Dining & demographics or it ain’t art, it’s numbers

I was speaking to a news executive the other about his dislike of the algorithms used to create news feeds: What’s reported.  He noted that clicks are tracked in response to news items and if more people click on “Kim Kardashian’s Nude Magazine Cover” than “Protests in Butte on Minimum Wage,” that the news site will run more stories on KK’s butt than on Butte.

What this means is that information used to form opinions needed to create vibrant democratic changes will be accessible to those who either create that information or have increasingly unique access to it.

Profit dictates what’s reported.

It’s a failure of democratic institutions to establish and maintain effective firewalls against those with money who want to make more money at the expense of public life.

We see the same thing in restaurants.

I stopped eating dinners out in Boston about five years ago, no more than half a dozen times a year, and almost always before a movie, show, or basketball game.  I got tired of seeing pork on the menu, pizza, and a cocktail list which preceded the food and was pushed hard by the hapless server.

In NYC, too, many restaurants are creating menus emphasizing trends that sell.  Let’s face it: Running a restaurant is a business, it always has been, and owners need to come up with profitable business plans.  But what’s happening is: The business plan is the template, the food follows.  Like this: The investor, nowadays it’s often a hedge fund guy or guys, looks at the numbers of what sell and tells the chef–“Come up with a menu that uses these ingredients or this style of service.”

There are exceptions.  Restaurants selling fish, vegetables, chef owned at low profit, but survival of these places is going to be tougher as the private sector shows growth of the restaurants they own and as rents go up.

Anyone who tells you that a chef is an artist hasn’t worked in a restaurant: Writers and painters don’t create based on demographics, on what they think will sell.  But the pressure on chefs is understandable, and their choices are narrowing.

The solution lately, within the past ten years, has been for chefs and owners to own and operate a high end place at near cost–Gramercy Tavern, Per Se, Daniel, Del Posto, etc.–while making the real money at low end places–Shake Shake, Bouchon, DBGB, Otto.

Me?  I’m eating out less than ever, and buying directly from the purveyors who supply to the chefs.

Using math, the food in restaurants, with notable exceptions, is going to cost more and be served faster than ever before.  Tables are turned 3-4 times in a night with 70-90 minutes allotted for a meal that costs $200 or more for two.

And where, one might wonder, will the increased profits go?  Back to the investors.  I’m not saying that we’re all starting to buy at the company store, but I’m not saying we’re not.  If money is controlling the dining, the ideas and feelings implicit in that intimate experience will be influenced by the money behind it.


Twelve Shopping Days Left

I’m staying indoors instead.  Reading and writing.  Just started the precise, moribund, and character driven, “Nora Webster,” by Colm Toibin.  Giving him another chance after limited interest in, “Brooklyn,” and, “The Master.”  On deck are two novels by Modiano.

Sure, I’m shopping, whatsamattayou?  That’s why the Internet was invented.

Gift boxes from Bella Viva, surprises from other sources, things arrive in brown boxes carried up the steps by men in brown or blue and black uniforms.  I sign, I store, they go away.

I’m thinking of Christmas and New Year weeks of dinners, too.  What with beautiful fish on Christmas Eve, chickens on days before, fondue, leg of lamb, ribeye and bone-in steaks, and pasta, lots of pasta.  There’s a Neapolitan at Russo’s who is making very good southern pasta; now if she wasn’t so grumpy, we’d be all set.



Behind Closed Doors

The Guardian reports this morning that Chef Cesar Ramirez, the chef of The Chef’s Table in Brooklyn, a *** Michelin restaurant, is being charged in a class action suit by several former employees of racism towards Asian customers.

Will the Michelin inspectors raise eyebrows?  This clears up one matter, sort of, though it’s for the courts to decide: The inspectors are probably not Asian.

The suit alleges that Chef Ramirez, a man known for volatility evident in his demanding that customers not take notes nor photos of his food, served Asians the “worst cuts” of meat and requested that they be seated as far away from him at the chef’s counter as possible.

One certainly hopes that the allegations are false, and that the chef, who is reportedly, “saddened,” by them, comes out of this unscathed.

According to the suit: “When a large piece of meat was cut into many pieces for the guests, Defendant Ramirez instructed Ms. Howard to give the worst pieces of meat to the ‘s- -t people,’ i.e. Asian people, and to Upper West Siders,” the suit states.

When an Asian patron was once placed close to Ramirez during one of his culinary cabarets, the chef boiled over with rage at Howard, who is Asian, the document states.

“On one occasion, Ms. Howard ‘violated’ Defendant Ramirez’s discriminatory rule by seating Asian individuals close to his spot at the center of kitchen counter,” the suit states.

“In response, Defendant Ramirez subjected Ms. Howard to a wild verbal tirade.”

“Mr. Ramirez from then on took control of the seating, so that he could ensure that no Asians be sat next to his place.”



A World Without Pork, etc.

I’ve noticed over the past few years how my tastes in eating and dining out have changed.  From a time when I sought an immediacy of flavor, long ago, through a period of wanting to be dazzled, and now, at least for now, a desire to eat without thinking about eating.

Who in their right mind gets analytical about an experience that is biologically pleasurable?

Let’s be honest: Any physical activity can be pleasurable, period.  When it provides pleasure, you just give in to that sweet feeling that has, concomitantly, a psychological release bringing with it a way of forgetting the world’s pain and one’s demise.  When it isn’t pleasurable, and is meant to be, one usually walks away.  Or can walk away.  Or should walk away.

I wonder if all the hubbub about food in this country, which is so different from discourse on the subject in other countries, is not so much an analysis of pleasure as about other matters.

For one thing, though it’s not analyzed much, ironically, the terms used to describe food’s production and cooking here are useful for marketing.  They seem to create a differentiation when, in fact, there often isn’t one.  Here are two easy examples: “Heirloom” tomatoes are all genetically the same; there is no biological basis either for the term “heirloom.”  Here’s another: “Local” products have no meaning environmentally or economically.  In fact, it would be better to fly products over as carbon emissions for jets are lower than for diesel trucks; and, the money would get to the developing world where it is needed.

So all that said: Skip the heirloom, local pork.  Boil salted water.  Add pasta.  Finish in tomato sauce.  Second course: Roll fish in wondra.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Pan sear in good olive oil.  Serve with lemon.


Holiday Madness

I think it starts with Halloween, which has become the July 4th of the Fall season, what with alcohol consumption, pretense, and a uniquely U.S. take on celebration.  It continues with Thanksgiving and now here we are a mere 22 shopping days left until Christmas and then the New Year.

Thank goodness for the Internet.  I haven’t been in a retail store, outside of fish and fruit and cheese and vegetables, in years.

I just ordered a slew of presents yesterday, including Bella Viva dried fruits and nuts, and soon we’ll see beef, duck, and who knows what else on the table.

No point in revealing all that at this time.

How people stay in physical and mental shape at this time, especially, is a wonder.  I suppose shopping, if you have the cash or credit, is one way, but exercise, some form of meditative experience, and reading are others.

Speaking of reading, the current Times Literary Supplement has their annual “Best Books” number out in which they post replies from famous writers they’ve interviewed about the best books they read over the past year.  Worth a look.

Me, I’m holing up and trying to maintain the stamina to enjoy what’s on my list: Finishing the third volume of Beckett this week, and about to start new novels by Carmen Boullosa and Murakami (“The Strange Library”), as well as, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” by Joseph Mitchell.

That ought to help.