Book Review: In the Restaurant

“To eat together, to drink, to entrust oneself to others’ care: this turns the restaurant into a place where the open society is both celebrated and lived out every day.”

In the Restaurant, by Christoph Ribbat (translated by Jamie Searle Romanelli), provides a potted history of the restaurant alongside the sociology and psychology of those who work in and frequent such establishments. Written in short bites of piquant text each entry is easily digested. This is a fun and fascinating account of the eatery’s growth and development.

What a modern European would think of as a restaurant came into being in Paris around 1760. The upper classes were enticed to eat at a new style of the ubiquitous inn, one which served ‘restorative’ bouillons for those who considered their palates sensitive. Customers were given a table to themselves rather than having to share benches with strangers. They could choose when they wanted to eat and select their choice of dish from a menu. Ambience and service were of the utmost importance.

Unlike other upper class venues at the time, anyone who could pay for their food and drink was admitted. Restaurants were furnished with niches and alcoves enabling a degree of privacy despite the public setting. Unusually, men and women appeared together. Before long these early restaurants were serving more than just bouillon. Specialities developed with views on quality and innovation disseminated by newly emerging writers – the restaurant critic. Interest in these Parisian ventures encouraged others to open restaurants around the world.

From the beginning staff were stratified with rigid, snobbish hierarchies emerging. The chef ruled in the kitchen which was kept hidden from customers. Waiters were go-betweens, tasked with making the customer feel welcome and valued. Despite the hard work and long hours, salaries were low – mortality amongst employees subjected to the health hazards in busy kitchens was high.

Chefs published cookbooks to raise their profile and that of their place of work. The dishes they developed evolved as increased tourism brought with it new culinary skills, ideas and tastes. Increased efficiency in the kitchen was achieved by introducing specialisms.

George Orwell was one of the first authors to draw attention to the more unsavoury aspects of a restaurant’s kitchen practices, based of his experience working there. Meanwhile critics were feted and the famous fed for free to raise an establishment’s profile. Over time food fashions changed as chefs sought to capture theĀ zeitgeist. Customers continued to seek

“sophistication rather than satiation”

From a simple idea the restaurant developed in many directions. Industrialisation and automation brought with it fast food chains. The quest for Michelin stars encouraged the creation of labour intensive art to be consumed. Staff are still badly paid.

“It is possible to make a living from only one in five jobs in the American food industry.”

Although presented in anecdotal style with reference to individuals and particular establishments, the source notes for the numerous entries in this book are extensive. Detailed references are provided in a section at the end. What comes across is how much has changed and yet also remained the same. The restaurant remains

“a theatre for all the senses”

The players rely on both the artisanal and industrial workers. While customers may be hedonistic, enjoying the performance and eating experience, there remains widespread exploitation of staff and those who provide the base ingredients.

There are now many types of restaurant with wide varieties of operating philosophies. These cater for: the time strapped; those seeking comfort food; demands for fresh produce; the semblance of ethical practices; health fads and fashions. Although now everyday destinations for many, at the high end of the market success brings its own problems. One example cited was of the newly listed three Michelin star establishment that was asked by a potential customer where they could land their helicopter. The cost of such meals may appear obscene while people go hungry. Demand remains.

And such tales add to the interest of what is an entertaining and intelligent glimpse into the kitchens and public spaces of restaurants operating within a multitude of environments: capitalist and communist states; bustling cities and small town America; remote Spanish beach sides and Nordic forest. The author treads lightly yet gets to the heart of the issues faced by staff and proprietors. This is an entertaining smorgasbord of reading pleasure for anyone who has worked in or frequented a restaurant.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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