As for the cuisine itself, the best of it will survive and evolve. The bulkier residue of bold, brash, unskilled culinary finger-painting will soon be forgotten. Meanwhile, the age-old food classics of various Asian, African, European and, yes, American regions will continue to quietly thrive in home kitchens and genuine ethnic restaurants catering to the non-glitterati.

Like the tattooed, pierced torsos of many of today’s swaggering new-wave chefs, their cuisine is often designed to shock rather than to please. Soon enough, both the bodies and the cuisines will age and shrivel their way to obscurity. Andrew Friedman’s lengthy, sometimes tedious but often amusing chronicle of their moment in the sun will provide a fitting epitaph.

Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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