Fine Dining is Under Attack

Fine Dining is Under Attack

Essays, Reviews

Fine Dining Has Found Itself in the Heart of Class Conflict

The COVID pandemic forced some aspects of our society to do some self reflection and the resulting self-flagellation did not trend the path I would have predicted. Marie Kondo has decided clutter can be a good thing. Universities suddenly believe student-athletes deserve to be treated with personal rights. Voters decided fascism should wait at least two more years. But the most surprising to me has been the new negative coverage of the fine dining world. 

I would have assumed that after months of quarantine people would be grateful to pay top dollar for meals that are out of reach for even the most experienced home cook. Yet, it seems many have decided the outrageous prices and more avant garde culinary experiments are a bridge too far. The criticisms have come in a number of formats over the last year and seem to be a liberal pushback on excess. 

Probably the most famous example was from F/X’s The Bear. A show that took the internet by storm upon its release last summer. Other than the funny looking yet still hot sex appeal of its lead, Jeremy Alan White, much of the show is about the rigors of the culinary business. White plays a chef who had been at the top of the culinary game, working as a sous chef at one of the most prestigious restaurants in the world. He now finds himself trying to implement that level of detail in his late brother’s Italian Beef shop in a blue collar Chicago neighborhood. 

Much of The Bear’s criticism of high end culinary experiences comes from the perspectives of the kitchen staff. Abuse, impossible standards, and mental breakdowns being the most common feelings shown on screen. This look behind the curtain has borne truthful as world famous NOMA has announced it will be closing as a full time restaurant in the coming years as the industry is no longer “sustainable.” With reports that it regularly staffed its kitchens with under or even unpaid interns would show that reasoning to be quite accurate. Which sounds much like the backstory for The Bear’s Sydney, played by Ayo Edebiri.

But why would fine dining be where we draw the line in the sand? Where is the drama show of the abuse in the tech world or following around the unpaid interns working on capitol hill? The New York Times’ Pete Wells has also begun to find cracks in the culinary world that he himself has propped up for so many years. He recently featured on the NYT The Daily podcast, speaking directly about his distaste for the excess of this industry. The cost as well as the absurdity of some of the experiences just feel different in the enviornment of post-COVID America. Wells has decided to make sure his column will include the exemplary work of chefs and restaurants that also fit a more appropriate budget. 

Perhaps Wells is just seizing on a market that has an Anthony Bourdain shaped hole. This episode coming just a few weeks after the release of The Menu has me thinking he may have been influenced a bit by Ralph Fiennes Chef Slowik. The Menu has all the direct class connotations that this current revolt on fine dining deserves. The treatment of the staff is horrid of course, but lets be honest, we’re really only pissed at how outrageous the cost has become. In The Menu, Chef Slowik and his staff have gathered together all the people who have ruined the culinary arts. The rich who spend to spend, the critics who assert power they hardly earned, and the obsessed fan who trivializes decades of learning and technique with wikipedia articles and tiktoks. 

It’s easy to attack the art of any field once it reaches an intellectual playing field reserved for only those who study. Who hasn’t seen a photo or painting and thought “I could do that.”? The Menu does an excellent job at ensuring the art isn’t what is being attacked. Chef Slowik’s unique dishes are just as important as a cheeseburger, but the people who spend money on his restaurant have no clue how to appreciate art that isn’t out of reach from others. 

Pete Wells and The Bear find a middle ground, where the blue collar italian beef sandwich and a more sophisticated plated dish could be served together. I find this pattern to be interesting and foreboding. Liberals are quite prone to accidentally flip a switch that triggers the reactionary conservatives. As I mentioned, I believe much of this concern is based around the decidedly class based elitism of what has become a fine art. Much like Free Jazz and Contemporary Art, it’s not for everybody and certainly takes a bit of study to appreciate the final product. 

My worry is popularizing a critique of any fine art could risk the artists at all levels. At a time when Ron Desantis is fighting to remove African American studies from high schools and targeting tenure, liberals should be careful on which front the class war should take. I assume much of this is derived from guilt around the wasted dollars on excessive nights out, all the more extreme during a year of inflation. But the fascists are already coming for the academics. The artists are always targeted next.