On chefs, food media and hunger
Why is the food world so scared to talk about hunger?
In April of this year, photographer Stephen Hamilton launched an ambitious project: a food magazine ripe with full-color visuals of pork tenderloin and cheesy pizza paired with stories on the art of food styling and photography. It’s really very pretty. But I can’t have been the only one who located some irony in the title: Who’s Hungry? For this collection of food fantasies, abstracted by degrees of digital remove and layers of styling from food you can touch, taste and smell on your plate, “Who’s Hungry?” seems at once apt and cruelly perverse, an odd sign of the times.
I don’t mean to pick on Hamilton. The food pages have always been aspirational; back issues of Gourmet are heavy with caviar and picnics in Nice, selling the Continental good life to home cooks trapped in Topeka. But look around: Lately the conversation around food has heated up to the point where it doesn’t seem to aspire to the act of eating at all. Instead, local food scribes scramble to scoop each other on restaurant openings and closings and chefly comings and goings. Column inches and digital bandwidth detail the city’s 50 best sandwiches and cutest servers. An unscientific weeklong review of early November food coverage in the Reader, Time Out and the Trib alone turned up a video on artisanal ice, tips on how to tip, a breakdown of two new “drinking chocolate programs,” a preview of the coming season of Top Chef, and glowing reviews of the haute-Southern Carriage House and Elizabeth, Iliana Regan’s Lincoln Square showroom for her prix fixe “new gatherer cuisine.”
Food itself sometimes seems an afterthought, given the attention paid to chefs’ personalities and peccadillos. And hunger—the contraction of the stomach muscles that powers us into kitchens and through restaurant doors—is downright elusive. Despite the clamor for information on where our food comes from and how it gets there, there’s scant public interest in who’s eating it once it arrives, or in how it makes them feel. Lowercase hunger—the weak physiological condition felt by every living being several times a day—is so unremarkable as to go unremarked upon. Capital-H Hunger—the public health crisis—is sent packing far from the lifestyle section, to the sober outposts of domestic policy, science and world news.
“Foodism has taken over from aestheticism,” argued essayist William Deresiewicz late last month in the New York Times, in an op-ed that made the rounds of my Twitter feed. “Food…has become invested with the meaning of life. It is seen as the path to salvation, for the self and humanity both.” That food is required to sustain life is irrelevant in the face of such high-stakes cultural commentary. Ferran Adrià himself—the Picasso of high-modern cooking—has acknowledged that the project he has made his life’s work has little to do with sating the hunger of the culinary pilgrims who until his restaurant El Bulli closed last year paid $300 or more a head to eat his food.
To be clear: I don’t want to deny cooking’s potential as an art form. Dining out can be an aesthetic experience full of tantalizing sensory explorations, technical innovations and a self-referential metanarrative to rival David Foster Wallace—and I’ve defended Alinea and its ilk many times against critics seeking to damn modernist cooking as decadence served by and for Rome’s fiddlers. Partaking of fine dining at this level, I’d argue, is like going to the opera, or Coachella, if that’s more your scene. Sure, it’s pricey, but it only comes around once a year and, I confess, I am sort of panting to go to Elizabeth. Still, though, what happened to hunger?
“Sometimes,” says Susan Goss, chef and co-owner of West Town Tavern, “the way restaurants play with food makes me sad. But I understand and do believe that there’s a place for food as art. It’s just something else that people are hungry for, that they are seeking from their experience.”
She’s right, of course. People go out to eat because they hunger for all sorts of sustenance. They may be seeking community, or a sense of place. They may long to be cared for; they may thirst for novelty. Or maybe they just want to be told a bedtime story through food. I mean, there’s a reason hunger is a synonym for curiosity and desire.
But Goss, who’s on the board of the Greater Chicago Food Depository and has, over the last 16 years, raised a quarter of a million dollars for the GCFD through a fund-raiser at her restaurant called the Girl Food Dinner, thinks about the literal meaning of hunger a lot. “Being a chef, you can get tunnel vision,” she says. “I have to remind myself that people die if they can’t eat. We all need to eat to live; we don’t all live to eat.”
When we get hungry, we get grouchy and weak. Stomachs rumble and attention flags. For a majority of Americans not dealing with daily issues of scarcity, this is where their experience with hunger ends. Hunger is a transitory experience, an inconvenience you pass through between breakfast and dinner; hunger exists to be sated, often in entertaining style.
