Over the past couple of years I’ve taken to watching three shows on The Food Network: Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives (3D), Restaurant Impossible, and especially, Chopped.
These are not about food. Television is a poor medium for taste and smell, and in LED facsimile even color doesn’t work to well. For me, at least, Pavlov’s response is not triggered; the shows don’t make me hungry.
Instead the programs are about restaurants: the people who work in them, the people who eat at them, the kinds of destinations they make, and what their business model is. Themes run the gamut, from a reality-show episode exposing a family torn asunder by their restaurant, to a sober account of how the front of the house should be managed. Food and recipes also appear, but are mostly relegated to the webpage.
When I was growing up, my parents had a friend–moneyed beyond his professor’s salary–who fancied himself a connoisseur–fine art, classical music, good wine, elegant furniture, and excellent food. As a divorcee he did most of his own cooking, to Mozart accompaniment, but it was not his passionate avocation. His kitchen possessed a repertoire of tasteful, clever, well-engineered gadgets that supposedly made the job easier.
His facility was nothing compared to those I discovered in the pages of Architectural Digest. The kitchens of the 1% (a few of which I’ve actually seen in person) are vast, barn-like structures with every appliance imaginable, decorated with granite counter tops, built-in freezers, and possessed of mountain/ocean/city vistas. These are kitchens as a competitive sport–read David Brooks’ funny account of the phenomenon in Bobos In Paradise.
So you will understand that for most of my life I thought of haute cuisine as the preserve of the well-to-do. My more humble family ate good food, but it was simple fare. In my college town there was exactly one Chinese restaurant, and otherwise one could choose between diners, the occasional steakhouse, or maybe a sandwich shop. McDonalds came of age during my youth. Needless to say, we didn’t eat out often.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw the chefs on Chopped–tattooed, overweight, scraggly, working-class folks. Far from the kitchens of Architectural Digest, the Chopped contestants are the sons and daughters of truck drivers, plumbers, and maids. They’re not listening to Mozart. The runner-up on today’s episode was a ghetto kid who spent part of his life homeless, and then got a job as a dishwasher, feeding himself from the leftovers on people’s plates. From that he worked his way up to chef–no formal education. The winner had a more stable life growing up in poor, East Los Angeles. Both of them are very hard-working, highly skilled, incredibly practiced cooks.
And likewise with the other programs. The chefs on 3D are one step removed from the short order cook at Dennys. And the owners profiled in Restaurant Impossible are former garbage handlers and postal employees. These are not people my parents’ professor friend would associate with, nor did they grow up in an elite kitchen.
So what’s changed? How has cooking gone from a hobby of the elite to a skill for the dispossessed?
I’ll suggest three things. First on the list is WalMart. While a luxury kitchen is still a luxury, a perfectly functional kitchen can be had at everyday low prices. Even poor kids can obtain a blender, buy some decent knives and teflon pans, and have access to a stove, fridge and freezer. That’s different from my youth, where much on that list were middle class appliances.
Second, improvements in transport and agriculture means that quality, fresh food can be had at almost any grocery store. Yes, there’s a marginal benefit to Whole Foods or some other elite store, but those are no longer necessary. As Robert Irvine of Restaurant Impossible never tires of pointing out, fresh food is both cheaper and better than the frozen or canned variety. You don’t need to be rich to buy it anymore.
And finally, as the above implies, we’re all richer now. In contrast to where I grew up, the college town I live in now has three sushi bars, along with other places serving Thai, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and American cuisine. All for a town of about 30,000 people! But food in my town is downright expensive compared to New York City, where you can eat like a king for under $15.
So why is this important? Tyler Cowen, in his book Average Is Over, argues that while there will be more millionaires and billionaires than ever before, the largest part of the American population–85%–will be left behind. Those that succeed will have the cognitive chops to compete and cooperate with computers. But he’s wrong.
The Chopped champs may not rise to the “cognitive elite,” but they’ve got a different kind of chops. Unlike any computer they can chop vegetables, reduce a broth, taste a sauce, and judge the color of meat. Very few of them will be millionaires, but most of them will earn a living. And unlike what Mr. Cowen claims, they’ll do better than just feeding the Architectural Digest crowd (though they’ll be doing that, too).
Everybody wants good food. All the food in my town is putting the old-fashioned diners out of business. The restaurants that specialize in prepackaged microwave food (e.g., Olive Garden) are probably next in line. Fast food places will be automated and their employees laid off.
People–even poor people–are going to be eating much better food in the future. The former fast food workers will find employment as servers and busboys in gourmet restaurants, run by Chopped champions who really know what they’re doing. Their customers will be you and me–we’ll get quality, fresh ingredients, combined in complex, tasty recipes, cooked by expert chefs, served by trained staff–and all for under $10.
Automation will eliminate lots of jobs. But it will also make better jobs, and it will make us all richer in the process. Yeah–McDonald’s and (maybe) Starbucks will be automated, but their former employees won’t be sitting around collecting welfare. They’ll be creating yet more value-added that improves the lives of everybody.
Is this a great country, or what?