What Can Run
It's been a good week for writing about food. First there was Bryan Curtis’ lengthy lament about the state of the art in the US (shocker: it’s terrifyingly underfunded!); then there was Navneet Alang’s critical heat-cum-crep check ‘Who Gets To Be A Restaurant Critic?’ – both articles deeply thoughtful and wholly endorsable via jealous retweet.
Food writing – specifically, writing about restaurants – is my white whale; articulating what I think about it is an ongoing project; this is a bit of a brain dump after a couple of the most interesting pieces I can remember on the subject. But two thoughts:
Thought #1 – What the Fuck is Restaurant Criticism, Anyway?
Is it pure service journalism, Roger Ebert’s hovering digit?
Is it about describing the food accurately, or interestingly?
Is it about talking about restaurants but being funny and erudite while you do it?
Is it a discipline like literary criticism, where you ask deeper questions about an artist and how their work relates to the world around them?
Well – no, and yes. Really, it’s in a weird awkward hinterland between all of them. Food itself is the problem. Food is a true universal, in the sense that everyone has to eat; food has functioned as such a wonderful token of privilege for so long because the way you get the calories you need can vary immensely. You can scrape your sustenance from the land on which you barely subsist (think farmers eking out a few extra meals from grano arso, the burnt bits of grain left over when fields denuded by harvest were burned every year). Or you can act as an apex predator, battening on the best the land has to offer: think gouty aristocrats eating foie gras from geese fattened on the best grain those farmers produced. Or, increasingly – and this is a modern affectation, as Alang recognises – you can also use the way you get your calories to signal something about yourself: paying London restaurant prices to eat orecchiette of grano arso from fields that have been burned on purpose to satisfy the demand of the moneyed middle classes keen to indicate their deep (and very well-researched) connection with tradition, authenticity, cucina povera.
And people can situate themselves anywhere they want on that continuum (if they have the money to do so); and restaurants exist at every point on that continuum, and so the question of a “valid” aesthetic response is moot, or impossible to define, which is basically the same thing. Add into the fact that the pleasure of food is experienced, in some cases, in a part of the brain that doesn’t really do thought (AKAWallace’s prefrontal cortex) and it becomes even harder to think about how people should respond to food. So you can wank on about Mugaritz’s ‘Interpretation of Vanity’ dessert (for my money a ringing endorsement of the idea that food can be art) but you can also say you don't like the taste, and that's actually a fairly valid response, in the way it probably wouldn’t be if you said you didn’t like the colours in a Rothko.
And so Restaurant Criticism in its current form finds itself in a hellish bind. It must make pronouncements on the quality of food and the value for money it represents and the excellence of the technique it embodies while being held accountable by an audience with universally different standards for all of those things.
Which would certainly explain the comments sections.
Thought #2 – What’s Next?
Here's an interesting paragraph from the Eater piece:
While cooking itself seems to have moved firmly into its modernist phase — what is a multi-course meal at Alinea if not a Woolfian self-reflection on the craft? — professional food criticism is, barring the occasional ode to the chicken nugget, still stuck in its “because I said so” mode
The problem with criticism being stuck in 'because I said so mode' is self-evident: people are ever more likely to just turn around and say 'so what?'. And whilst I'd disagree with the description of Grant Achatz's food as Woolfian – I'd prefer someone cold and hard like Oppen – Alang raises an excellent point. We have had our modernist moment in food; we have had our postmodernist moment, too, in Massimo Bottura's knowing, ironised reimaginings of the peasant food of Emilia Romagna; the ludic aleatory silliness of a dish called ‘Oops I Dropped The Lemon Tart’ that comes artfully smashed on a faux-smashed plate.
But where is the criticism to match? The best we can do is call this sort of thing "playful"; maybe note the linkage between Bottura and visual or plastic artists. And proceed to write another formulaic review, following the path of all restaurant critics before us, doing, in Alang’s formulation:
exactly what criticism is supposed to do: lay out a series of well-defended but admittedly subjective criteria, and then go about judging the food based on them.
Is this really what sophisticated criticism is about? If you were a self-styled literary critic and wrote about how much you liked Eliot’s allusions in The Waste Land, people would laugh you out of town. A proper critic takes it as a fait accompli that their subject is worth writing about; he or she is more interested in questions of significance: how something resonates in a given time and place, and why.
Restaurant criticism should be about describing this sort of interaction, not assigning it a score out of five or ten. In this mode, it's not about " a shifting set of criteria that tackle both the highbrow and the everyday without insisting one is more culturally significant than the other"; it's about what you bring to the food and what the food says to you. There is scope to read a Grant Achatz dish like a post-structuralist scriptible text, a site of signifiers and contexts and allusions, to see the notorious Table Dessert as equal parts Jackson Pollock, salade composée, and interrogation of what it means to have your food presented to you. There is scope, too, to go to a chicken shop and listen to the story it tells: of Tottenham and Hackney and creeping hipster-gentrification; of the enduring popularity of chicken and chips; of how sometimes a chicken tender is the most delicious thing in the world.
Crucially, a restaurant criticism that is wholly disinterested in the process of formally reviewing restaurants is able to do away with everything that bogs down restaurant criticism in the first place: virtue-signalling, arbitrary standards, questions of who gets to review what. It’s more personal and more inclusive, more interested and more interesting. You can shift to asking questions rather than answering them; you can involve chefs in the conversation rather than maintaining a decades-old divide or – even worse – the false hobbling bonhomie we have at present. You can talk about food like a literary critic talks about words, which unlocks a whole different vocabulary: no more moist, no more tender, no more succulent.
I don’t care about expertise or pedigree, I care about writers who can tell a story that transports you, makes you appreciate quite how implausible the restaurant is as an artefact of human civilization, and therefore how interesting – how worthy of critical thought – every single one is. There are a few genuine restaurant critics (rather than restaurant reviewers) already in operation – my usual suspects in the UK; Bill Addison and Ryan Sutton over at Eater; Jonathan Gold – but it’s not impossible to think there could be more. It’s actually a fairly simple change to make: stop writing reviews; shift to writing essays.