Sign up for R&K Insider, our collection of the most compelling happenings in food, politics, and travel from across the web.
Thursday is upon us once again, dear readers, and this week, I’ve been thinking about food fights. Not the fun kind, like our paella battle royale last Thursday eve. (Was it really just a week ago I was the hottest I’ve ever been in my life, cooking over an open fire on a scorching May evening with record-high temperatures? It feels like lifetimes ago.)
No, I’ve been thinking New York Times food critic Pete Wells’ decision to write about why he wasn’t writing about Noma’s Mexico pop-up restaurant. Wells sees no point in reviewing the temporary restaurant by famed Nordic chef René Redzepi, especially since it has already sold out (only 7,000 souls will know the bliss of his cucina Mexicana). He seizes on the meal’s stupidly expensive price ($750 a head including tax and service); the fact that the Mexican state in which it is located, Quintana Roo, is flush with tourism jobs that pay crap, leaving about half the state’s residents living in poverty; and that most of the people enjoying this hyper-local dining experience will be tourists.
These are all fair points. I’m certainly not going to sit here and argue the moral imperative of blowing a month’s wages on a trip to a resort town to have dinner. And I’ll leave it to others to debate the role of a critic.
But I am interested in those arguments, and others raised by the Noma Mexico enterprise. I’m a big fan of Wells, but I struggled with his non-review. It held shades of the old undergrad false dilemma that goes something along the lines of, “Why bother with fine art when people are starving?” There are lots of examples of shitty, high-end restaurateurs lazily throwing around locavore buzzwords like so many microgreens. But Redzepi spends months researching the cuisines that he tackles, getting to know local producers and farmers, understanding culinary traditions to the smallest detail, then processing these traditions through his own techniques and cadre of trusted chefs, which is a pretty high bar as far as food homages go. And while Redzepi’s short-term restaurant isn’t going to fundamentally change the economic scene of this wildly unequal resort town, he also makes a point of employing local artisans and forming relationships with farmers, which makes this undertaking feel like a fairly arbitrary red line to draw in the moral sand.
On the other hand, it is understandably discomfiting that everyone in the chattering class is talking about Mexican food and at the center of the conversation is a white, European chef. This always fucking happens, and the only solution is to continue having the confusing, infuriating arguments these situations provoke. These debates are not about marginal issues of who gets to have the best snacks. The food industry has become one of—if not the—dominant concerns in both business and culture in global society today. This review seemed like a lost opportunity to fully engage with Noma’s implications. THEN AGAIN, I can’t seem to shut up about it so maybe his review did exactly what it was meant to.
I was thinking about all of this again when I was sent a list of “Alternatives to White-Owned Appropriative Restaurants in Portland.” (Full disclosure: I was a line chef in Portland many years ago and vaguely know some of the people on this list.) Turns out, two white women in Portland decided to start a burrito cart in Portland and gave a mind-blowingly tone deaf interview about pilfering techniques from producers in Mexico. Outrage ensued, and the truck has since closed. It’s easy (so easy! So easy that I did it!) to make jokes about “peak Portland” and chalk this up to the tempest-in-a-teapot outrage that animates so much of today’s politicking. But again, issues of appropriation and profit really do matter! (Although I would argue this list did not help itself by calling out Voodoo Donuts for religious appropriation. Send me your angry comments on that!)
When I was done with my cheap shots, I thought of the excellent book The Ethnic Restaurateur by Krishnendu Ray, which focuses on the complicated social and economic dynamics underlying “ethnic” food production. For a good taste of what it’s all about, check out this Atlantic article from last year that explores Ray’s research on how waves of immigration effect the pricing of immigrant restaurants. Who gets to profit from traditional food cultures is inextricably bound up with immigration, foreign policy, global trade agreements, and the environment, among other factors. Cooking is culture; restaurants are a business. You can’t throw a big handful of money and power into the mix without starting some very worthwhile conversations. Just ask the art world!
So, let’s meet the people who harvest escamoles, the ant larvae being served up to great acclaim at both Noma Mexico and chef Jorge Vallejo’s D.F. restaurant Quintonil. Let’s revisit this profile of Daniel Patterson, one of the founders of Locol, which also caused quite the uproar this year. Let’s look at China’s epic race to avoid a food crisis. Related: I read this book on global land grabs years ago and really enjoyed it. Let’s drive around Baja drinking wine in a not dickish way! Speaking of, it’s National Wine Day! And while I stand adamantly opposed to the proliferation of National Everything Under the Sun Days, this one is a real gem. I hope you’ll join me in pouring a big glass of rosé this evening and getting into it with someone you like.
That’s it for this week! See you next week for more of the best in politics, food, and travel from around the web. Tweet me stories you want to see here @caraparks.