January 2022

We need to talk about… Social Justice in the Gastronomic World – a digest from the chatline

At the first of this New Year’s Kitchen Table gathering, OFS Trustee Cathy Kaufman introduced a wide-ranging discussion of Social Justice in the Gastronomic World in the light of events of the last couple of years (no need to explain).  Joining her at table were Mitchell Davis, until recently Chief Strategy Officer of The James Beard Foundation; Todd Schulkin, Executive Director of The Julia Child Foundation;  and Jamila Robinson, food media leader, food-editor of The Philadelphia Enquirer and World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy Chair.  Subjects raised included the metrics by which excellence can be judged, who gets the cultural spotlight (and why), the limitations of institutions to bring about change, and the power of individuals to redefine our culinary landscape. 

While we don’t record these events (what’s said at the Kitchen Table stays at the Kitchen Table), what follows is an edited digest of the chatline. (Note: Italics denote speakers’ views)

We’re not really talking about cooking, we’re talking about power. It’s not just who will be heard, but what they will get to talk about. We need a constant questioning of intentionality – constant re-evaluation, awareness and self-correction rather than appropriation. 

How do we effect change?

Transparency [is the place to start].  The kids are the ones who are going to hold everybody accountable. That’s why all this needs to be written about, noticed and talked about. 

It’s very hard to break our bubbles of privilege.  Instructors at the CIA are 90-95% white, not people of color, Black or Brown.  The publishing industry in US is 92% white, 98% of agents are white. We are struggling with all these issues in the journal I edit and am really working hard to bring on a more broad and global voice for these global issues. 

There’s a need to present your bonafides so that you are seen:  Kamau Bell spoke about having to learn the hard way that if his white wife made the reservation, or showed up first, their meal was better.

It might be different in the UK. I run food-writing workshops [approachable, accessible, not expensive, no experience required] via Obby UK, at which at least half the participants are female and of colour.  [Perhaps] changes first take place on a small scale. 

Asma Khan of [Darjeeling Express in London] is brilliantly outspoken on this. The way [she] and the entire team function is admirable.  

There’s also having to deal with the after-Covid situation. Everything looks very different now.

In France – Cordon Bleu has many foreigners but women tend to have a pâtisserie track – which raises an interesting query [not least because] all the teachers were men.

Julia Child [debut cookbook: Mastering the Art of French Cooking] founded the JC Foundation with the aim of ensuring the causes she cared about survive. They continue to make a great investments [including supporting the OFS’ student subsidy!].

Of communication, blogging and victimisation

Do consumers understand value of stars?  If we’re giving out stars, what are the criteria? What would Jamila, Todd, Mitchell think would be an appropriate way to convey excellence?  

The pursuit of excellence is something human. [There’s a need to give] true meaning to value, creativity and deliciousness. Some chefs have chosen to give up their stars. Alain Senderens was one of the first.

The role of the restaurant reviewer is being usurped by online ratings via Trip Advisor – perhaps this gives a level of diversity that this forum has not acknowledged.  There is a power to those sources for review, [yet the contributors] often have their own skew and ability to victimize restaurateurs.

[As a traveller], I look for local food bloggers for local info, avoid certain guide books etc. and do a lot of reading between the lines.

[As a writer] who is your audience, and is it the audience you want? There are things you know that people will respond to when you blog. 

For a fresh and more diverse e-letter on the London food world (and beyond), Vittles*** is a real blast of fresh air and delights in both being provocative and ensuring the voices are more diverse and not “established” writers.

The toxic environment in restaurants [is explored] in a new British film, ‘Boiling Point’.** 

On Noma-fication

Within the current economic/pandemic climate, [restaurants] need a publicist, which you might not be able to afford if you are small, independent and not on the current flavor-trend curve, which means you will not gain access to enough clientele to sustain you. 

The phrase ‘If you’re not on the current flavour-trend curve’ says so much.

Restaurants throughout the globe subscribe to the flavour-trend through Noma-fication – a cloning of dogma and visual language. This, for a stagier [seeking to expand horizons], eclipses potential for truly modern expressions of culture and identity.

The next Symposium is about “not-restaurants” – food away from the table. So what is the table from which one is away? Some people don’t eat at  a table, some people don’t have tables.  Think of the homeless squeezed into bed and breakfasts in UK.


** https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiling_Point_(2021_film)

*** https://vittles.substack.com