Food unites us: it is a commonly-accepted assumption that meals bring people together and promote understanding. Cuisine has, indeed, been a timeless tool of diplomacy that has fostered acceptance of different types of people and cultural communities. Whether it’s sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with your Republican relatives, or preparing a banquet for visiting political dignitaries in advance of crucially important peace talks, food has proven to bond us through a shared experience, despite our differences, because, when it comes down to it, we all must eat.
This basic kernel of truth — the fact that we humans must eat to survive — makes food fundamentally powerful, and not just in a biological way. Food precludes apathy: we must have an opinion or at least a reaction to food, which manifests itself in the infinite connotations, feelings, emotions, memories, and sensory impressions that catalyze within us upon biting into a carrot or tucking into a cheeseburger. So vital are these connotations and feelings to the eating experience that the very power of food itself would be lost without them. In other words, food consumed in a vacuum wouldn’t really be food. It would be a sham, a sorry representation of real food, a poor plastic apple in a fake fruit bowl tableau.
The power of food and its universality in human society makes it one of the world’s most exploitable commodities. Is it, then, any wonder that food has become such a powerful tool in today’s media? For better or for worse, food has become a pillar of the entertainment and media landscape.
That special-ness of food that we recognize when we eat, the contexts that we each apply to food that give it its unique meaning, becomes usurped by its existence as a consumable social media post, a draw for more eyeballs to an entertainment platform.
On the one hand, food media has continued to have a profound democratizing effect: it has brought the average American inside professional kitchens, giving faces and names to kitchens’ previously unknown leaders. It has also brought different types of food to people who didn’t know what kimchi or carnitas were until Roy Choi brought these things to Los Angelenos on his Kogi BBQ trucks. It gave us the incomparable mind and work of the late Anthony Bourdain, who travelled the globe treating the culinary traditions of Morocco and Myanmar with the same esteem as those of the French.
But what about the other side of this coin? While it’s true that the shared experience of food can and does unite us as humans, it’s also true that these experiences can isolate us, particularly when harnessed and commodified by the media. What is this dark side of food media, and how does it undermine the qualities of food that emphasize connection in favor of those that point us down a road of alienation and frustration?
Anthony Bourdain: Our Last Full Interview | Source: © Fast Company/YouTube
I’d like to think that this is a question Bourdain would’ve appreciated. In fact, it was his devious existentialist streak that inspired the very writing of this piece. One of the most well-known food media personalities in the industry, Anthony Bourdain began his culinary career as a kitchen dishwasher, working his way up the brutal culinary pecking order to become chef of his own brasserie in Manhattan in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. His fame really took off after publishing his first memoir, Kitchen Confidential, a behind-the-curtain look into the visceral realities of working in a restaurant kitchen. From there, he grew his career into that of a mixed-media storyteller, writing more books, creating multiple television shows, and even creating his own publishing imprint to draw other food-minded creatives into his orbit. Bourdain’s extensive body of work and his own life and personality encapsulate almost too well both the light and the dark sides of the food media spectrum: the amazing connectivity born of shared food experiences but also the crippling loneliness that comes with a life of celebrity chefdom.
Celebrity over Edibility: Food Media Personalities and The Rise of the Celebrity Chef
As a lifelong consumer of food media, I have witnessed firsthand this rise of the celebrity chef and the often toxic effect it’s had on the portrayal of food in media, rendering the food itself subordinate to the cult of personality of the entertainer onscreen. It started early: as a child of ten or eleven, I recall spending hours in front of the TV watching Emeril Lagasse wielding gleaming pots and pans and sharp knives on the Food Network in the early 2000’s. I couldn’t tell you what kind of food was cooked on those shows, but I do remember one thing: Emeril Lagasse’s white teeth and shiny hair. I remember his persona: his exclamatory “Bam!” when he seasoned his food, his showmanship, and his big smile.
Herein lies the ultimate and frustrating irony of food media: even though we are consuming so much food, we are not actually eating it.
Emeril Lagasse | Source: Wikipedia
I didn’t fully realize it until now, but Emeril’s show was never really about instructive food preparation; it was about Emeril and his white teeth and his “Kick it up a Notch.” His personality was the crux of the show. Food was simply an accessory in the contextual orbit surrounding Emeril — the successful chef, the big personality, the entertainer — rather than the other way around. How odd is it that one of my earliest models of a chef contains no reference to the actual food he cooked?
The divorcing of food from the cook has only intensified with the rise of social media. Not only are images of food often disassociated from the hands that prepared it, but the powerful cult of personality around celebrity chefs further strips away the power of food in favor of the power of celebrity and influence. When a hot chef or new restaurant has more followers on Instagram than guests dining at their establishments, what does that say about the power of their actual food? That special-ness of food that we recognize when we eat, the contexts that we each apply to food that give it its unique meaning, becomes usurped by its existence as a consumable social media post, a draw for more eyeballs to an entertainment platform.
Consider a show like Chef’s Table, a docu-series that gives viewers an intimate look at the personal and professional lives of chefs from around the world. This cinematically breathtaking show, which celebrates diversity in the restaurant industry, bends over backwards to portray chefs as enigmatic, inaccessible geniuses, rather than celebrating the actual food they prepare. Very few (if any) of us will ever be able to access the dining rooms of these culinary geniuses, and so we feed ourselves on the personal lives of chefs, viewing their processes and conversing about their culinary philosophies, covering every other angle of food without actually considering the food itself. While this presents an intriguing and intellectual puzzle, can we really say that this is an example of “food bringing people together”?
