Restaurant Life

Coronavirus Canapés and the Moral Bankruptcy of Fine Dining

Noma, Rene Redzepi’s Nordic temple of gastronomy, recently christened its “Summer Season” after months of mandated closure. As its staff scrambled to reopen, Chef Redzepi shared an Instagram video of an edible butterfly made of a colorful array of meticulously tweezered radishes enveloped in a glass display like a precious bauble. He proclaimed that “the creativity is slowly returning” even though some iteration of this strange butterfly thingy had already appeared on Noma’s menu before the pandemic hit. For the low, low price of $400 USD a head, diners could put their COVID cares away and gorge themselves silly on radish insects and other culinary gewgaws from the mind of one of the greatest chefs in the world.

When restrictions were eased in Copenhagen, Noma initially transformed itself into a burger joint and natural wine bar. Redzepi said publicly that returning to business as usual didn’t yet feel right. In case anyone dared worry that his ambitions as a chef were receding, he shared footage of a masked battalion of kitchen apprentices vigorously slapping and massaging ground beef patties to maximize their tenderness. Of course, the burger would also be seasoned with some fermented feral animal tinctures developed in Noma’s food lab. Service was moved outdoors to a smattering of picnic tables arranged at an appropriate social distance. Redzepi would donate a portion of the proceeds from burger sales to charitable causes.

As American cities began to emerge from quarantine, Alinea in Chicago—one of the world’s most decorated restaurants—launched an outdoor rooftop pop-up where guests could relish in one of their signature ticketed tasting menus al fresco. In the early days of lockdown, the restaurant had been successfully selling high-end comfort food for takeout designed by Alinea’s chef, Grant Achatz. The tasting menu at AIR—an acronym for Alinea in Residence—included a bite-sized canapé molded into the shape of a microscopic Coronavirus cell.

When one of AIR’s guests posted a giddy photo of the dish on social media, the post went viral (no pun intended). “Art is often meant to provoke discomfort, conversation, and awareness. This is no different,” Kokonas wrote on Instagram. “Everyone on here saying we are somehow oblivious need to think just a single level upwards.” But as cases surpassed 60,000 per day in the United States alone, the food media whipped itself into a frenzy.

Defenders of Achatz’s creation—including two white male food critics from both of Chicago’s major newspapers—have cited the public’s need for escape. His Coronavirus canapés, they argued, were intended to deliver a dose of desperately needed levity. But with the death toll continuing to rise, it seemed like an inappropriate time to be making light of the pandemic. It’s an especially bad look in Chicago—home to many of the nation’s poorest Black and Latinx neighborhoods—given how communities of color have been disproportionately affected by the spread of the virus while the city’s affluent communities where many of Alinea’s guests reside have largely been spared.

The hiatus caused by the pandemic has forced many chefs and owners to reconsider their businesses models. The COVID crisis presents logistical challenges that make high-end service impractical or outright impossible. Canlis, a James Beard Award-winning restaurant in Seattle, turned its fine dining operation into an outdoor crab shack. Saison, a two-star Michelin restaurant in San Francisco, started smoking meats in its sister restaurant Angler and became Saison Smokehouse, a takeout barbecue joint. At N/Naka in Los Angeles, where 13-course prix fixe menus averaged $250 per person, Chef Niki Nakayama started offering $38 bento boxes. Even the legendary master of haute cuisine Daniel Boulud retrofitted his flagship restaurant Daniel for outdoor dining with a new a la carte bistro menu.

“Art is often meant to provoke discomfort, conversation, and awareness. This is no different. Everyone on here saying we are somehow oblivious need to think just a single level upwards.”

Nick Kokonas, Owner of Alinea

Even before the onset of the pandemic, upscale restaurants had already become grotesque theaters for unapologetic capitalism. Menus at high-end restaurants are designed to empty wallets by making food and wine purchases status symbols. The most successful fine dining restaurants desensitize guests to prices. They surround you with accoutrements that are more luxurious than you’ll ever own and a charismatic cast of characters whose cheerful temperament is unflappable. It’s the same manufactured joy that entices people to fork over hundreds of dollars to see a mediocre Broadway musical. Even when the performance sucks, you still leave tapping your feet.

While the fate of the industry hangs in the balance, it feels beyond self-indulgent for chefs to be flexing their cooking muscles for the enjoyment of a privileged few. The moxie of chefs like Achatz and Redzepi to return to business as usual while the COVID threat remains alive is confounding. While no one is immune to the economic impact due to the shutdown, affluent people have been insulated from its worst effects. Alinea’s rooftop is already booked through August.

But the euphoria may be short-lived. California, which reopened restaurants for indoor dining in late May, has already had to shut down restaurants again when indoor dining caused a dangerous spike in cases. The pattern is doomed to repeat itself in other American cities like Chicago where income inequality and vibrant dining scenes coexist.

