Categories
Opinion

Chefs: Stop Naming Restaurants After Yourselves

I was scrolling social media recently when I came across a post about a new restaurant I’d never heard of in San Francisco called Eight Tables by George Chen. I almost laughed out loud because the restaurant’s name sounded more like a cologne or a line of home furnishings than a place to have dinner. The food looked amazing, but I couldn’t get past the absurdity of the name, and the statement it makes, whether intentionally or not, about George Chen, the restaurant’s prefect of tables and, I presume, its chef.

The arc of progress is slow, and it would seem that society hasn’t quite fully moved on from branding chefs in the way we so often do musicians, athletes, artists, and fashion icons. Restaurants have become powerful engines for profit. Look no further than the major acquisitions of several restaurant reservation services, like Resy by American Express and Tock by Squarespace. JP Morgan, the investment bank, raised eyebrows recently when it bought Infatuation—the once upstart food blog that also includes the pioneering restaurant guide, Zagat—for an undisclosed sum. These large corporations recognize that partnerships with high-profile chefs can be a conduit for providing unique culinary experiences to status-hungry, affluent clientele. They also understand that the bulk of the profits they reap from these acquisitions will be made outside the restaurants not in them.

Cooking shows turned a chef’s name and image into promotional tools. Reality TV then took it a step further by transforming the kitchen into a gladiator arena—Iron Chef, Top Chef, Master Chef, Chopped. The spectacle of charismatic chefs jousting could be leveraged to unlock unlimited commercial opportunities—jarred tomato sauces, ready-to-eat frozen meals, spice rubs, bronze-clad cookware, donkey sauce.

Where chefs once insisted on end-to-end control over new projects, licensing agreements became more common. Chefs began to monetize their names by associating themselves with satellite restaurants overseas or shilling for third-party products. High-end hotels have become sugar daddies, generously fronting money to help young chefs widen their footprints without the added financial burden. But, in exchange, these chefs often forfeit integrity to become marketing dummies that hotels use to fill their rooms. Most hotels are only paying for the chef’s name, they could care less about the food.

Naming restaurants - Joel Robuchon

The late chef Joël Robuchon in front of his eponymous restaurant at the MGM Grand.

Restaurants named for famous chefs feel increasingly anachronistic: Jean-Georges, Daniel, Robuchon, Ducasse. It isn’t only a habit of Michelin-starred French chefs. There’s Nobu, Masa, Narisawa, Gaggan, Martin Berasategui, Tim Raue, Günter Seeger. It’s mostly dudes, but female chefs are guilty of it, too: Restaurant Hélène Darroze, Core by Clare Smyth, Raan Jay Fai, Maison Pic.

If we peel away the layers of the restaurant industry’s systemic problems, the egoism of chefs is still one of the most corrosive forces. The decision by chefs to name restaurants after themselves sends a subconscious message to the rest of the team that their work is about boosting the chef’s profile and not the restaurant’s.

Naming a restaurant is a personal decision, but naming it after yourself is a selfish one, according to Top Chef alum Lee Anne Wong, the owner of Koko Head Cafe in Oahu and the culinary director of Papa’aina in Maui. She names her properties carefully to reflect their purpose in the places they serve.

“Restaurants should be about food and the culture,” Chef Wong says, “not about one person who built their wealth on the backs of everyone else.” Koko Head is the name of crater on the East Side of Oahu popular with climbers, and Papa’aina translates to “eating table” in local Hawaiian language.

Chef Eric Rivera in Seattle calls his restaurant Addo, which means “inspire” in Latin. “I wanted it to stand on its own whether it was me at the helm or not,” Rivera tells me. “Evolving over a period of time and starting with humble beginnings, Addo is still growing and changing all the time. This is something that I wanted it to be known for, not me.”

Rivera has been consistently outspoken on social media about chefs who use their platform to promote themselves instead of recognizing the contributions of their teams. “The restaurant is a product of the employees, guests, and things going on outside of it,” Rivera adds. He seems to take his responsibility as a shepherd more seriously than he does his role as a chef. “I’m just there to make sure it can all go forward.”

Chef Preeti Mistry, a cookbook author and former chef/owner of Juhu Beach Club in Oakland, is torn about the issue of chefs naming restaurants after themselves. “My experience with a lot of women chefs that name their places after themselves is that they regret it,” Mistry notes. “They become THE [restaurant name] and it feels a bit overwhelming if they’re not the types that love the limelight.”

Preeti Mistry is troubled by male chefs who name their restaurants after women.

It bothers Mistry more when male chefs name their restaurants after women and use the name to advance their own careers. “Male chefs give their places feminine names to make them seem more ‘attractive and inviting,’” Mistry said. “You go to a restaurant with a woman’s name, and it turns out the restaurant is run by all men. And their reasoning is: ‘Oh, it’s my grandma’s name.’”

“Back in the early ‘00s, I remember a cook in London who told me he was going to name his little meat pie shop: Molly’s Pies,” she recalled, “I asked him why Molly? He said because nobody wants to buy Jimbo’s Pies.”

Mistry’s new podcast “Loading Dock Talks” frequently tackles themes related to the exploitation of women and BIPOC chefs in the restaurant industry. “I think it’s very disingenuous—using their male privilege to get ahead and then using a woman’s name to make their business seem more appealing with no real effort to uplift women beyond “mascot” or objectification.”

I vividly remember attending a staff meeting years ago where the well-known chef/owner told everyone ‘It’s my name on the sign outside, so everything that we serve here ultimately reflects on me and my family name.’ At first, I admired his sense of pride and accountability. But upon reflection, I realized he was wrong to center himself in a conversation about collective excellence. A staff’s primary concern should never be about edifying one chef’s reputation.

