Immoderate—Possibly Even Fresh—Thoughts About Chefs and Eating Out

Fresh Salad Ingredients from the Campsie Garden

Fresh Salad Ingredients from the Campsie Garden

"Everything in moderation, including moderation," Julia Child said. Today, August 15, 2012, as media all around are noting, is the 100th anniversary of her birth. In this post, Savoring Kentucky, usually a moderate and peaceable place, gets a bit agitated about two current versions of eating out. We're taking refuge in the "including moderation" portion of Jubilant Julia's pronouncement, using the opportunity to balance our usual moderation by proposing a few far-fetched assertions and ideas.

AssertionThe current model of eating out, from fast food carry out to highest end gastronomic temples, has run its course. Not that eating out will disappear soon, but it is time for an overhaul.

Even Balder Assertion We are killing ourselves and our chefs.

What can we do about this? Lots, probably, but first some palaver.

What's behind the assertions? We long to be served, to enjoy a few hours—or minutes—during which others wait on us hospitably and cheerfully. This longing comes in both an Everyday and an Elite version. Neither version promises long-term well-being for eaters, chefs, and the planet. In fact, the Everyday model may be killing us, while the Elite model may be killing our chefs.

Paying for people to cook for us at a place away from our homes has been part of human life since at least the 13th century in China, according to Cornell economics professor Nicholas M. Kiefer in Economics and the Origin of the Restaurant. In today's Everyday version in the United States, we want others to cook for us and serve us, and we want that experience to be affordable. That particular combination of wants yields our present fast food economy. Its foods depend on inexpensive salt, fats, and carbohydrates, proteins from unlovely sources, unknown additives, low wage labor, and extensive petroleum use.

The Everyday model, so far, does not have a positive impact on human or planetary health. In Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock makes the human costs of an extreme fast food diet vivid. Food, Inc. offers one look at production practices that yield staple ingredients we eat in Everyday meals. I am not interested in sustaining the ways of living, eating, and producing food documentd in these movies.

In the Elite version, either we have an exuberant supply of excess cash, or we have a special occasion coming up, and we can afford a splurge. With big money at the ready, we pay to rent space, time, and servers in a restaurant, bistro, gastropub, or café. Several people work valiantly to delight our taste buds. They often assume our taste buds are tired of the ordinary. So, on these Elite plates we might encounter pearls of frozen pot liquor that masquerade as caviar on top of a "fried egg" that's actually a savory sea bass panna cotta topped with a yolk made of turmeric-infused baby pili nuts and yuzu—all ingredients sustainably produced, of course. Which leads to a side topic too juicy to avoid.

Small Sidebar About Novelty in Elite Eating For those of us whose eating out is primarily of the Everyday version, it can be hard to believe, but boredom becomes a hazard for those able to frequent Elite restaurants. Chefs search for novel ingredients and flavor combinations, and those searches can lead past juicy, creative, delicious meals into a realm where things get weird. Recognizing that one person's "weird" can be another person's flavor epiphany, I will risk an example: ash-covered food, a current trend I'd wager will appeal primarily to jaded palates. The article above on ash-covered food twice describes it has having caveman appeal, something I remembered when reading about "clinching" steak—cooking the meat directly on coals, instead of on a grill above coals.

Or Maybe the Topics of Extremism and Machismo Are Not Entirely Off Track After All All this gritty manliness in food sets off my machismo meter. I read that many commercial kitchens require super-human strength and stamina beyond what most mortals possess. I get suspicious when any enterprise operates at a pitch and pace that cannot be sustained. Real people, with our ordinary human constraints, can get harmed in such endeavors.

In chefs' memoirs of learning to cook and then carrying out their chosen work, extreme overwork and under-rest form a constant theme. For example, read  about the delirium-inducing strain of cooking three turns of brunch to order at a popular New York City restaurant when eight months pregnant (Blood, Bones, and Butter), or experience vicariously in Yes, Chefthe agonizing performance anxiety that forces a budding chef-in-training to face daily bouts of the opposite of eating (use your imagination here; clue: synonym for "disgorge.") The chefs who survive these ordeals write about their survival in terms that remind me of soldiers learning—hoping—to survive warfare. The kitchens they describe are closer to killing grounds than to collegial work stations.

