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Essay: American Restaurants Eulogy

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Spencer Platt
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A restaurant sits closed as much of the nation slows and takes extra precautions due to the continued spreading of the coronavirus.

Dining scenes across America and the world are shuttered due to the coronavirus. Bars and restaurants are closed for dine-in service and some are hanging on through carry-out and delivery sales. But for many of them, their fate on the other side of this is uncertain.

For food contributor Kyle Cherek, going to restaurants is personal. His career has allowed him to truly get to know the people and chefs across Wisconsin. And while the COVID-19 pandemic has brought people back into the kitchen in the most bittersweet way, Cherek shares his thoughts on the shifting fabric of our food culture in his essay “American Restaurants Eulogy”:

The last time I witnessed a national tragedy unfold, my wife and I tucked into bed, laptops in front of each of us, and toggled back and forth between updates of the news, processing the unbelievable, and balming our sense of the dystopian reality that was unfolding with past episodes of chef Jacque Pepin’s cooking show.  The psychological coping bent of all of this is not hard to suss out. As so much of the world seemed not to make sense, we both wanted something, someone who was wise, steady, even grandfatherly. Someone who was capable but not boastful. Creative but with respect for what was classic and what had come before. We wanted to cook with Jacque.   

At that point of the night we weren’t really going to cook. Dinner had wrapped up for our family hours before, but for my wife and I, cooking and then sharing that food with our loved ones, is at times a sacred thing and one of the most centering. While others in times of stress or crisis might turn to meditation, fitness or Netflix über alles, we boil, chop, fold, simmer, bake and braise. 

Today’s national tragedy, unfolding across these last many weeks, has brought millions of Americans back into their homes, and specifically to their kitchens. The bittersweet fact that eggs, flour, sugar and vanilla have joined toilet paper as grocery goods that have gone missing from the Nation’s shelves because in our national ethos of worry, we just want to make cookies, does give me a tinge of silver lining in all of this. Though I adore the idea of more Americans cooking and baking, the counterpoint this virus has imposed, is a carnage of the American restaurant landscape like we have never seen, and God willing, will never see again. 

Having made a career in food media, restaurants are, for my wife and I, very personal. When we eat out, especially for dinner, we are more apt to say, “Let’s go see Caitlyn, Zack and Sara, Julian, or Miles.”  We won’t call the restaurant we are thinking of going to by name, which often flummoxes our friends. We more often use the name of the chef.  It’s our relationship with them that pulls us there, along with our love of their food, the way they engage their staff, the use their restaurant’s space, the music they play, etc. Our careers have allowed us to truly know many of these folks, their struggles and their successes. Even if we are not personally close to a chef, they are in their own way, part of our tribe, and we, part of theirs. The chronicling of their stories, the translation of their food and esthetic for a broader public, the respect of their gifts and grit has been part and parcel and the privilege of our trade.  

That is why, there is no phrase, no headline, no cluster of sounds and syllables or concise statements that can describe and encapsulate what this virus, and it’s necessary national containment is doing to the fabric of our culinary culture. There will forever be a before and after. There will never be a back to how it used to be. This invisible juggernaut of fever, aches and lungs filled with fluid which sources say began ironically in an open-air food market, will leave the American hospitality industry, and many of our chef friends, their servers, cooks, and suppliers in its rueful and ruinous wake. 

To understand why its effects are so singularly profound on hospitality takes a bit of context. The closure of all but essential businesses and social distancing only tell part of the story. 

Food and America are deeply entrenched, yet we often take this for granted.  America the Beautiful immortalized our “amber waves of grain,” Coke a cola and Mc Donald’s for decades were our most beguiling and seductive international exports as markers of our soft power, influence, and the rest of the world’s American aspirationalism.  We celebrate ethnic cuisine as evidence of our melting pot narrative as a way for immigrants to make their own luck through hard work and gain access to the American dream. Even our word for deliciousness, “yum” pulls forth history every time we use it. It is etymologically linked to a West African Senegambian word “nyam” which means “to taste”.  It was a word spoken by enslaved cooks to the free children they fed.

In the past 20 years the American restaurant industry has seen the greatest expansion in its history, save for the post-war fast food expansion of the 1950s and '60s. Though comparatively, the expansion of new restaurants and chains and out of home food options of the past 20 years, dwarfs that era. In 1955, the same year McDonald’s was founded, 25 cents of every dollar in American spent on food went to dining out; today that amount is more than half. Dining out has become recreational, aspirational, and a form of currency and escapism. It is a manner of cultural tourism on a plate, a statement of how authentic, conscious, woke, or au courant one is.  Fast casual chains catering to every sort of dining priority — from humane animal processing to nostalgic comfort food fare — move through venture capital rounds like Formula-1 drivers on a victory lap. Millennials, in particular, are driving segments of this growth, but a deeper dive shows that all age groups and most income brackets are participating in dining out’s growth. In the past decade and a half, chef-driven cooking became a manner of menu emancipation and term that rolled off everyday dinner’s lips. Coffee to cocktails have been overhauled and changed in American dining’s expansionist draft. Media used to advise us on what and where to eat, but it has practically oozed with its endorsements and immortalization of restaurant prepared food over the last two decades, it has become increasingly hard to discern if it was culinary culture, or the media who owned the tail that was wagging the dog. 

