Cuisine

IN THE COLD WAR bestseller Gorky Park, the villain, at an upscale New York restaurant with the hero-detective, makes a short speech about the true tragedy of the Soviet Union’s 20th century: the destruction, by Communism, of Russian cuisine. Since it follows another villainous anecdote about the Siege of Leningrad, Martin Cruz-Smith is really leaning into sardonicism at that point. Aaron Timms’ Salt Fat Acid Defeat in N+1 is excellent and you should read it, and makes the same point more seriously (and angrily): that restaurant culture is shitty to exactly the extent our broader culture is, kitchens and food cultures change faster than we think, and that we can do better.

One of the few promises to myself that I’ve managed to keep, after my teenage job at a multinational hamburger chain, is never ever to work in the hospitality industry, ever again. Burger-flipping is so far the hardest physical labour I’ve ever done, but it wasn’t the hard work that made it so unpleasant—-it was the constant acceleration, the pressure to cover for the franchisees’ understaffing, the pushing-down of design and safety failures onto the teenage workers (it’s not the machine that’s broken, it’s you’) the managers’ shameless stealing of time at each end of a shift (‘clock on and then go and unpack the truck’). Since then I’ve worked jobs where I’ve been paid less, and humiliated more, and felt worse, but never with quite the same culture of aggressive shittiness. Everyone knows it. Never again.

Yet our television and internet overflow with content about food and hospitality skills, and shows that make genuinely good viewing, because cooking at any scale is challenging and fun. The Great British Bake-Off and its derivatives, for example, are compelling, supportive, endearing, and show people using their skills. Television shows with chefs as their stars have little but their subjects’ genuine expertise in common, and that’s enough. The manual skills of cooking, and the collective enterprise of working a job at a site together, are enduring and somehow, even though I know better, appealing. There’s no end of people interested in hospitality skills, nor will there be until humans stop being interested in eating: it’s only the industry that’s got problems. But confusing the material conditions of a job for the human satisfaction of a task is the error of modernity, isn’t it; Matthew Crawford’s deceptively appealing Shop Class as Soul Craft made that mistake, imagining that there’s a particular virtue attaching to working with one’s hands, or an essential artisanship existing outside the labour relationship.

What if having a ‘good job’ was as simple as bosses who didn’t spend the entire shift shouting ‘productivity’, meaning ‘work faster’? But here is Timms, again:

During these long, strange months of the city’s somnambulism, one of the few joys, for me at least, has come from helping out as an occasional line cook at various popups run out of semi-resuscitated bars and restaurants around Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. What these exercises in culinary improvisation have taught me is that food still has the power to knit communities together, but only if the institutions delivering it have a stake in the local outcome—if the aid between restaurants and the people they host really is mutual, anchored in a hospitality whose highest calling is always the duty of reciprocity…

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