Categories
Opinion

A Message To Our Readers About Black Lives Matter

Since the senseless killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police on May 25, even thinking about restaurants seems frivolous right now. The protesting that has flooded the streets in all fifty states has shown that the American people will no longer tolerate police violence and racial injustice. Seeing citizens of all races coming together internationally for change has been truly inspiring. We stand in solidarity with the black community and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The service industry—as with many “essential” sectors of the economy—relies heavily on the labor of minority groups and people of color. Though we too often cater to an overwhelmingly affluent white clientele, the staff of restaurants tends to be more diverse—including legions of hard-working immigrants and undocumented workers looking for an opportunity to better themselves. Inside our walls, we imperfectly understand the value of tolerance, the importance of respecting each other’s differences and learning to work as a team.

That said, as an industry, we still have a lot of work to do, inside and out. Gender imbalances that have long plagued us, not surprisingly, finally bubbled over the surface during #MeToo. It turned out that restaurants harbored some of the worst offenders. Now we must face our racial demons, many that’ve been festering beneath the surface for generations.

The work of black chefs has routinely been ignored in professional kitchens run by solipsistic white chefs and in glossy magazines led by unyielding white editors committed to anglicizing their content. The white food media has systematically excluded black voices from narrating their own stories while empowering white writers to co-opt and misrepresent black cuisine. Until just recently, restaurant criticism has been a singularly white pursuit, resulting in coverage that often contextualizes black cooking through a Eurocentric lens.

We need to hold restaurateurs more accountable for what happens inside their restaurants, too. How they respond to the Black Lives Matter movement shouldn’t only be a question of P.R. and messaging, it should be about instituting human resource policies that foster inclusivity. White managers must stop lamenting the lack of qualified black applicants coming through the door and walk out the door to find them. The pervasive culture of tokenism and performative allyship must transform into structural reorganization from the ground up by making real investments in the careers of employees of color.

Black Lives Matter will have an enormous impact on the restaurant world because, though it rarely acknowledged, food is political. Although making political statements is hardly at the core of our mission on this website, we hope to shape our content going forward with this in the front of our minds. Expanding our vision should also mean telling stories and sharing opinions that are written by or speak to communities of color. As always, we welcome any suggestions and feedback from our readers about restaurant-related topics that deserve further exploration.

If you see fewer articles here in the coming days, please know that it’s because we’re using this time for self-reflection, as we all should, and participating in the dialogue for change. The magnitude of these issues doesn’t leave much space to write about restaurants casually anymore. It shouldn’t. We can assure you that when the time comes to pick up our silverware and dig in again, we’ll do so with a fresher perspective and a more open mind.

Stay healthy and safe,

THE RESTAURANT MANIFESTO

Categories
Restaurant Life

The False Promises of the White House Restaurant Roundtable

The restaurant community was abuzz last week when industry executives convened in the White House for a roundtable discussion with President Trump to address the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on our business. As to be expected in such Trump-sponsored gatherings, the members of this “task force” seemed keenly aware that addressing the President requires visitors to properly supplicate themselves.

As is also customary in the Trump White House, the panel was carefully curated to limit women and people of color. Neatly-suited white men seem to be the only people worth consulting in moments of crisis. In fairness, a tattooed chef-owner from Williamsburg might have looked silly sitting next to Jared Kushner and his meticulously-manicured cuticles.

It was no coincidence that other more well-known restaurant owners—like Jose Andrés, Tom Colicchio or David Chang—were not invited because they’ve all openly criticized the Trump Administration. No one in attendance at the restaurant roundtable dared question the alacrity of the Administration’s response or why moribund businesses like the airline industry are prioritized over ours.

The attendees had presumably given ample assurances to temper any partisan messages on Trump’s home court. The only surefire way to gain Trump’s favor is to “play the game.” But what’s the point a game that’s rigged before the ref even blows the whistle? Trump only plays with a stacked deck.

We heard from Trump’s billionaire pal Tillman Fertitta—apparently once Trump’s commercial tenant—on behalf of his expanding multiplex of restaurant chainlets, Landry’s. Fertitta, who Forbes calls “The World’s Richest Restaurateur,” has spent the last ten years amassing billions by devouring smaller regional restaurant groups across the country. The bulk of his company’s revenues comes from such distinguished American franchise names as Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Rainforest Cafe.

Fertitta’s origin story may be more compelling than Trump’s, but as a businessman he’s cut from the same cloth. Like the Trump Organization, Landry’s aggressive international expansion, mainly through leveraged buyouts, is about dominating marketplaces and strangling the competition.

white-house-restaurant-roundtable

Then we were treated to Thomas Keller explaining the nuances of seasonal butters to President Trump, like a table-side conversation that Chef Keller might have with one of his affluent patrons at The French Laundry. The moment encapsulated how alien the restaurant world can seem to people who don’t understand it, and how casual they feel toward our demise. We came to discuss serious bank loan terms and instead we got caught in a discussion about boutique dairy products.

The butter conversation hints at something more troubling beneath the surface about the restaurant industry’s current predicament. Our seat at the table is a reflection of the power imbalance we face on a daily basis in hospitality. Considering the existential threat to our industry, it was hard to watch our representatives sucking up to Trump and his cabal of yay-sayers. But it looked hauntingly familiar. This is what we do in our restaurants everyday.

Those of us who work in the industry know all about catering to affluent patrons. We pack our wine lists with “status wines” to siphon corporate dollars. We charge astronomical sums for grotesquely large cuts of beef, meticulously dry-aged and wrapped in whiskey-soaked bandages. The reward is that we get to live off the crumbs they leave behind. These can often be very tasty crumbs, which makes it easy to forget that we never get to order our own entrées.

The symbiotic relationship the restaurant industry has with the financial sector has become increasingly pornographic. Banker bros invest heavily in trendy restaurants because it gives them cache when they wine and dine their friends. Expense accounts have become a revenue stream that high-end restaurants rely on too much (See: The 2008 Financial Crisis).

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how tenuous that economic calculus can be. Restaurants have always been a high-risk, high-reward investment. The COVID-19 pandemic will likely make any restaurant investors think differently about that risk. It would certainly be compelling to see what our industry would look like without being propped up by investment bankers who only see us as playgrounds for their Patagonia pals.

No one is arguing that the restaurant roundtable participants aren’t serious about doing what is necessary to “save” our industry. Everyone who attended acutely understands the perils we face without sustained federal support. It’s just unfortunate that they needed to tailor their message to fit Trump’s narcissism.

But it isn’t a surprise. This is what we’re always expected to do in the restaurant industry. We enable the sanctimonious ways of the people we serve. The wealthier you are, the more willing we are to accommodate you. So when we need help, is it too much to ask that they show us the same consideration? That isn’t what happened at The White House last week.

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