On the job, other hazards plague professional chefs. At food shows and festivals, many chefs are larger than life, literally. Our chefs look like super-sized versions of the rest of us, and, as a rule, we're more trunk-y than Twiggy ourselves. If we look at pictures of chefs across their careers, many add unhealthy pounds each year they cook. One wonders how chefs keep up the nearly lethal pace required in successful restaurants when their joints and cardiovascular systems must be suffering. I know something about these impairments from personal experience. Life energy gets depleted when there is too little rest, too much food, not enough exercise, and too many pounds.

Being a chef in a demanding restaurant today is a young person's profession, like basketball or ballet. Few chefs can sustain the physically killing pace of cooking every day past their early 40s. All that harrowing, reportedly even semi-violent training gets put to use for, at most, a couple of decades. The fortunate chefs then hire others to work for them, or branch out of the kitchen into other food enterprises. I am afraid to know what happens to the unlucky ones.

What would make things better? I offer some starting notions below. Dear readers, I invite your creativity and ingenuity. I also invite your alternative and opposing views.

New Model: Cooking With, Instead of Being Cooked For To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. My "hammer," in this case, is the great pleasure I take in cooking with others, a pleasure that has not failed me from earliest childhood until now, when I have grandchildren of my own.

Can cooking with others address some of the ills of the present system of eating out? I wonder whether we could lower the pressure on chefs and restaurants if we changed the model and cooked with our chefs and cooks. At first the idea may be as shocking as our first encounters with self-service coffee and soft drink counters, self-service grocery checkout or, for some of us, the striking shift from full service gas stations to pumping our own gas.

Let's consider a couple of examples of the "cook together" notion. In the past year, a friend told me about his brother's birthday party, organized as a cooking competition at several work stations, where party-goers formed teams and all used the same ingredients and equipment to produce meals. The teams then rated each others' prepared foods, and enjoyed eating from all the different stations. "The best party ever," said my friend. I wished I had been invited.

Earlier this year, I had the deep fun of being on a community cooking team as part of Cooks for a Cause, Debra Hensley's inspired Winter 2012 edition of Debra's Social $timulus. I got a lot from planning and cooking with a team of four other people, in a contest that included four other teams: fun, new flavors and cooking know-how, a glorious flow experience during the competition, and new friends. Even the finest restaurant meals I have had fail to rival this experience.

Both these examples include a competitive element, but I do not envision a new form of eating out as an arena for competition. Instead, I imagine eating out could be a means of balancing out the differences among the experts and novices in the food world, with highly trained chefs helping the rest of us become better at choosing, preparing, and savoring good food.

Yes, But You're Different. Probably. I have more interest in food than most people do, I'm pretty sure. I spend a lot of time thinking about food, what makes it good and how to make it wonderful. I also know that what I am about to say reflects great privilege and a lifetime of abundance: food, to me, is the original social medium.

Food Works Best When It's Social. Food makes sense to me when cooked with others and eaten with others. Sharing cooking and sharing eating add moments of ease and pleasure to life, times that require a little less management of our persona, our "face." Cooking and eating together can let us rest, restore, refresh. Food can connect us, and ease unnecessary barriers among people, without crossing into uncomfortable intimacy.

Should cooking together, cooking with others, become a standard feature of eating out? I hope so. The popularity of cooking classes suggests lots of people want to be better cooks, and possibly they enjoy the shared learning and cooking adventure. Even if being served by others who do all the work continues to be a major option when eating out, I would like to see other options expand, options that are participative and connective.

Food From Many Hands: Better Flavors? More Satisfaction? I like cooking with my family and friends more than almost anything else in life, and certainly more than cooking by myself for my loved ones. I have heard of people who wanted their kitchens to themselves. No one, not even their partner or children, should help cook or clean up. I consider those people, if they do exist, to be rare and isolated instances of life's diversity. I wonder whether their food could possibly taste as good as food made with many hands. Could their tables possibly be places of ease, delight, and discovery? I am skeptical. Cooking and eating get better with participation, investment, variety, and contribution.

Cooking and eating together make it possible to take advantage of diversity in taste, flavor, experience and skills. "I've made the gratin several times, and you're good with pastry. Do you want to tackle the plum tart while I get these potatoes organized?" When families and friends learn enough and value difference enough, preparing and enjoying meals together can yield the benefits of crowdsourcing. Having professional chefs as expert guides for some meals could make the food and experience even better.

