In 1930, Frank Lloyd Wright gave a series of lectures at Princeton University on the American home and domestic life. “Dining,” he declared in one of those talks, “is and always was a great artistic opportunity.” Not only did Wright design dinner tables, chairs, and china sets for many of his projects, he also felt strongly that the hearth — ideally situated at the fulcrum of kitchen and living room to integrate cooking and congregating — was “the psychological center of the home.” We don’t boil water and simmer stews in our fireplaces anymore, but we still look to the rituals of dining to fuse the needs of palate, social self, and aesthetic sensibility.
Frank Lloyd Wright, Willey House Open Plan Kitchen, Minneapolis, MN, 1934. Photo: Matt Schmitt
The culinary and visual arts have long shared common ground, from wheat and grape harvests depicted on Ancient Egyptian and Greek sarcophagi and vases, to the horns-of-plenty and strung-up pheasants of Renaissance and Baroque vanitas paintings, to the edible minimalist tableaux conjured by the sushi masters of modern-day Japan. Gourmet chefs such as Daniel Boulud, Dominique Crenn, and Jordan Kahn refine the raw materials for sustenance to ever more vertiginous heights of connoisseurship, if not outright fetishization. Kahn looks on dining as “a perceptual and cognitive experience where deliciousness is driven by form and texture is carved into sculpture.” To elevate food to the status of conceptual art requires tremendous creativity, discipline, and perfectionism. It doesn’t come cheaply. It’s also really easy to lampoon.
David Lovejoy, Entrance to Meteora Restaurant, Los Angeles, CA, 2022. Courtesy Meteora Restaurant, Jordan Kahn
As with aficionados of contemporary art, haute couture, polo, yachting, the symphony, opera, and ballet, foodies (who in a haughtier era called themselves gourmands) have a reputation for elitism and frivolousness that is sometimes earned, sometimes stereotyped. The clubby exclusivity of a Jean-Georges or Tour d’Argent plays into a narrative of class warfare, pitting one-percenters against hoi polloi, a friction that has spilled over into recent headlines. Last month, the Copenhagen restaurant Noma, consistently ranked among the world’s best, announced it will close next year. “It’s unsustainable — it just doesn’t work,” said co-founder René Redzepi, addressing not only the restaurant’s trials but also the wider milieu of fine dining. For years Redzepi has defended Noma against allegations of mistreating staff and not paying interns, even as diners shell out 475 Euros (excluding wine and gratuity) to nibble origami-like cameos of fermented wild-boar belly and reindeer-brain custard. Pressured to top themselves every night with ever-more-esoteric concoctions, celebrity chefs have gained reputations as temperamental Svengalis ruling their kitchens with outsize egos and iron fists.
Enter the darkly satirical film “The Menu,” released last November and starring Ralph Fiennes as a sadistic chef notorious for sexually harassing employees and expressing condescension for his vapid, well-heeled clientele. His character hatches a plot to curate a prix-fixe meal custom-designed to humiliate and brutalize his diners. Even murder is on the menu — think Agatha Christie meets Emeril Lagasse. The film has garnered critical raves and earned $80-million on a $30-million budget, a testament to the public’s appetite for seeing insufferable billionaires served comeuppance alongside their canapés.
Populist aversion to gourmet pretension isn’t just a Hollywood trope; it can have political consequences. Just ask Mehmet Oz, who might be serving in the U.S. Senate were it not for an ill-advised supermarket dash for crudités. “In Pennsylvania, we call it a veggie tray,” opponent John Fetterman tweeted in response, then proceeded to trounce Oz by 263,000 votes. Sprinkle in a pinch of P.E.T.A. righteousness and you get the California kerfuffle over foie gras that occurred back in 2004. The Golden State’s legislature voted to outlaw the delicacy on grounds of animal cruelty, and a bill was duly signed into law by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. It allowed restaurateurs an eight-year grace period to find more humane ways to fatten up goose livers. Instead, chefs used a technicality as a work-around before the eight-year deadline passed, sourcing the product out-of-state and delivering it via third-party carrier, thus rendering the ban a lame duck.