This chef-centric dogma may be unsustainable as the restaurant industry evolves to be more inclusive and more accountable. The pandemic has taught many chefs hard lessons about retention as they struggle to recruit staff and repair frayed relationships with furloughed employees. For chefs today, having a devoted team is more important than ever. Earning that devotion has become increasingly more difficult, and raising wages by a dollar or two likely isn’t enough to move the needle. In a post-pandemic world, restaurant professionals want appreciation, and the old ways of sacrificing their well-being for a paycheck are over. As the industry rebuilds, the message to chefs with big egos is clear: It’s not about you anymore. Name your restaurants accordingly.


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Categories
Restaurant Life

The Age of the Politically Agnostic Chef is Over

Food and politics have always been inseparable. The writer Alicia Kennedy addressed the topic recently in her weekly newsletter, in which she questions what people mean when they say “food is political.” In her essay, she astutely points out that the phrase is really “a false shorthand for social justice” and reminds us that our ideas about the relationship between food and politics are often more vague than they should be. 

Chefs haven’t historically been outspoken about government policies that don’t directly affect their bottom line. But recent calls for social justice have spurred many chefs to speak out about their political beliefs with a greater sense of urgency. Chefs who use their platform to speak critically of government or be vocal advocates for social movements like Black Lives Matter are relentlessly trolled on social media with tropes like “shut up and cook” or “go back to the kitchen.” It’s hard to imagine those same people telling lawyers to “stick to torts” or surgeons to “go back to the E.R.”

Restaurant workers are accustomed to being on the receiving end of opinions rather than issuing them. It’s a hazard of the job. If a guest says a dish is overcooked, we are conditioned to genuflect because the truth doesn’t matter. Handling difficult guests in restaurants requires diplomacy at every turn. If you want to survive working in a restaurant, you must learn to become a politician.

To be fair, chefs are not necessarily the ideal couriers for sociopolitical messaging. The restaurant world has only recently begun grappling with its own checkered past. The downfall of once respected chefs like Mario Batali and John Besh or restaurateurs like Thomas Carter and Ken Friedman initiated a long overdue reckoning. But excommunicating the bad actors has felt like flushing a horribly clogged toilet where you pray that it doesn’t back up and flood the bathroom floor.

We’re accustomed to stepping in our own shit in the restaurant business, but these sweeping social movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have turned out to be powerful disinfectants. Challenging the misogyny and racial bias endemic to restaurants has brought about politically-charged conversations within the industry that would’ve been unthinkable even ten years ago.

In an interview published in Food & Wine from 2017, Anthony Bourdain said, “There’s nothing more political than food. Who eats? Who doesn’t? Why do people cook what they cook? It is always the end or a part of a long story, often a painful one.” It’s hard to tell if what’s happening now is only part of the story or the end, but political decisions are impacting the viability of the restaurant business in ways that even Bourdain could never have predicted.

The Coronavirus pandemic has devastated restaurants, but it has also resulted in a groundswell of activism and community organizing. After being furloughed from her position as the pastry chef of Kith/Kin in Washington D.C., Chef Paola Velez launched Bakers Against Racism to raise funds for organizations that fight for change against systemic and structural racism.

In Oakland, Chef Reem Assil turned her newly-opened restaurant into a community kitchen when lockdowns made normal operation impossible. Prior to opening restaurants, Assil was a community organizer and political activist for many years. Realizing that her restaurants couldn’t survive solely on take-out business, she transformed her kitchen space into a commissary that has produced over 1,800 meals for frontline workers, low-income residents and the homeless every week.

Food-and-politics

Chefs were already embracing this brand of activism before the pandemic started. Jessamyn Rodriguez, who began her career as a baker, wasn’t thinking about politics when she created the Hot Bread Kitchen in 2007. “I never really called myself an activist when I started Hot Bread Kitchen—I never felt it was particularly political,” she told the James Beard Foundation in a 2018 interview, “But as the tides turn in this country and it’s gotten more xenophobic and more racist, the work has not changed, but it has become more relevant, and more political.” She envisioned a place where women with diverse backgrounds would come together and secure employment in the food industry.

Empowering people through food has always been at the heart of Chef José Andrés’s work. His organization, World Central Kitchen, has deployed volunteers across the globe to fight hunger and to provide emergency assistance to communities affected by natural disasters. In anticipation of the election, Andrés and his staff set up canteens near polling places around the country to provide free food and beverages to voters waiting in long lines for early voting. He’s done more for our democracy than most of our political leaders.

Other prominent chefs have fought aggressively for a seat at the table. The Independent Restaurant Coalition—a collective that includes notable chefs like Tom Colicchio, Nancy Silverton, Kwame Onwuachi, Nina Compton and others—has lent its voice in support of the bipartisan RESTAURANTS Act, legislation that would offer financial support to struggling independent restaurants. Stalled negotiations have sandbagged the bill’s advancement in Congress, but in a climate that favors corporate interests these chefs have helped to give voice to the voiceless.

For whatever reason, a segment of the population is triggered by restaurant workers having strong opinions. Prior to her career in politics, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez famously worked for many years as a waitress and bartender, an indelible part of her personal narrative and political purview. At 28 years old, she became the youngest representative ever to be elected to serve in Congress. In spite of her achievements, her critics regularly refer to her career in hospitality pejoratively.

When critics malign opinionated chefs, there’s an implication that working in a restaurant makes them underqualified to opine. It’s easy to draw a direct line from the disrespect directed at outspoken chefs to our nation’s rudderless food and farming policies. Chefs understand more profoundly how our voting decisions affect the quality of the food we eat and its sustainability. Food is a public health issue, no different from the Coronavirus, and we need to start trusting chefs as reliable ambassadors of how to eat, live, and even govern well. Instead of telling them to shut up and cook, maybe it’s time that all of us shut up and listen.


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.