An All Ages Opportunity for Contribution Whether inside families, among friends, or in groups of relative strangers, cooking and eating make fine opportunities for genuine team development. Cooking, particularly, creates opportunities for each person to make contributions according to ability, and for abilities to leap forward through exposure and experience.

Children can be valued players, too. As soon as children want to do what adults do, they can learn to contribute in ways that build their confidence and their commitment to something larger than themselves. Children will love cooking and eating more when they do real things in the kitchen, well beyond "Set the table," and "Clear your plate." One tasty example: a three-year old makes chocolate tartlets. What child would not love making chocolate pie?

Cooking Together As Character Developer and Path To Understanding People who cook together learn a lot about each other, and often get to see the most positive sides of each other, the relaxed, contented, confident sides that get no respect or air time in many workplaces. I champion any activity that brings to life more of those open, positive qualities.

And this helps chefs how?? Instead of tweezing baby thyme leaves just so onto each plate of locally sourced lamb tenderloin with blackberry chutney while making sure the caramelized salsify stands in a pyramid above it all—and if not, someone gets threatened or verbally abused—what if chefs became more like cooking coaches, guiding us along as we work with others to prepare wonderful meals? If we lesser mortals sprinkle the freshly grated allspice berries on the edge of our own finished plates in clumps instead of tiny bits, it's fine. We love it. No one gets mad. No one gets fired over clumped allspice. The food and our respect for it take center stage, and the stress and drama that fill many kitchens can ease down toward peace.

What if restaurants became places where we go to connect, to become invigorated, to handle excellent ingredients ourselves, to learn from gifted, encouraging teachers? What if the focus shifts away from "Indulge me," and "Surprise me" to "Help me mprove my skills and knowledge about the magical world of food?"

Fast Food Too? How On Earth Can That Be Participatory?? We can gradually turn away from fast food that is cooked for us, and turn toward food packaged for quick cooking at home or with friends. It is hard to imagine, but I see glimmerings.

Wholesome Chef Carolyn Gilles teaches how to cut a pepper

Wholesome Chef Carolyn Gilles teaches how to cut a pepper

I went to a snazzy event last week: Soup's In, a fund raiser Alfalfa Restaurant held for Seedleaf, Inc., our stellar, local community-nourishing group. A dozen or so people paid $35 to make gazpacho together, using vegetables Seedleaf grew in its gardens.

Chef Carolyn Gilles, owner of The Wholesome Chef, guided us through making one giant batch of fresh, delicious soup. Then we sat together and savored the results of our efforts.

Before we left, Seedleaf offered one more opportunity to support their work: we could buy a Gazpacho Kit, a plastic bag filled with all the ingredients (except olive oil and salt) for making more gazpacho at home, and priced to add a bit more to Seedleaf's lean—fat free—budget.

Seedleaf's fund-raising Gazpacho Kit

Seedleaf's fund-raising Gazpacho Kit

I remembered that at Eastern Market in Washington, D.C. a week earlier, I saw, but failed to photograph, sacks of mixed fresh vegetables priced at $4. Earlier I reported on the veggie butchery at Eataly, the Italian food emporium in New York City.

So yes, I can envision a busy drive-through window, with entry level workers busily preparing food inside, with orders like this coming into the window manager's headset: "Local Burgers and slaw for four, no condiments," or "Kidney bean-rice salad, local Bibb Lettuce/pear salad, Boone Creek Creamery Blueberry Rhapsody Blue Cheese dressing, local MacIntosh apples for baking; we're serving three tonight." At the pick-up window, the packages contain pre-cut and pre-measured ingredients, along with instructions (or a web address), ready for home cooking.

Yes, this is wishful thinking. I haven't seen any business model, any attempt to make such a business go, much less expand to include locations in every city. The present model is wearing thin, though, even while making us the opposite of thin. McDonald's Corporation reported less than stellar sales in July, 2012. Change is beginning. It is fun imagining how much better the world of fast food can be.

What's Realistic? I'm more interested in imagining the possible than defining the probable. For both the Everyday and Elite versions of eating out, I am willing to assert that we can be far happier, as well as healthier, if we take more responsibility ourselves, and grow out of the longing to have others cook and serve our food. What if the next stage of eating out relies not on being served, but on participating? What if the next era forms around connecting more directly to food, people, and technique? That's a future I want to see. It is one we can sustain, both as home cooks and among food professionals.

Alfalfa Restaurant and Debra's Social $timulus sponsor Savoring Kentucky.