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Restaurant culture: a new idea?


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#1 Wilfrid1

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Posted 03 May 2006 - 06:34 PM

I wanted to throw together some thoughts arising from a number of recent posts, including the discussion on the Istanbul thread of the lack of a "restaurant culture" in Turkey, and Cabby's recent discussion of the James Beard B.C. chefs dinner on the West thread. To do this properly would really demand some research, so this will be sketchy...

My thesis is that "restaurant culture" is really a very recent idea. It has been created by a very small fraction of a socio-economic sub-group, based mainly in several cities in the United States and Western Europe. It has been successfully exported to a number of other cities around the world, especially those which are destinations for this sub-group, and in some cases it has simply been grafted, more or less successfully onto an existing upscale dining culture grounded mainly in business/hotel custom, and less frequently in well-heeled tourism.

"Restaurant culture" is encoded by a number of floating signifiers. Here are some of the most obvious:

- Celebrity chefs or restaurateurs
- Newly created dishes
- Celebrity design concepts
- Ingredient driven cuisine (market, seasonal, high quality, artisanal, sustainable, just plain expensive, etc...)
- A recognizable brand
- Cuisine which breaks with tradition (often a specific tradition); formerly known as "fusion", but that's a signifier which doesn't bring home the bacon any more
- Destination dining
- Exclusive (hard to reserve)
- Expensive
- Authentic
- Local/regional

I call these "floating signifiers" not merely to show off, although that's always part of it: I simply mean to leave open the question of whether, in each case where the signifier is deployed, the signified will be as specific or real as implied. And a concrete example of what I am getting at is the popular use of "Kobe" or "Wagyu" as signifiers in contemporary NYC restaurants, and the slippery nature of what is signified thereby. I might also cite the suggestion that a chef "spent some time in x country" as a floating signifier in the realm of authenticity.

Responding to an obvious objection, I do think this model of "restaurant culture" is to be sharply distinguished from the French culture of gastronomic "restauration", which can be traced from eighteenth century France through to the disciples of Escoffier as a fairly unbroken line - and which, I contend, is a playing field for a different set of signifiers. It is, nevertheless, often part of the "restaurant culture" schtick that it poses as a natural evolution of the classical French mainstream.

And based on this thesis, I would advance these two conjectures:

1. This "restaurant culture" does not necessarily bequeathe us good restaurants.

2. It is unsurprising that many countries around the world have, as yet, failed to import this interesting socio-cultural construct - and yet that failure is often represented as a remarkable deficiency.

Discuss.
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#2 pim

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Posted 03 May 2006 - 07:07 PM

...I call these "floating signifiers" not merely to show off, ...


Using the term is not showing off. That you felt you had to explain it to the rest of us is. :lol:

I can't even.

 


#3 Wilfrid1

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Posted 03 May 2006 - 07:08 PM

Not to you, Pim, of course. The other louts. :lol:
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#4 ngatti

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Posted 03 May 2006 - 07:33 PM

I would suggest thtat "restaurant culture" has been around in different countries (notably France) since the late 19th century.
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#5 Daisy

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Posted 03 May 2006 - 07:37 PM

I would suggest thtat "restaurant culture" has been around in different countries (notably France) since the late 19th century.


In the US as well, if Waverly Root is to be believed. His book with Richard de Rochement, Eating in America, treats the formation of a 'restaurant culture' in the US in some depth.
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#6 Behemoth

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Posted 03 May 2006 - 07:38 PM

Where apart from France? I think that was the question.
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#7 Wilfrid1

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Posted 03 May 2006 - 07:58 PM

I might not have made myself clear, although I certainly went on long enough.

Of course there were restaurant cultures in France in the 19th century, and in other countries too. I was talking about a specific "restaurant culture" which is with us today, is relatively new, and has some distinguishing features, a number of which I listed. Maybe I should have called it something else - I thought the scare-quotes were enough.

If no-one recognizes it, I'd better go back to the drawing board.
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#8 pim

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Posted 03 May 2006 - 08:09 PM

At risk of being called a gutless relativist again by the hard scientists on this board :lol: , I'd say the term Restaurant Culture is just as much a floater as the term Haute Cuisine -at least in its common usage- or many other culinary terms. Don't even get me started on all that unassembled crap that claim to have been deconstructed.

That people graft to a word whatever meaning they like or is convenient to them at the moment is hardly surprising, isn't it?

However, I can see a merit for at least one meaning of the term Restaurant Culture --yes, yes the meaning that is convenient for me. And I can see how it can explain at least some differences in the the food culture in -say- France, and of Thailand.

The meaning of Restaurant Culture that resonates with me is the one that describes a culture that has evolved a social structure to support the craft of cooking at the highest levels in a restaurant setting. A case in point is France after the revolution when cooks in the previous emploi of the aristocracy had to get out of the private homes to fend for themselves, fostering the growth of restaurants and a culture that sustains that kind of cuisine outside of the private homes.

That, in contrast with a culture like the one I know best, my own. That 'Restaurant Culture' is one of the key differences. It's not that we lack restaurants in Thailand, or that people don't eat out. But the highest end of cooking is not something you find in a restaurant. We lack the Restaurant Culture to support it.