Blue Mussel and Quail Egg, Noma
Restaurant, Copenhagen, Denmark
As it turns out, the letter of the law isn’t required to hasten fine dining’s decline; demographics and cultural trends are doing that quite efficiently on their own, as younger generations eschew fusty traditions like hovering servers, tableside preparation, chefs in toques, and sommeliers with tastevins and cellar keys looped around their necks. Our parents and grandparents might’ve enjoyed Old World recipes like Beef Wellington, Lobster Thermidor, and Tournedos Rossini, but current tastes run to fusion cuisine, tapas, and reinterpretations of street food. Likewise, candlelight, linen tablecloths, and embossed leather menus are out; trendy Edison bulbs, communal tables, and QR-code menus are in.
Things have gotten a lot less formal, with gaudy grande dames Lutèce and Le Cirque long-shuttered in Manhattan, Mary Elaine’s in Scottsdale, with its tufted purse stools for the ladies, replaced by a steakhouse, and The Georgian Room in Seattle more affably reimagined as The George. The farm-to-table movement, with its emphasis on sustainability, has made it passé to fly in chocolate from Lucerne and truffles from Périgord; better to source sweets from the bakery next door and forage mushrooms in the woods just over the ridge. Earlier this month, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells felt compelled to lead off his four-star review of Le Bernardin with an apology for fine dining’s excesses, referencing the Ralph Fiennes film as if in concession to foodie-phobic mobs ready to storm the gates.
Carrie Mae Smith, “Two Pork Chops, overlapping,”
2022, oil on mylar mounted on panel, 12 x 12”.
Courtesy of Lowell Ryan Projects, Los Angeles
Anyone shocked by the politicization of food should try telling a Texan not to cook with gas or barbecue with charcoal, or ask a Ukrainian if there’s really no difference between Chicken Kiev and Chicken Kyiv, or so much as breathe the word “Monsanto” to a committed organic gardener. “Freedom Fries” had their moment during the Iraq War, and now plastic straws are culture-war fodder. The fishing and crabbing industries are under fire for mercury poisoning and microplastics in seafood, not to mention the trash islands that have infiltrated every stratum of our oceans, including the Marianas Trench, where manned submersibles have found plastic grocery bags and candy wrappers in its depths.
From all I have read, there are no truly foolproof, ethically unimpeachable ways to feed 8-billion people. Within the sphere of our compromises, we each have our personal hypocrisies to juggle. Personally, I would never dream of aiming a rifle at a deer and pulling the trigger, but I’ll never forget the venison schnitzel in cream sauce I had as a teenager in the Austrian Alps. I think little baby calves are adorable as all get-out, but there are few things I love more than a scrumptious veal parmigiana. I never cook with raw chicken because it grosses me out, but I’m happy to eat it if somebody else prepares it.
My pescatarian friends wrestle with whether salmon and crabs don’t feel pain. Some of my vegan friends grapple with the extreme processing and resource consumption needed to create plant-based meat alternatives. And even my most Marxist-leaning acquaintances, who pooh-pooh artisanal markets and high-end eateries, acknowledge that less expensive food — the kind in frozen-dinner aisles and fast-food joints across the heartland — really isn’t cheap once you factor in the public-health costs of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and gastrointestinal cancers, all disproportionately common among poorer people who can’t afford a $5 tomato.
It’s all too easy to polarize these various factions into red-state fat cats, who couldn’t give a damn about deforesting the Amazon, and bleeding-heart progressives who’d crash their Prius into a ravine to avoid hitting a squirrel. In the middle of such polarities, many of us buy groceries mindfully and cook with intention, but still have the occasional urge to get a little gussied up and head someplace where the host greets you with “Right this way, sir,” rather than “How’s it goin’ tonight?” A place where a team of impassioned collaborators invests time and thoughtfulness in considering the most inventive ways to transubstantiate a humble rutabaga into a catalyst for restoring your faith in human creativity. No doubt that would sound pretty highfalutin’ to someone more attuned to French fries than The French Laundry.
Wanton Zhang, “Excavated Dumpling Platters in 2203,” 2023, porcelain place setting. Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco
There’s room for all predilections in the roiling roux of the Great American Melting Pot. What we do with our bodies, including what we put into them, is an incredibly personal decision that carries sociopolitical repercussions, whether we’re aware of them or not. Epicurus, the patron philosopher of gastronomes since Hellenistic times, cautioned against gluttony in his Letter to Menoeceus: “Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, while bread and water bring highest pleasure when brought to hungry lips.” Where to eat, and what, and how much of it? In the absence of absolutes, the answers lie in the mouths and mores of the beholder.