The White Whale
Are chefs the new novelists?
It’s a question I’ve been taking semi-seriously in the wake of publicity for Paul Freedman’s Ten Restaurants that Changed America, which, in narrating their history, purports to tell “nothing less than the history of America itself” (I guess it glosses over the slavery stuff). There are a million such lists of foundational, vital books (even The Library of Congress has got in on the action); it is not a massive conceptual leap from The Great American Novel to The Great American Restaurant, to seeing chefs and proprietors as just as central to 20th century American mythopoesis as Melville, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and DeLillo (hey - they’re all white dudes, too!). Chefs in this reading were never rockstars; the Gordon Ramsay era of TV “personality” is an embarrassing blip, not the norm. Chefs are artists, people whose meaningful interior lives have shaped the way they work and create; their art feeds off and into the cultural milieu around it.
Give yourself a bit of licence, and you even start seeing culinary versions of literary movements and cells – Bloomsbury Groups and Lost Generations with their own geographic and cultural biases. The US-based interrogators of every component of the concept of “modern American food” (Chang, Barber, Bowien, Brock). Albert Adria, Andoni Aduriz, Juan Mari and Elena Arzak – Spanish disciples of Ferran Adria’s disruptive Make It New-esque dictum, suggestively located in regions (Catalunya, The Basque Country) that don’t see themselves as Spanish at all. The hyperlocal New Nordics (Redzepi, Nilsson, Puglisi). The hardy souls (Passard, Barbot, Bras) walking the tightrope between French grande bouffe sybaratism and a meaningful interaction with modern technique and (gasp!) vegetables.
One place that hasn’t proved fertile ground for this sort of microculture is the UK. There are odd outposts, where people with a singular vision have set up shop and waited for an audience (Simon Rogan at l’Enclume springs to mind, ditto Ruth and Rose at The River Café; Mikael Jonsson at Hedone maybe), but nothing has coalesced into something you could call a movement, a world-beating #squad. London is a city of excellent, occasionally astonishing restaurants but few great chefs; of superlative white-boy appropriations of various foreign cuisines but relatively little interest in interrogating what it means to eat British in 2016, to push food forward like you might an art form. By my reckoning the last British chef to shift the global conversation was Heston Blumenthal (to be fair to him, he did it twice, as a mad scientist and then as a revisionist historian); before that it was Fergus Henderson; before that it was probably the Earl of Sandwich.
If you’re looking for a reason why, take a flick through the weekend supplements. You can find Marina O’Loughlin – honest-to-goodness Critic of the Year, across all disciplines – buried in the “Lifestyle” section of the Guardian website; a writer of AA Gill’s astonishing depth of knowledge languished in the Sunday Times’ Style pages for years. Even now, after his elevation to the Magazine proper, Gill still feels out of place, given there’s a supplement with CULTURE stamped in block capitals on the front cover. But this is our fault, or rather it encapsulates our squeamishness. We’re still Puritanically ashamed of expressing an interest in food as a cultural rather than purely nutritional force for good or satisfaction; we still reduce “food writing”, damagingly, to writing about how to cook nice food, or where to find it.
Our old friend mortality may help solve this one – however you define “younger demographic”, it’s undeniable that social media have done an excellent job of social-ising food, carving out a place for it in the discourse of the under-whatevers. But I’m not sure the prospects are therefore rosy. The very people sharing those dope Instas of the Bao chicken chop may well end up being the cause of a whole new problem. The restaurant-reviewing blogs that have mushroomed uncontrollably since Cheese met Biscuits on the internet are fundamentally limited in their ambition to treating every meal in a restaurant like an exam that a cook has passed or failed. Awarding stars, or marks out of ten, or twenty, or 100 gives us a false, limiting sense of precision. Sometimes – not always! – writing about food in restaurants can be not just about whether it tasted good or not, but what every word in that sentence (“writing”, “food”, “restaurants”, “tasted”, “good”) might mean.
This tunnel-vision has more alarming consequences than you might think. One of the weirdest rabbit holes on the internet, Goodreads, offers us a glimpse into the future, providing as it does an opportunity for everyday people to offer a precise rating – out of five – to any work of literature ever written. On Goodreads, Underworld has fewer stars than The Darkest Night, Book 1 in the Lords of the Underworld series (no – me neither). On Goodreads, none of Hemingway’s works of fiction has broken the 4.5 rating barrier. On Goodreads, Moby-Dick has 3.45 stars.
The reviews for Melville’s novel weren’t exactly stellar when it came out, by the way; I am also aware that Yelp and Tripadvisor are doing a scarily good job of Goodreading the restaurant industry already. The metaphor isn’t perfect. But the point I’m trying to make is more about ambition, and how the current mania for ranking and listing is inimical to the sort of risk-taking, failure-tolerating behaviour that any sort of innovation or aesthetic advancement requires. Because if chefs are the new novelists, then we need a new mode of literary criticism too.
We are slowly, awkwardly, elevating food into the cultural mainstream – so let’s do it faster, and free our best writers from the confines of the Lifestyle pages. Chefs should be free to create and experiment, not pay endless lip service to entitled millennials wielding a terrifying, disproportionate amount of power. So let’s all – please – abolish marks out of ten: if a writer can’t convey through their prose how good or bad a restaurant is, then that’s their problem, and they deserve to fail. Let’s encourage failure rather than stigmatising it – without it, nothing changes. Let’s be open, and honest, and receptive to criticism of our own work – it’s the only way we’ll ever really get better. Finally, let’s change the nature of our relationship with chefs, as painful as that process may be. I love special treatment as much as the next person with an ego; I love how it feels when I’m on the inside of something exclusive looking out, not standing outside mournfully looking in. But we can and should hold ourselves to a higher ethical standard than that – there is no point in any of this if we leave such obvious obstacles to objectivity in place. It will be a painful process, it will be a painstaking and prolonged process, it will be a process about which a great many people will give not a solitary flying fuck.
I think it will be worth it.