Equally crucially is the fact that in early 2015, financial publications such as Bloomberg began crowing that the two lines that track what American’s spend on “groceries” and what they spend on “away from home meals” had inverted. The most recent data tells us that Americans spent $674 billion annually on groceries, and $863 billion on dining out. Up until 2015, as a nation we had always spent more on the things we bought at a grocery store and then took home to cook, or at least microwave, than we did sitting down at a table, driving up to in car, or increasingly scrolling smartphones and being delivered food prepared by someone else. Someone who paid rent, wages, insurance, ingredients, advertising, graphic design, utilities, etc. The list goes on.  

Unsurprisingly, a recent Harvard Business Review survey found that when asked only 15% of Americans said they “love to cook,” while 50% said they “hate to cook” and 35% said they were “ambivalent about cooking.” Incongruently, cookbook sales have been one of the bright spots in publishing over the last 5 years, with a 21% increase in sales in 2019.  One can only surmise that more and more we love to look at food, talk about food, and eat food someone else has made. According to the National Restaurant Association, those someones, upwards of 7 million of them, have or will lose their jobs in the next three months. $225 billion will vanish from their collective industry, each dollar tied to a business loan or an apartment rent, the payment on kitchen equipment, or childcare service, a utility bill or an oil change, medical insurance or a full bag of groceries.

More than the economic cost to my friends, my tribe, my beloved American food story, is something more elemental, more ethereal, and so painfully poignant in its loss that I am still, when honest with myself, unable to fully comprehend it. You see I believe food is second only to love, as the most powerful force in the universe. Food is an inherently intimate thing and ignoring this fact does not make it less so. We literally put it in our bodies. Save for water, air, and medicine (which food is as well), what else do we have that sort of relationship with? 

It becomes part of us, and we echo its gifts or handicaps. Food and cooking were the evolutionary stepping stones we needed to become what we are. It is inherently personal and profoundly global. Flavor memories are imprinted into our very DNA.  It’s absence changes everything. Hunger can rob one of clear thought and dignity, health, energy, life. A good meal can restore anyone of us in a way that few things can. It can be enjoyed in its most raw and modest form, or cooked, crafted and shaped into something complex and wildly splendid. The quest for spices for our food gave us the origins of our financial systems. Those system’s monopolies edged the age of exploration ever outward across uncharted oceans. Any historian will tell you the story of food is the story of us.

With the inevitable loss of so many American restaurants, we lose the careers and hospitality of so many cooks and chefs, servers and front of house folks, and the work of so many farmers and purveyors, distillers and craftspeople. We lose something else, too.  We lose talent and opportunity yes, and flavors and menus that we will never know. But we also lose a social fabric and a place to be. Our restaurants, our dining institutions and corner spots, gave us a way to come together. And this drive, this call to connect in this way, goes as far back as the earliest of us first gathered around something wild being roasted over an open flame. That warmth, that community and that satiation is the very essence of the pleasure of what it means to be human. We know this place intuitively, though it may change with the current fashion of what to eat and where, we know it in the center of our cells.  We know it, and it has always been a place for us to be known.  

In 1765, culinary lore tells us that an enterprising cook sold consommés (broths) which he billed as imminently restorative. Paris’ public agreed. These restoratives were thought to relieve what then was called a condition of a thick chest, which in the day could have meant anything from asthma to tuberculosis. It is from the word for his memorable restoratives, that we get the word “restaurant.” Food and company, bringing good health. I find it paradoxically tragic that today we eschew restaurants, hoping to keep our health, while those who fed us so well and for long, lose out on a terrible and massive scale.

If you are lucky enough to be able to gather with those close to you as the virus works its way across our globe until it is finally been bested by immunity or science, I hope you and your loved ones burrow deeper into the rich human tradition of cooking. Long ago when the first cooks turned raw meat into cooked, and unlocked its flavors and available calories, they also unlocked the crucial energy needed to enlarge their brains. Cooking did that.  Let’s hope that the know-how, given from cooking, finds a vaccine and the wisdom for us to outwit this virus, so that life, or some vestige of how we knew it can return. When it does, I urge you once it is safe, to embrace America’s restaurants. Embrace your favorite spots and those you’ve never been. Don’t wonder about any of them. Give them all a try. 

That plate. The one that someone brings you, the one that is profoundly connected to the wide web of our economy and our mutual well-being — that plate, will be an elemental act of patriotism.

Lake Effect contributor Kyle Cherek is a culinary historian and essayist.

During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.

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Kyle Cherek is a culinary historian and food essayist. He was the former host of Wisconsin Foodie on PBS, and for over a decade he has chronicled regional food stories, exploring where our food comes from, and how it shapes who we are. His signature wit and keen observations have made him a sought-after keynote speaker, media contributor, and culinary storyteller. Kyle has been awarded the Wisconsin Broadcast Association Award twice for his compelling essays on food culture.