This has always been one of the moral dilemmas presented by fine dining in densely populated urban areas. Many of the world’s most exclusive restaurants are located in cities with the highest levels of poverty. As a server, I’ve cringed watching rich people struggle with the question of whether or not they’d like to have their leftovers wrapped. On too many occasions, guests who’ve just eaten enough to feed a small family congratulate themselves by announcing proudly that they plan to give their uneaten food to a homeless person. These same people cheer when local mayors and police announce initiatives to “clean up” the city by forcibly removing the homeless from the streets.

Let’s be honest—fine dining caters to a white audience. It’s always been a safe space for white people to celebrate their privilege. That’s probably why so many Karens are going apeshit when they’re asked to put on a mask in a restaurant. Karens are accustomed to sidestepping the rules because upscale restaurants can’t afford to lose their business.

The fact that Kokonas defended his actions by telling his detractors to start thinking “a single level upwards” reveals elitist underpinnings. There’s an implication in his response that those of us who aren’t fortunate enough to procure a seat at Alinea’s exclusive soirée have a comprehension level a notch below his clientele’s. Maybe Kokonas and Co. should start thinking a level down or at least get their heads out of the clouds long enough to see beyond the prosperity of their own business.

The most fervent defenders of fine dining will argue that we all have the right to spend our hard-earned money however we please. They’re not wrong. This is America. Land of the Free, Home of the Shellfish Tower. The problem is that quite often the money spent in fine dining restaurants isn’t hard-earned at all. It’s spent recklessly from corporate expense accounts or inherited wealth. In most cases, the beneficiaries are white. The person washing their dishes isn’t.

Capitalists will tell you not to worry because the money trickles down when people spend frivolously. But now we’re learning the hard way what happens when the faucet gets turned off or a water main bursts. Without enhanced unemployment benefits, many restaurant workers would already have fallen into poverty and some may be at risk of losing their homes. Wealthy people, on the other hand, are battening down the hatches in their vacation homes, watching their stocks go up, while the rest of us worry about getting sick because we don’t have health insurance.

A few days after Alinea’s Coronavirus canapé went viral, the restaurant temporarily shuttered when a staff member tested positive for COVID. Until medical treatment is readily available, it’s hard to imagine an outcome other than the fits and starts we’ve seen across the nation as cities rush to reopen. Not surprisingly, bars and restaurants have proven to be nexuses of transmission and community spread. Until political leaders are able to look beyond stimulating economic growth, the restaurant industry will have to rely on its own instincts to create a paradigm that allows it to serve food without killing people.

Let’s face it. The world doesn’t need fine dining right now. Maybe it never did. It needs community support and unity across racial, political and economic lines. Fine dining restaurants that cater only to the wealthy are a symptom of society’s underlying sickness which is how desensitized we’ve become to human suffering. Profiting from privilege during the worst public health crisis in a generation while putting workers and patrons at risk only further deepens the divide. Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine for immorality.

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Rebuilding the Restaurant Industry Starts With Destroying the Chains

I was in grade school when I first experienced the majesty of a piping hot basket of unlimited breadsticks from the Olive Garden. The bread had a pale off-white pallor, squishy and supple like the skin of a cadaver. It wasn’t a breadstick at all, not in the conventional sense, more of a cigar shaped tube of undercooked dough glistening with a sheen of garlic-scented oil that seemed to be pumped over it like movie popcorn butter (turns out it’s margarine).

Olive Garden was also one of my first encounters with Fettuccine Alfredo, an exalted delicacy for an American boy raised in the midwestern suburbs. After that, whenever I saw Alfredo sauce on the menu I never considered ordering anything else. It could arrive gluey and overwrought, but it didn’t matter I still lost myself in its lactating bosom.

As most food-illiterate American children growing up in the 80s, I wasn’t ready for the arrival of more sophisticated pasta recipes. Pizza, as far as I knew, was made in Huts. That was before my family discovered that at Little Caesars you could order one pizza and—through an some mystifying sleight of hand—they would deliver you two. I savored the waxy, burnt cheese that formed along the perimeter of its angled crust and the vaguely chemical tang that tasted like a mix of spent butane and dirty cast iron.

Unlimited Breadsticks
Unlimited Breadsticks at The Olive Garden

Now when I pass through suburban areas—having lived in New York City for over two decades—I feel a deep sadness about the state of American restaurants. Traversing county roads and freeways past the dull sameness of uninspired franchises, neighboring townships are indistinguishable from each other. There’s a deliberate pattern to their geographical placement that seems designed to make each brand universally familiar no matter what city you’re in. The Cracker Barrel peeks out from alongside the expressway ramp like a hearty welcome home; the Ruby Tuesdays flanks the mall entrance like an overweight security guard; the engine-red neon of the Texas Roadhouse awning beckons you like a rodeo clown from across the parking lot of the strip mall.

