We Have a Restaurant Fetish

In an episode of “Ugly Delicious,” chef David Chang and comedian Ali Wong are having a conversation at Din Tai Fung Restaurant where they refer to the liquid that squirts out of a soup dumpling as “dumpling jizz.” Later in the show, we see it physically manifested when Chef Chang sensually bites into a Sheng Jian Bao and hot broth gushes like a geyser from the swollen dumpling. He groans euphorically while the juices roll down his chin. It’s hard not to feel a little uncomfortable witnessing this epicurean money shot, but we can’t turn it off or we’ll miss the noodles.

Satisfying hunger has always inherently been a restaurant’s primary concern, but modern diners—raised on a steady diet of food porn—have more carnal appetites. The dining experience has morphed into an event that must be captured to maximize enjoyment. We objectify our food—and the chefs who make it—scrutinizing the dinner table with our smartphone cameras like forensic detectives preserving evidence at a crime scene. Eating is secondary to achieving the perfect Instagram-able moment.

No restaurateur has exploited these voyeuristic impulses better than the swarthy Turkish chef slash Steak Whisperer slash viral YouTube sensation Nusret Gökçe—more commonly known in social media circles as “Salt Bae.” Legions of lusty fans line up from New York to Miami to Istanbul for the privilege of having Chef Gökçe wield his phallic sword and carve their steak. Before they can enjoy it, however, they must wait for him to climaxshooting his proverbial load—in the form of snowy white salt crystals erotically cascading all over their sizzling meat. It might not seem totally out of place if he also cuddled and shared a cigarette with his adoring fans after the check comes.

Restaurant Fetish

The popularity of open kitchens in the early Oughts may have foreshadowed the dynamic of Chef as “Bae.” A chef’s work was no longer shrouded in secrecy. Television cooking shows had flung the kitchen doors open and invited diners in to see how the sausage is made. Guests were now privy to what was happening backstage and restaurant experiences had transformed into something meant to be observed. Long before social media, dining out had already become a voyeuristic experience. We learned that having someone cook for us, like sex, is even more fun when we get to watch. 

The cumulative effect of objectifying restaurants is akin to the effect of consuming too much pornography—entertaining these impulses obscures one’s actual desire and makes satisfaction difficult to achieve without perversion. Increasingly, people don’t enjoy restaurants as much as they fetishize them. Whether they realize it or not, most of today’s diners measure enjoyment by arousal rather than nourishment. We talk about our restaurant experiences this way, too—“The food was good but nothing I ate was orgasmic.”

In the midst of this narcissistic spectacle, industry professionals have had to accept the unwanted role of being fluffers for our guests. Metaphorically speaking, we dedicate an exorbitant amount of energy keeping our guests hard and wet, instead of quenched and full. Tableside service has become increasingly overstimulating as servers mug for the camera. Prostituting ourselves in this way has resulted in a difficult predicament—we know that allowing guests to take video and flash photography in the dining room is distracting but choosing not to cater to voyeuristic patrons may be construed as inhospitable.

One night, I colorfully recited the dessert specials for a guest who interrupted me mid-sentence, reached into her purse, discharged her phone and asked me to repeat myself for the camera. When I declined, she reacted as though I was being rude. Because I was designated to serve her table meant I shouldn’t have say over whether she could broadcast my image on social media. She made me feel like a sex doll—a pulseless facilitator of her urges—and it ruined the moment for her when I wouldn’t just lay there. 

This scenario also illustrates the way in which technology has eroded the personal connection that once comforted us about restaurants. It’s even more disconcerting to imagine a remote and distant future where embedded cameras in wearable devices will turn eye contact into video. Restaurants will deploy augmented reality applications as they search for ways of using tech to make guests’ experiences more immersive. Over time, these initiatives will only further exacerbate the problem of our objectifying restaurants, dissolving what’s left of the humanity in them where we once found sanctuary.

In this new world, traditional means of administering hospitality have become inert. For restaurant professionals, attentive service has always been defined by ascertaining the needs of our guests and doing everything necessary to fulfill them. But how do we forge a relationship with an audience that can only connect with us superficially? Hospitality professionals—perhaps with the exception of Salt Bae—want to be appreciated for the sacrifice that goes into pleasing others, for our minds not our bodies. Unfortunately, our guests are too horny to notice. 

The Triumphant Return of the Tiki Bar

For six years, Brian Miller hosted “Tiki Mondays with Miller” at various venues all over New York City. These workshops became an incubator for new ideas and, as he spread the Tiki gospel, thirsty disciples followed him faithfully from bar to bar. Brian’s vision reached an apotheosis earlier this year when he commandeered the opening of The Polynesian, a new rooftop multiplex in Times Square dedicated to all things Tiki.