Clip from the episode of Chef’s Table featuring Dominique Crenn | Source: © SFFILM/Vimeo
Herein lies the ultimate and frustrating irony of food media: even though we are consuming so much food, we are not actually eating it. We never can. Food media allows us only to perceive it as a part of a brand, or as an intellectual curiosity to be debated and parsed out, often via the “genius” of celebrated chefs. But we are never afforded the opportunity to actually eat the food we see. It is a deeply cruel and sinister joke on us, to be perpetually honing in on the various contexts that we associate with food without actually allowing it to come to fruition on our palates.
This irony is perhaps the most devastating evidence of the experience of food as alienating. It presents the perfect foil to joining family, friends, or even strangers around a table for a meal — in this case, we are ultimately left alone, contemplating the fact that we will never actually, truly, literally consume the thing we have sought so persistently. We’ve rendered it inedible.
Reconnecting to Food: “Guerrilla” Food Media
Luckily, there are and have been pioneers in the food and food media space challenging the status quo: Roy Choi, David Chang, and Anthony Bourdain, to name a few. When chef Choi took to the streets of his hometown of Los Angeles in a tricked-out truck selling Korean-inspired tacos, he spurred the food truck movement that has brought innovative cuisine to Angelenos’ doorsteps without a high-cost or highbrow barrier to entry. The success of his “Kogi” fleet of trucks and others like it is due partially to his utilization of Twitter to make announcements and fill in followers on his truck locations. In this instance, social media posting is subordinate to the food experience it is pointing viewers towards; food remains front and center instead of the personality and celebrity of the chef who’s posting. It also taps into the context of space and place associated with the food being served (it’s no coincidence that Choi’s Twitter and Instagram handle is “RidingShotgunLA,” with frequent mentions of hometown love and pride). These factors enrich the power of food and usher the consumer towards a real-world eating experience that can truly satisfy.
— Roy Choi (@RidingShotgunLA) July 15, 2018
Roy Choi and his hometown pride | Source: RidingShotgunLA/Twitter
David Chang, famous for his family of Momofuku restaurants located throughout the world, has also made a big splash in the food media scene, creating his own media company and releasing the series Ugly Delicious on Netflix. Whereas Chef’s Table probes a single personality in each episode, Ugly Delicious episodes center on a specific food item or cuisine and explore multiple people who partake in the making and eating of it. This sustains attention on the food itself. Ugly Delicious thus reinforces the context around food that makes it so meaningful to us. In its debut episode, for example, Chang begins by interviewing a hip Brooklyn pizza restaurateur and later dons a Domino’s Pizza uniform to deliver pizzas with a longtime employee. It is an instructive celebration of cuisine, which appreciates the millions of nuances in the ways we as humans partake in eating — from upscale restaurant experiences to bargain delivery pizza.
David Chang Is A Renowned Chef Who Likes Domino’s ambassador | Source: © The Late Show with Stephen Colbert/YouTube
Anthony Bourdain: The Anti-Celebrity Chef
If anyone knew about the destructive and alienating side of food, restaurants, and celebrity chefdom, it was Anthony Bourdain. In a way, his own celebrity seems to have precipitated his downfall. In his currently airing television show, Parts Unknown, viewers have a front seat view of Bourdain’s singular viewpoints and outsider mentality, which set him apart from his subjects. Just as the viewer can never literally experience and taste the things Bourdain did in these episodes, Bourdain’s own intellectual distance from his experiences and subjects seemed to impede his full participation in his own storytelling. His voice and personality set him apart, placing him on the pedestal of celebrity that distracted and frustrated the viewer from feeling a veritable connection to food experiences themselves.
And yet, there is something different about Bourdain’s work. He didn’t hide behind perfect hair and white teeth, or a cinematic through-line meant to dramatize or censor his life. Nor was his work produced with the intention of developing his own fame. In fact, he felt little to no responsibility to tell stories that his audience wanted him to tell. He told the good along with the bad and the ugly, sometimes to the detriment of his viewership or his subject matter, but always with the intention of revealing a truth. He accessed these truths by simply turning the lens on people and places he witnessed. Like Roy Choi’s guerrilla Twitter marketing for his food trucks, the content of Bourdain’s work remained grounded in the daily and immediate realities of the people and places he came into contact with. His work carried a kind of urgency that is lacking in the pristine episodes of Chef’s Table but that reminds us of our universal human need of food. In other words, Bourdain’s work touched not just our heads but our stomachs.
Fareed Zakaria: Anthony Bourdain was a great cultural ambassador | Source: © CNN/YouTube
And though Bourdain himself is now gone, the visceral immediacy and truth of his work remain. Perhaps we can utilize these moments of truth-telling as our compass when navigating the glut of food media we are bombarded with. Perhaps the standards of his work can be a guide for separating the genuine seekers of connection and those who magnify the power of food from the entertainers that exploit food and leave audiences hollow. Perhaps he is our model to train ourselves to extricate the plastic fruit from the bowl, leaving only the good stuff — the real stuff — to fill our hearts and bellies.
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