Chefs, Cannibalism, Class, Crowdfunding, and Other Conundrums

     |    Wednesday May 22nd, 2013

I mentioned last week that I wasn’t through thinking about some of the topics that arose, and the one that stuck in my head after I sent the post off was that I hadn’t really addressed the issue of chefs and their sudden emergence as symbols of American culture’s newfound appreciation of food. That idea annoyed me, and it wasn’t until I started reading some other articles that I realized why that was — articles that had nothing to do with chefs.


Because, you see, chefs aren’t about cooking. Really: they’re not.


They’re about creating experiences, and the best always have been. One of my best friends was a chef for a long time, and among the things he saw as his mission was using ingredients that expressed the place where he and the restaurant were. Local fishermen, foragers, and other purveyors showed up at the kitchen’s back door and showed their wares, and sometimes he bought them. Then he’d figure out how to use them. And people would come into his restaurant and pay good money (not a hell of a lot, but it wasn’t as cheap as eating at home, natch) to have this experience. Same goes for Ferran Adrià, the Catalan chef who invented “molecular gastronomy,” except a meal at his place cost many times what a meal at Bob’s place cost. But both restaurants were about providing an experience, one down-to-earth but creative, the other also creative but avant-garde.

Food from Ferran Adrià's kitchen. No idea what it is.

And neither one of them has anything to do with what I cook, although I’m a good cook and have a wide range of interests from which I draw to make my evening meals. I cook for my own pleasure, of course, but I also love long evenings of food and drink and talk with friends, the sort of social experience Facebook can never give you and, for me, a kind of pleasure you can’t get at a restaurant, because I like the cooking end, too.


So while I was thinking about this stuff, a bunch of articles came my way over the course of the week that, I believe, aren’t unconnected with that idea. Hang on while I summarize them. First, there was a provocative one on the Dangerous Minds site by a guy named Kartik Dayanand. It can best be summarized by the graphic at its head:



Without referring to politics or weather caused by climate change or any of the other usual suspects, Dayanand points to technology and how machines not only are replacing things humans used to do, but these machines — he uses the smart phone as an example — are doing more of the things that once required a single machine (a camera, a telephone, a music-player) to do. Which means that fewer cameras, telephones, and music players as such are being produced. Of course, the machines are also being made far from the places where the majority of them are consumed, and as a result fewer of those people have jobs: the German camera-makers haven’t been replaced by German smart phone makers, and the American music-player factories are empty. Soon, he says, nobody will have jobs. And without jobs, we won’t be able to buy the gizmos. We’ve just been cannibalized by our own innovation.


Which is part of what Jaron Lanier is apparently saying in his new book,Who Owns the Future? I haven’t read it, but I did read an article in Salon where he’s interviewed, and just as with his previous book, You Are Not A Gadget"", he’s not terribly optimistic about the way things are going. In fact, in the interview he repeats a lot of the ideas Dayanand sets out, only coming at them from a different angle. Both writers stress that the middle class is vanishing, not exactly a new idea, but one that’s been, perhaps, underemphasized. It’s all very nice that our digital overlords are telling us that we now have to all become entrepreneurs, but Lanier, although he doesn’t say it out loud in the interview, seems to wonder about the guy who’d like a job where he checks in, does some stuff, and eight hours later turns off the light and comes home to his wife and kids. This may not be how Dayanand and Lanier and I — and maybe you — want to live, but it’s been a perfectly honorable mode of life for an awful lot of people, people who made cameras and telephones and music-players in the past and honestly didn’t mind doing it if they were paid an honest wage, something that often was the result of joining a labor union. Of course, without a job, you don’t need a labor union. Not that there are many left.


Okay, so we all have to become entrepreneurs now? I’ve been freelance pretty much all my life, so don’t ask me to talk you into it, but we’ve watched the music world force untold hundreds of performers into that position, and now crowdfunding has become the basic modus operandi for your average indie band.


Average Indie Band


That’s why it was so gratifying to see The AV Club knock the stuffing out of a number of crowdfunded proposals in an article wondering where you draw the line on such endeavors. But once the snickers subside (and we mentally thank them for not even bringing up Amanda Palmer), some real questions remain. Like, wait a minute, are we all going to have to resort to this model? I’m  not going to belittle either crowdfunding or even patronship, because I’ve benefited from both during hard times when my work wasn’t making me enough to live on. Nor am I going to insist that it’s not character building for a young band to climb into a van and do a seat-of-the-pants, couch-surfing tour. But, as Lanier mentions in his interview, it’s like these utopians who are heralding this new age don’t know anyone who has to raise kids, gets sick, or gets old.


Clearly someone’s benefiting from this, and clearly the money continues to trickle. Up. Always up. The fact that it’s not like the last turn of the century, when obese railroad tycoons and mining magnates were older men sucking the lifeblood out of the economy doesn’t change things. The fact that a lot of the people profiting from this boom are like the Facebook and Tumblr and Google youngsters doesn’t mean squat, except that it’ll be a while before they leave their fortunes to their kids. We’re well on the way, in America, towards a non-monarchial hereditary aristocracy, as the recent announcement of the appointment of 22-year-old Gus Wenner as the head of portends. And where you have a setup like that, you’re headed towards a very familiar sort of society, at least familiar to people like me who read a lot of medieval and renaissance European history: a very few of us rule, and the rest serve them.


And it really doesn’t matter if you serve them by using their gizmos or serve them by playing them music, or serve them by using their digital services. Or, for that matter, serve them food. It’s back to us versus them, and it’s not healthy for us or for them, no matter how you want to define those words or which tribe you see yourself as belonging to. There’s got to be a better way to do this, with, as they say, liberty and justice for all, with “all” being the important word here. I don’t have a clue, but neither do I object to climbing on a soapbox and pointing it out. Someone within earshot might be able to start doing something about it. Hell, if I like what they’re doing well enough, I might kick in a couple of crowdfunded bucks to help them along. Or have them over to dinner.