Dining In Style

Dining In Style

Gary Alan Fine

Once, not so very long ago, restaurants were barely newsworthy and chefs were dismissed, not celebrated. They were working-class yobs: Marco Pierre White without the press; Gordon Ramsay without the cameras. The world of cuisine has been transformed in the past half century and so has the world of cooks. As the process that Roberta Shapiro terms “artification” has expanded, imbuing mundane realms with aesthetic discourse, restaurants have become theatres of cuisine. Dialogues of aesthetic valuation have expanded from a narrow elite coterie to diverse circles of judgment.

Now restaurants are cultural icons that are not so distinct from galleries. This is a gustatory moment in which to dine is to be. Chefs – at least those with ambition, with vision, and with cultural capital – belong to an art world in which the criterion of virtue is an ability to exemplify a signature style. While not everything has changed – links to both classical haute cuisine and casual repasts remain – transformations define the new world of dining.

In speaking of cuisine as constituting an art world (as Howard Becker used the term) we realize the intersection of style and community. The restaurant is a site where small groups of labourers (or are they artists?) collaborate to prepare aesthetic products to be judged by their publics in a vigorous and free-form reputational market.

Like all arts, cuisine has a dynamic quality. Culinary standards fluctuate as styles move in and out of fashion and as critics and media outlets – reputational entrepreneurs – proclaim the next new thing and the latest great chef. Consider the movement in the early 1970s that emphasized natural, fresher, local cuisine, a dramatic change from the grand and sedate French restaurants that had once defined fine dining. The leader of this movement was Alice Waters, the Berkeley chef and founder of Chez Pannise with its roots in the counter-culture and its linkages to art worlds. Accessing high-quality ingredients and developing alliances with local, independent farmers were crucial. This was the origin of the farm-to-table movement. Lighter dishes were preferred, and heavy, roux-based sauces were whisked away in a style that came to be known, in its French version, as Nouvelle Cuisine. Later, cannibalizing ethnic dining, top restaurant chefs embraced Fusion Cuisine, often a bit of a mess but reveling in the diversity of global flavors. These restaurants created new categories of dining.

By the new Millennium, chefs, like Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck at Bray in England, Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago, and, most influentially, Ferran Adria of El Bulli outside Barcelona, unpacked their chemistry sets to create Molecular Cuisine, incorporating foams, nitrogenated cooking, sous vide, spherification, and powdered food. They celebrated techniques far from the skills of home cooks. These became the tricks of the trade. After a few years, diners tired and new restaurants proclaimed an allegiance to local, “authentic” ingredients, which subsequently became extended in what has been called the New Gathered Cuisine, found at restaurants such as Noma in Copenhagen and Willows Inn outside Seattle. These ingredients were not grown on farms, but plucked from woods, fields, and beaches, again outside the scope of the home cook. Viewed broadly, two styles of cuisine compete. Chefs choose either an emphasis on ingredients, such as locally sourced food, or an emphasis on esoteric professional technique, such as sous-vide or foam. Restaurant styles oscillate between the two.

However, restaurants change not only through the choices of chefs, but as a result of customer preferences. As an organizational field with low barriers to entry, restaurants participate in a vigorous market. Customers vote with their feet and with their tongues. Today many restaurants feel like clubs as the demimonde claim tables. Restaurants are no longer cathedrals of cuisine, but boisterous boîtes, appealing to a younger crowd who think they are living large when they cannot hear across the table. Ties and gowns are passé.

Exemplifying this cultural change was the publication in 2000 of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Cultural Underbelly. Anthony Bourdain’s zesty, take-no-prisoners, memoir captured a vast audience. Bourdain, a charming and roguish chef, pictured cooks as lusty adventurers. His up-close account of the nasty bits of restaurants rendered kitchens with the glamour of bad boy mischief, a tradition that chefs like Gordon Ramsay have done their best to uphold. Of course, Bourdain was not the first to share what was hidden behind kitchen doors. That honor belongs to George Orwell’s historic account of inequality, Down and Out in Paris and London. Orwell’s co-workers make Bourdain seem like a choirboy.