In the same way that retail empires like Target and Walmart have hastened a mass extinction event among small retail businesses across the country, independent restaurants have largely been displaced by corporate brands. Where we’ve identified underprivileged neighborhoods that suffer from “food deserts”—lacking proper access to grocery stores and fresh food sources—we’ve all but ignored the peripheral threat posed by “restaurant deserts” that exist in many of the same disadvantaged communities. We associate this problem primarily with fast food, but the same danger applies to these aspirational “fast casual” brands that advertise an elevated dining experience but rarely deliver on the promise.

The population where these chains thrive often relies on these ubiquitous brands without questioning the devastating effect they have on public health and the economy. Middle class and affluent communities are vulnerable, too. Family-owned Chinese restaurants that were once pillars of their communities have given way to places like Panda Express (2,200 locations) that have obscured the roots of Chinese cooking beyond recognition. Panera Bread (2,000 locations) has become the de facto America’s delicatessen, an ambition-less sandwich factory with no backstory. These restaurants recklessly jumble international cuisines, creating recipes like Applebee’s (1,800 locations) famous “Chicken Wonton Tacos” in ways that disrespect multiple cultural traditions on the same plate. We’re in the middle of a decades-long war on American taste buds.

Applebee’s “Famous” Chicken Wonton Tacos

Now is an opportune time to reverse the effects of the corporatization of the restaurant industry. The Coronavirus pandemic has disproportionality affected small restaurant businesses that were already struggling to compete against big chains. Americans need to demand both federal and local policies that incentivize small business and support independent restaurant owners. It’s primarily a real estate problem, where commercial landlords would rather lease to big corporations than to take risks with upstarts.

Municipalities should enact legislation to encourage landlords to partner with local entrepreneurs and to keep corporate restaurants out of their communities—much the same way that many have already outlawed big box stores. Corporations like these tend to drain resources from local communities by reinvesting profits elsewhere or returning them to shareholders through dividends and stock buybacks. The menial jobs they provide aren’t worth the collateral damage.

The Trump Adminstration’s outreach, not unexpectedly, has prioritized corporate interests. His task forces on reviving restaurants have been comprised primarily of C-level white males that are more concerned about when their stock options vest than strategies for recovery. These multinational companies are not immune to the devastating effects of the Coronavirus outbreak, but they also stand to benefit from decreased competition if they can weather the storm. A recent report from the Independent Restaurant Coalition suggests that 85% of independent restaurants may close as a result of COVID-19. It’s an even more daunting statistic when you consider that over 50% of the total restaurants in the United States are independently-owned.

Rebuilding The Restaurant Industry
The fast casual sector has grown in recent years.

The future of dining in this country is doomed to become even more monolithic if we don’t demand change. The longer we allow these chains to thrive, the more essential they become to the definition of what it means to be American. For a country with a reputation for being so ruggedly individualistic, the American public is surprisingly accepting of the conformity required to patronize chain stores so religiously.

Author Amber Sparks recently asked her followers on Twitter, “What was your fancy, super special occasion restaurant as a kid?” It was eye-opening to see how many respondents—especially millennials and Zoomers—cited restaurant chains like Red Lobster and The Cheesecake Factory as personal examples of aspirational dining. The intent here isn’t to malign people for having bad taste. It’s to highlight how inseparable these chain restaurants have become from the American appetite and to quantify the consequences. While there may be certain nostalgia around childhood meals at these chains, they mostly serve lousy food. More importantly, embracing them has made the restaurant landscape more challenging for family-run businesses.

Growing up, my Olive Garden experience was an outlier. My parents had met in the city and retreated to the suburbs for greener pastures to raise a family. We lived in the outskirts of Chicago, but my father always insisted we drive forty-five minutes across the Indiana border to an Italian restaurant called Giovanni’s. The fake stucco walls and the arched entryways were painted gentle pastels to evoke a Venetian trattoria. My father always wanted to know the owners of these places. He grew up in Argentina where gnocchi was adopted into their culinary lexicon thanks to the many Argentines of Italian decent, and he would drive any distance to find one that met his standards. On fortuitous occasions, at least for my dad, the chef would cook tripe for him, which wasn’t on the menu and certainly would never be something they could whip up à la minute at an Olive Garden. Memories like these are so much more vivid when there are real people behind them rather than faceless corporations.

These narratives, mostly immigrant ones, defined the American restaurant industry for more than a century until fast food invaded in the Post War Era. As the country grapples with its racial demons and struggles to find common ground, we need these independent voices on our plates more than ever. Food can be a gateway to a deeper understanding of each other, and restaurants can facilitate that communion.

Mass-marketed chain food has no integrity. It’s designed to be hedonistic and unfussy. The more we consume these empty calories, the less say we have in shaping the character of our neighborhoods. You can already see the decay. As devastating as this year has been for the restaurant industry, it presents an opportunity to tear up the fields and replant the seeds. In the same way that monoculture and industrial farming is poisoning us and destroying the environment, we need to rebuild a restaurant industry using sustainable methods. We can’t do that without first having healthier rootstock.

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