When we go out to eat in restaurants we are all looking for something similar. Although we think it is for good food, we go back when the service is exceptional. We are looking, as Danny Meyer would say, for an emotional experience. We are eating out to be a part of something.
As a professional cook I would like to believe diners sit in the dining room of where I work because they want to eat my food. The food I help create, prepare, conjure and plate. When I go out to eat I am looking to be inspired by other chef's visions. I'm always on the lookout for delicious food, and like a Chowhound, I will look harder for it than the average person who may only follow what one or another restaurant critic likes or doesn't, or what the latest trend-setters say is fabulous. Of course I like to know what's new, I want to see who's cooking for whom and where they last worked.
In an era where chefs are becoming superstars, having TV shows and naming brands of supermarket sauces, a brighter light is being pointed at the restaurant industry. What the public expects from my field has changed, especially in California, birthplace of Chez Panisse and the local-sustainable-Organic food movement. Supposedly in California we like to know where our food comes from, who grows it and how. We do this research by shopping at farmers' markets, talking to the chefs who shop there and "voting with our dollars."
When I eat at a restaurant because I know the owner, chef, pastry chef or cook, I say I am "supporting" said establishment. When the restaurant industry in San Francisco was hit by two consecutive blows, September 11th and the dot com bust, it became important to be aware, without the intentional support of "regulars," our favorite places would close. Many restaurants did close at the start of 2002, and just as many menus changed to reflect the devastated economy. Cook and chef jobs became scarce and few people migrated the way cooks tend to do.
At the end of 2002, a chef I knew scanned the horizon, commenting on the lack of those restaurants he felt should not have opened in the first place. Ones seeming merely to exist as a place for young millionaires to spend money. He and I talked about how opening a restaurant without understanding all its hidden costs and responsibilities was a crime. It seems amazing that very few restaurateurs understand accounting math or have any grasp on State, Local and Federal labor laws.
Just knowing how to cook is not enough. Opening an eating establishment is only in part about the food you serve, how you plate it and the names embroidered on chef's coats. In all fairness, if a person is going to take an interest in where their food is from, how it's grown and who grows it, one must also be able to see beyond the smoke and mirrors of cheffing and take an interest in who is really prepping and cooking their food, night after night, week after 6/7 day week.
Can a person who gives $1 every day to the homeless person say they're doing enough? Giving to charity? Voting with their dollar?
Is a restaurant worth its conscionable weight if it never has enough capitol/care/time to offer its employees health insurance? Do you ask the waiter if the chicken is free-range if you don't care whether he/she's making a living wage? Can you say you believe in immigrant's rights if you eat in a restaurant that hires undocumented workers because they're cheaper and won't complain about low wages/lack of healthcare/unbearable working conditions/boring, repetitive tasks/long hours without overtime? Can you preach the Organic values of a restaurant whose kitchen is 25% unpaid "volunteer" workers?
How transparent do you want the place you go for a nice warm meal to be?
I'm not sure it's the diner's responsibility to take on how a restaurant chooses to run itself, or treat its employees, except of course when an eatery puts diners at risk because of unsafe food handling. But these are important questions for the person who does feel a responsibility to their food growers, handlers and preparers-- owners or not.
When I heard about the horrible accident involving 3 of Bar Crudo's staff and a taxi driver I was deeply saddened. I have worked in restaurants where deaths and horrific accidents have taken place. When I hear the news it never escapes me, the funeral I am attending could be my own. On September 11th I lost friend and colleague Heather Ho. Both my parents cried, knowing down to their core that she could have been me.
But I cannot say that my sadness is not also mixed with anger. How could a restaurant conscionably hire a chef and not offer her/him health insurance? In such a dangerous industry, how can we continue to overlook such an important issue?
I know the answer; because I can count on one hand how many restaurants in my 14-year career have done so. Have seen it's importance and necessity. Have made their employee's health a priority. Even when I have barely been able to make rent, I have paid for my own health insurance.
Much discussion has been had about transparency as it has to do with food businesses. Michael Pollan's back and forth letters to Whole Foods can be found by clicking here. An article about how the Golden Gate Restaurant Association is suing SF over the proposed restaurant worker health care mandate. Kim Severson wrote of NYC's restaurant trans fat ban in the NY Times.
In an era where eating, paying for food, and making intentional choices about what food we eat and why, has become politicized, it becomes ever important to weigh in the answers on all the backs of those who carry a portion of the burden-- helping to create your warm meal, your emotional experience at restaurants and eateries.
My grief is not a cry for war, but it is a cry for action.