“The Tiki movement has always been around,” Brian said over a neat snifter of Foursquare Premise Rum from Barbados. “There are plenty of people that have loved Tiki for many years. They’ve just been celebrating it in their own home Tiki bars.” If Tiki has always remained popular, I asked Brian, why all of sudden has it gone viral?  “In the state of our current political climate it’s no wonder people want to escape to the islands,” Brian smiled wryly and swilled the rest of the rum that was left in his glass.

Vaya Kon Tiki at The Polynesian

At this year’s Tales of the Cocktail—the annual alcohol-soaked geek-out in The Big Easy—Tiki was having a moment. In the middle of the week, several hundred attendees filtered through the rooftop of the Hotel Monteleone for a “Pool Party” sponsored by Rum Barbancourt that featured its Haitian rums shaken in Tiki-inspired mashups. At another tasting event, the legendary mixologist Don Lee—who recently opened Existing Conditions in New York City—partnered with Tiki Tolteca conjuring island potions he’d created using Ming River Sichuan Baiju.

Reintroduced by a faithful cabal of Tiki evangelists like Martin Cate (of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco) and Paul McGee (of Lost Lake in Chicago), the canon of Tiki recipes—once the butt of bartenders’ jokes—has shown it can be about so much more than just fruity beach drinks. Bartenders are finding a new freedom—honoring Tiki tradition while also experimenting with ingredients outside of the lexicon. “I’m trying to expand the bounds of what is considered a Tiki drink,” Miller said, “by including other spirits like scotch, gin, bourbon, tequila, mezcal, sherry and cognac to try and appeal to wider audience.”

At Tales, mixologists from around the world, decked out in their most audacious Hawaiian shirts, flocked to Latitude 29—Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s iconic New Orleans Tiki bar—like making a pilgrimage to Mecca. My thirsty comrades and I tasted our way through the “Longpulls” section of the menu. Our favorite was Beachbum’s Kea Colada—an exotic blend of island rums, coconut cream, lime and pineapple. The cocktail had surprising depth to it, undoubtedly due to the quality of the rums he uses, with a soothing creamy coconut flavor that lingered but not in a way that lesser Piña Coladas make you feel like you just drank suntan lotion. The Beachbum himself worked the room—you could barely see his eyes peeking out from under the wide brim of his straw hat as he generously poured us a taste of a special Plantation limited edition Jamaican rum called “The Collector.”

Tiki bar
The Banshee at Latitude 29

At Cane and Table in the French Quarter, they have an extensive rum program and cocktails they refer to as “ProtoTiki.” The bartender there happily made us a delicious off-menu drink in one of their vintage-style Tiki mugs. He improvised—drawing from the bar’s comprehensive inventory of rums—shaking three different ones (Plantation, Hamilton and Banks 5 Island) together with passionfruit, cinnamon, orgeat and grapefruit. Of course, he didn’t forget to finish it with an umbrella (the Tiki umbrella was originally invented to keep the ice from melting in the hot Sun). “Proto tiki is a way to explain our focus,” said Kirk Estopinal, the owner of Cane & Table. “Drinks that deliver the tropical experience without throwing a million things into it.” Although Cane & Table is rum focused, Kirk is quick to point out that it isn’t really a Tiki Bar in the traditional sense. “Tiki is fun and a backlash to stuffy cocktail experiences and precious historical stuff,” he said, “but we aren’t interested in the kitsch.”

Despite its exotic Polynesian motifs, the Tiki Bar is a uniquely American invention. Its history traces back to the post-Prohibition 1930’s when two Americans—Don “the Beachcomber” and “Trader” Vic—inspired by their Caribbean and Polynesian travels imported the laid back island style and attitude they’d encountered and paired it with great rum cocktails incorporating fresh tropical juices. The decor and menus of these bars had its own distinct flavor too—bamboo walls, signature ceramic mugs with Tiki idolatry and Americanized Chinese food. In the midst of the Great Depression, Americans needed an escape. The movement continued to flourish for several decades before fading into obscurity. By the early 1990’s, the Tiki Bar was all but extinct. 

Tki bar
Tiki Mugs from Cocktail Kingdom

Back in New York, Captain Miller—swaddled in his signature sarong and his face painted with dark eyeliner a la Jack Sparrow—serves his signature  “Vaya Kon Tiki” in a menacing ceramic skull mug with a flaming lemon carcass filled with smoldering coconut meat. Brian infuses rum with rooibos tea and shakes it with a cayenne pepper coconut cream to give it a warm, subtle afterburn. I was tempted to call for backup to sample the large format cocktails, but after my third drink I knew there was no way I’d be able to pronounce the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, a Blue Curacao cocktail served in a fishbowl for four people.