Fifty years ago one could point to iconic figures such as Andre Soltner of New York’s Lutece or Michel Roux of London’s La Gavroche, but they were only renowned within the tight circles of mid 20th century gastronomes who often identified as Francophiles. Haute cuisine was an upper-class preserve. Outside of France, cuisine was not part of general cultural literacy. Yet, by the early 1970s, a chef could not only reach for the stars, but could be one. Alice Waters made restaurant cooking a mark of a life well-and-ethically-lived. In time, chefs like Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, Heston Blumenthal, and Jamie Oliver became media darlings. These mega-wattage chefs draw crowds and are frequently profiled in newspapers, culinary magazines, and popular books.

When I published Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work in 1996, I reported that high-end restaurants were small businesses that did not lend themselves to duplication. Today collections of restaurants are common as chefs have been seduced from the range to the soundstage. Chef-proprietors, like Guy Savoy, Alain Ducasse, or Wolfgang Puck operate numerous restaurants spanning the globe and bearing their imprint. So widespread are their empires that these chefs may require a map to find their kitchens. In some cases the new locations imitate the originals (constituting an upscale chain); in others restaurants appeal to different market niches but relying on the chef’s identity, such as those in the Gordon Ramsay group. This is the world of the Super Chef. These chefs left the sweaty kitchen and became managers, designing recipes for their staff to reproduce. High-end restaurants have changed from close-knit communities overseen by a chef on site to outposts of the culinary-industrial complex. As important, corporate ownership and the backing of wealthy investors provides a financial safety net for high-end dining establishments.

Along with the increased prominence of cuisine as a mark of cultural capital, the status of the chef has risen. When I observed restaurant kitchens, most cooks hailed from working class families. This is no longer so true. Chefs such as Tom Aikens and Mario Batali were raised in middle-class homes. Well-heeled parents no longer feel ashamed, as they once did, confessing that their child now wears an apron and a toque. A cook, once an occupational failure, is today a professional, businessman, or artist. Gender roles, too, have begun, slowly, to shift in the kitchens of high-end restaurants. While head chef is still largely a male preserve, it is no longer startling to find a woman, such as San Francisco chef Dominique Crenn, the first American female chef to receive two Michelin stars.

The establishment of a community of cuisine among diners is another major change in restaurant life. Twenty years ago gourmets had few means to share their passion. But food media have blossomed. Amazon offers over 100 magazines devoted to food and dining. With all this to read, when do we have time to eat? Most urban newspapers print restaurant reviews, and culinary journalism has risen in status and in quality. Zagat’s evaluates restaurants in 35 American cities and in London, and Michelin now covers New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, as well as Great Britain. The Food Network has channels in the United States and Britain, and has helped to birth this culinary community. The valuation of cuisine as a marker of educated status has increased dramatically over the past few decades.

These forms of communication have generated a network of diners. Whether we label these committed eaters as foodies, chowhounds, or gourmets, they have created networks of discourse: tiny publics devoted to the pleasures of the table. Restaurateurs sigh that every diner has a blog and a cell phone, but these websites and cameras contribute to the interest in restaurant culture.

Some groups even organize face-to-face gatherings, such as the Slow Food movement. Underground or pop-up dining, as revealed by Daphne Demetry, creates not only organizational alternatives, but also devoted gatherings. Even more impressive are the online, virtual communities of diners in the form of Internet discussion boards. Through these affinity sites, food has become similar to other artistic domains in its critical discourse, one that involves shared knowledge and sometimes pungent evaluations.

Two decades ago the academic investigation of food was a quirky quest. That is no longer true. Food is hot. We live in a world in which more than ever we can say: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.” We are all philosophers in the kitchen and at the table. Restaurants exist in a world in which chefs are culturally influential and in which customers have become attuned to the economics, politics, and art of food. In this diners and chefs, together and on their own, constitute a commonwealth of cuisine. We all eat, but today we believe that we should eat with morality and with delight. More than ever before, to value cuisine, to appreciate the act of dining, and to think about food as public policy, is a mark of distinction.


Gary Alan Fine is John Evans Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University. He is known for his ethnographies of cultural and leisure scenes. He is the author of Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work and is in the process of completing an ethnographic study of visual arts students in American MFA programs, examining the changes in educating contemporary artists in a world of identity and discourse. 

Photo credit: Gary Alan Fine