But for more than 50 million* Americans—not to mention the hundreds of millions of other humans around the globe—hunger is more than a momentary inconvenience or the premise for a pork-belly sandwich. Hunger (capital-H) is an epidemic that leaves one in six people in this country—including 800,000 in Cook County—without regular access to adequate food, and their mental and physical health at risk of everything from anemia to hypertension to diabetes to depression.
Just last month, the 24th annual Meals on Wheels Celebrity Chef Ball drew 71 chefs, 14 mixologists and 850 guests to a two-story event space on Randolph Street, where, for $150 a pop, they could feast on bites from the Bristol and bellyQ, bid on spa packages in a silent auction, and—for the VIP price of $350—get up close and personal with the titular celebrity chefs. According to event co-chair Chandra Ram (with whom I work at Plate magazine), the event raised $249,000, but when I ask Ram if she ever wonders why they can’t just urge people to donate money and then go out for pizza, rather than go to such elaborate extremes, she laughs.
“That is basically verbatim what I say to myself every year,” she says, before noting that sponsors cover all the event costs and that there’s a PR benefit for the participating chefs.
Charity shindigs like the MOW benefit, or the more accessible Baconfest, which raised $50,000 for the Food Depository this year, fight hunger by fostering an atmosphere of plenty; buy a ticket and you’re immersed in a fantasy of abundance. Have another cocktail! Eat more bacon! Enlightened self-interest is part of the luxe package. Scarcity—the reason we’re there—lurks in the fine print, if at all.
The sheer fund-raising muscle of such enterprises is impressive, no question. But would it hurt to foreground the issue a bit? Is going out to eat by necessity divorced from the plain act of eating? What’s so scary about acknowledging this very real human need?
Some restaurants aren’t afraid to make the connection. The Publican, for example, hosts quarterly food drives for the Food Depository at the restaurant (the next one is December 17–23). In exchange for donations of nonperishable foodstuff, donors get a ticket good for a free drink at the bar. I ask general manager Katie Syracopoulos if anyone had ever begrudged the food-drive barrel its visible presence at the front door. “Not at all,” she replies. “People say they are grateful that we’re providing an outlet for them to help.”
“We don’t have to compost and recycle and do all these charity events,” says chef/owner Paul Kahan, “but it’s the only way I can stomach being in the restaurant business, because it really is a gross business sometimes.”
Mary Ellen Diaz, founder of First Slice—which most Chicagoans encounter through its Pie Cafes in Ravenswood Manor, the Lill Street Art Center and downtown at Water Tower Place—has taken that ethos to its extreme, turning Kahan’s “gross” business on its ear by putting care for the hungry at its core. Through First Slice, Diaz—a former fine-dining chef—provides home-cooked, restaurant-quality meals to about 4,000 hungry men, women and children a month. Much like a CSA, the meals are funded by subscribers to First Slice’s shareholder program, which nets participants a high-quality three-course meal each week. The money from each share subsidizes the very same meal for a person who can’t afford it on their own.
The First Slice strategy, which extends the “first slice” of the pie, rather than the crumbs, to shareholders and clients alike, is a radical inversion of the restaurant model that may not be for everyone. Running a restaurant is a business, after all and, Goss points out, it can be risky to get involved. “Take a stand and invariably you’ll piss someone off,” she says. “Even around issues of hunger.”
Similarly, if the food media thought that covering hunger would sell ads, breed clicks or whatever the quantitative measure of the day, they would do it. I mean, the pop-culture moneymaker of the year wasn’t a vampire or a werewolf—it was a dystopian game in which children kill each other for food. So it’s a bit of a shared delusion: The world of fine dining and the food pages of glossy weeklies need people to buy into the belief that we live in a land of plenty, even for just the time it takes to plow through a tasting menu. Eaters and readers are willing to pretend, for the payoff of a chance to share in that plentitude. I don’t blame them—it’s a classic dynamic: When living with scarcity, seek succor in the small treats you can glean, the takeout dinner, the premium cable. But in the wake of an election that had little to say about need and a storm that left millions without food, I hunger for more.
*Hunger stats are from feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america.aspx.