It was fitting that Tales of the Cocktail concluded with Lost Lake, the famed Tiki Bar in Chicago, winning the award for Best American Cocktail Bar. It was the second time in the last three years that a Tiki Bar took home the national crown. Navy Strength, a new Tiki Bar in Seattle, also won the award for Best New American Cocktail Bar. “Tropical drinks never went away they just got gross,” said Estopinal of the Tiki trend. “The public has a keener eye than years past. No way are we going back to all the mixes made in a factory, so it’ll be around indefinitely. Or at least until I retire in my little corner of the world.”

Goodbye, Uncle Tony

Bourdain

The outpouring of emotion within the restaurant community in the wake of Anthony Bourdain’s death last month is a sobering reminder of the familial aspect of restaurant work. His unexpected passing hit many of us harder than most celebrity deaths because we considered Tony an honorary member of our restaurant family.

If you spend any meaningful period of time working in the restaurant industry, the tree of people you work with in different jobs has long branches and deep roots. The word “incestuous” is often used when we describe how intertwined those relationships are. The meals we eat together before our shift are called “family” meal. We preview our newest restaurants with mock services referred to simply as “Friends and Family.”  If industry comrades visit our restaurants, we shower them with extras and we charge them for less than they ordered. Our solidarity is only something you can understand if you’ve ever burned yourself on a hot Rondeau or entered an order into Micros—we live and die for each other.

Bourdain had expressed in interviews that he wrote Kitchen Confidential with his fellow line cooks in mind. His criteria for publishing it hinged on whether they would consider it worthwhile reading. If not, he said, then no one should read it. Surviving restaurant life was a badge of courage that Tony wore proudly and he had the scars—both literally and, sadly, maybe also figuratively—to prove it.

No matter how mainstream he’d become in the culinary world, Bourdain was royalty to line cooks—the Michael Jordan of blue-collar chefs. It was rare for a cook, one who never seemed particularly comfortable being regarded with the same reverence as a chef, to be so revered. As a populist food personality, he flourished in an era of swirly sauces and molecular gastronomy without being tempted to cook that way. Of course, he respected the talents of those chefs (ok maybe not all of them) but always viewed his membership in the club with skepticism. Though he may not have been cooking in a professional kitchen as of late, Chef Bourdain was one of the first to make it cool to be a line cook. This blog—as well as every social media outlet related to food and restaurants—likely wouldn’t exist without Tony having fascinated laymen by revealing the secret world of restaurants.

I often wonder why I still work in the industry. I’m tired. My feet hurt. The hours are terrible—routinely over 50-hour weeks along with 10-12 hour double shifts. When you wait tables, the only way to get a raise is by waiting on more tables. Vacations are a luxury that most of us can’t afford or are told by management that we don’t deserve.

Many of us come from disjointed family backgrounds. I lost my mother to cancer when I was seventeen. My father and I had a contentious relationship. In the late nineties, after graduating college, I stumbled into restaurant work by accident. My first job was in a second-rate theme restaurant in Times Square that was a discombobulated mess. It was a sucky job and I made no money, but the staff was made up of misfits like me. Like so many subsequent restaurant staffs I’ve been a part of, we were a band of gypsies—unsure what to do with our lives so we pitched our tent in the restaurant business while we figured out how to find the Yellow Brick Road. For many of us, we never figured it out and our restaurant family became a surrogate.

One gets the feeling that Chef Bourdain walked a similar path. He steadfastly defended his restaurant family against malfeasance, speaking out in support of undertipped servers and immigrant dishwashers. To restaurant professionals, the world is divided into two groups: People who dine out and the rest of us. There was never any question who Tony sided with. He was a lovable loser who grew up in our neighborhood. He made it big—which made us proud—but he never forgot where he came from.

Once you’re indoctrinated into the restaurant mindset it’s hard to work anywhere else. Unlike corporate environments, there’s a proprietary nature to what we do. A line cook has her station to manage; a waiter’s domain are his tables; the bartender presides over the bar like a judge’s bench. The disposable nature of our responsibilities makes us feel less indentured to our jobs. No matter how badly you fuck everything up, the restaurant will open again tomorrow. Yesterday’s transgressions are easily forgotten because restaurants don’t think linearly about success like a normal company thinks about building its business. A restaurant’s lifespan is a slog forward not a steady climb. Most of us just hope we make it through each night alive.

Of course, we find a way to survive and will likely retire to a neighborhood bar to share a few pints. The bartenders know us. They’re family. We might vent about the assholes who terrorized us in the dining room but the conversations are usually far more provocative. Restaurant staffs consist of some of the most interesting people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. When you see someone you’ve worked with in a previous job, no matter how much time has passed, you pick up right where you left off… just like you do with family members.

Through the years, I’ve lost restaurant friends to drug use, alcoholism and suicide. Chef Bourdain was always forthright about his struggles with controlled substances in the past. Our hearts ache because we know the perils of life in the restaurant business—the pressure, the thanklessness, the financial hardship. As we know from reading Kitchen Confidential, restaurant life is not nearly as glamorous as people think.