The Thais, lacking the kind of 'Restaurant Culture' that sustains the restaurants gastronomiques in France, wouldn't pay for the cost required in cooking and serving those intricate old recipes. When they go out for an expensive meal they go to Le Normandie at the Oriental.

It's detrimental a certain style of Thai cuisine. And the term Restaurant Culture is a pretty useful one to describe the reason for what's happening.

I can't even.

 


#9 alexhills

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Posted 03 May 2006 - 08:18 PM

I certainly recognize the restaurant culture that Wilf is describing, no question. I can also imagine that it is new at least in those terms, to Europe. I wonder about some other dining cultures though. I've done a lot of my high end eating with someone from a very wealthy and foody Taiwanese family (they own a very huge soy sauce company) and her accounts of serious banquetting there sound pretty unbelivably opulent. What I don't know, though, is whether the chef is celebrated as the 'individual artist' in the same way in those places. Clearly, the sushi master is one case where those cults exist and presumably have for a long time, but I wouldn't want to extend that to Chinese cuisine too - any one more qualified like to say? It is obviously a major and long established restaurant culture that celebrates the lavish and rare though.
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#10 Wilfrid1

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Posted 03 May 2006 - 08:20 PM

Thanks, Pim. I should have called it something else, but most of the tags I have in mind are a bit political. Maybe it's a simulacrum of restaurant culture. The culture I have in mind is pretty much a construct of the media and a certain segment of its consumers. It is not supported by a social structure, and to the extent it is supported by an infrastructure of local farming and fishing, the latter has been created as much by the restaurants as vice versa. I know there were farmers in New York state before there were seasonal menus - but the utility of "seasonal" and "market-driven" as commercial signifiers have created the "greenmarket" as we know it today.

(Let's see how that flies...)
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#11 lovelynugget

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Posted 03 May 2006 - 08:24 PM

Well, after following a bit of the Istanbul thread and now this, one of the most important components in the rise of a restaurant 'culture' is an established and stable middle class. It's interesting to think that great restaurants should exist to serve tourists but rarely can a restaurant survive (and surely not a whole class of restaurants) only with the patronage of foreign diners. You have to have a local populace who make enough money where going to a restaurant is not just for special occasions and who en masse raise the standards of culinary expectation in local restaurants. (Turkey's not quite there yet; I don't say this anecdotally but statistically.)

This is especially applicable to places like Spain and Ireland, two countries that within the last 10 years or so have rocketed in terms of economic growth. The average income in both countries has significantly risen, including in the expansion of middle class income. What does that mean? 1) Regular people can afford to eat out more, and as they eat out more their culinary standards rise, and 2) Regular people can travel more, thereby exposing them to good food abroad and bringing a new sophistication and higher demands back home.

#12 Wilfrid1

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Posted 03 May 2006 - 08:29 PM

1) Regular people can afford to eat out more, and as they eat out more their culinary standards rise, and 2) Regular people can travel more, thereby exposing them to good food abroad and bringing a new sophistication and higher demands back home.


And regular people entered the target audience for certain types of media - print, screen and web-based - which offer them a variety of lifestyle choices. It's a recent development that being a "restaurant goer" or even "foodie" has had a high profile as a lifestyle choice for a whole class of consumers. It lagged behind "jet travel", but perhaps is a little longer established than "going to art galleries".
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#13 lovelynugget

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Posted 03 May 2006 - 08:42 PM

It becomes even more evident when you look within a country, say Italy. Where are the 'top' restaurants that fall into Wilf's criteria? Most are situated in the northern half of the country, the industrial north, which has a relatively high level of income. Compare this to the south like Apulia, Campagna, Calabria -- the rural south where incomes are not so high. Though the home cooking culture in the south is developed and in some regard complex, it would be more difficult to find the type of 'culinary experience' Wilf describes. There is no local populace to support it.

Italy is also a good example of the second corollary, which is travel. While Italian cuisine is offered at all levels in Italy, the tendency for Italians to vacation within their own country (a huge generalization, I know, but true compared to the tendencies of Germans, Brits, and Americans) means that foreign cuisines offered in a restaurant setting is still somewhat in its infancy there. Immigrants might open restaurants, but local Italians won't go. Luckily, this is changing though.

#14 Rose

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Posted 03 May 2006 - 08:52 PM

It's also necessary for the culture in general to value dining out as opposed to entertaining in their own homes. Population density and affordability of larger living spaces would be a factor as would adequate cooking facilities.
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#15 Wilfrid1

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Posted 03 May 2006 - 08:54 PM

Locals won't go.

Reminds me I meant to link Cabby's James Beard post back into the discussion. She describes an elaborate showcase dinner prepared by B.C. chefs and featuring "local" ingredients. I have no criticism of the menu, but it struck me, reading through it, just how very far it is from anything which "regular" residents of B.C. (of any socio-economic class) would consider eating on any kind of regular basis.

The salmon dish - okay. Much salmon is consumed, although not usually with crab and leeks. But the raw fish appetizers, the sea urchin with horseradish foam, the "Wagyu" beef, the crosnes - whether from Pemberton Valley or not: it's all much more representative of what I called "restaurant culture" than it is of the way people eat in British Columbia.

Not to say it wasn't delicious.
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If the author could go around the place hitting random readers with a rubber hammer, the Pink Pig would still be worth a visit.