Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Turning the Tables on Steven A. Shaw: A Review

Turning the Tables: Restaurants From the Inside Out by Steven A. Shaw. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. $24.95. Pp. xxiv + 216.

In 1947 a British radio journalist wrote a thin volume that was to usher in postwar morality. Stephen Potter has been largely forgotten in the wave of cynicism that his work spawned and his book, The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, or the Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating, is little read. But gamesmanship entered our way of thinking about civic culture. The title of his third volume, One-Upsmanship, published five years later, expanding his tactics to all of social life, similarly passed into folk speech.

Potter recognized that we moderns want rewards that we have not fully earned by virtue of position or ability, but that in a world where we must judge strangers, a convincing facade is all that is needed. This approach, termed the strategic model of social life, was brought to scholarly fruition by sociologist Erving Goffman (Presentation of Self in Everyday Life). Goffman believed that social life was akin to acting and selves were but masks, a view that resonated throughout the 1960s and still does: life is a game with rules to be diddled. (Both Potter and Goffman could draw on Machiavelli, Diderot, Mandeville, and Veblen, but it is not until the post-war era that there slippery claims seemed intuitive).

The strategic virus spread, as we decided that living well is the best revenge against all those who would place us in our rightful place. We were taught how to survive in all of those privileged places where we did not properly belong by virtue of birth, education, or talent.

Nowhere was this crafty education more necessary than in restaurants. How could the Average Joe survive in a place in which one might actually have to pronounce French properly to escape the dreaded label "rube" - or worse "American." We all strived to be Francophonies. Many felt that restaurants were designed to make them feel socially naked, while stripping their wallets bare. If restaurants have changed - somewhat - they are still dangerous places for daters. Navigating a dining room is an effective means of matching a couple with roughly similar cultural capital.

Fortunately we have a book that provides a guide to that gastronomic minefield. The book is Jay Jacobs, Winning the Restaurant Game (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980). Jacobs, the long-suffering New York restaurant critic for Gourmet, composes with a poison pen he must have borrowed from Potter. Jacobs writes with that vicious bonhomie that New Yorkers so treasure. Jacobs knows that "Most social activities are competitive and dining out is no exception. . . . Under a thin veneer of politesse, we meet one another at restaurants to determine who has the clout." The book is a brilliantly malicious how-to manual to transform losers into something approaching diners. (One gets a sense of the writing by learning that Ronald Searle did the illustrations). Jacobs recommends that we choose our turf, becoming a restaurant regular.

Although he doesn't cite Jacobs, Steven Shaw writes in this same strategic tradition. Mr. Shaw is known for having devised and overseen the growth of eGullet, the leading Internet food and restaurant site. Yet Shaw, as Jacobs, is both competitive and opinionated about dining. Certain dainty rival websites are unmentionables, Shaw's victorious secret.

Every writer selects a persona. While Jacobs embraces his inner curmudgeon, Steve Shaw wants our love, and is not above a little self-abasement. This former attorney embraces the moniker "The Fat Guy" - and what better evidence could there be that American culture is teetering on the brink then that our authorities see personal humiliation as a good career move.

Steve Shaw wants to be our friend, and the friend of his food-givers, ripping only the sheerest of veils from the restaurant industry. Unlike Jacobs who - like Mikey - more or less mistrust everything all that is put before him, Shaw is enamored. He advises us, making bistros like beagles, "if you love restaurants. . . they will love you back." Even if designed to be a diner's guide, his is a big wet kiss for the restaurant industry. Shaw's introduction is labeled "Why I Love Restaurants"; Jacobs begins, "What Am I Doing Here?" Given all of Shaw's references to his "friends" in the industry - Tom Colicchio, Gray Kunz - they provide him with access that we mortals are denied. They seem to like him too. They really, really do. And who wouldn't with blurby sugarplums dancing between his covers. To be fair, Shaw surely chose these sources because he already admired them. (In contrast, I am on record that I will trade David Bouley a paragraph for dessert).

Shaw is an easy companion, light on his feet, low-maintenance to the end. His writing is plainspeak, not frothy; a book of Joe, not cappuccino. And I did learn from these pages. His account of the lifeworld of reservationists opens the door to a backstage world allowing us, following the strategic model, better to understand how to get where we want to be. I had little idea of the surveillance that operates in restaurant life; the amount of personal information that they collect is startling. Top restaurants seem as prepared for Bridezilla as for Al Qaeda. And after this review I will be viewed from thorny eyes as "critic of Steven A. Shaw." How I suffer for you.

Shaw, like Jacobs, is persuaded that the way to experience restaurants properly is to develop relationships. He claims, but fortunately does not carry the metaphor to its inevitable consummation, that the first meal is a first date. And, of course, he is right, although such a perspective is more useful for those with the resources to eat out regularly. Let us call it the "Cheers syndrome." The "Seinfeld syndrome" is, in contrast, that you will get crappy service no matter how often you return if you are jerks.

Not all chapters equaled the promise of the first. Although Shaw wishes to give deep truths about the restaurant industry in his guise of observer, he doesn't visit any restaurant long enough to understand the underside of work (there is no underside here). This book is the inverse of Tony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential where underside is the only side. What is needed is a recognition that the structural conditions of work and of temporal pressure contribute to the food that diners receive. As I have noted elsewhere, should your steak fall on the floor (OK, on the stove), what choice does the chef have but to serve it to you. Without knowing it, you demand it.

I admired the account of Sandor's tiny restaurant in Seagrove Beach, Florida (reminiscent of John McPhee's "Brigande de Cuisine"). The individual craftsman can do remarkable things, even if here, as with McPhee, the account may be enriched with a dollop of romance. Also a nice set piece is Shaw's account of Fernando, the "egg man" at Tavern on the Green (for a elegant piece that owes much to Shaw, see Burkhard Bilger's "The Egg Men" in the September 5, 2005 New Yorker).

Shaw is weaker when he leaves the kitchen, his boudoir. The controversies of food require more than description, but an assessment of the way that images of virtuous food are played out in a contentious society. One would imagine that the four-letter word PETA would be somewhere evident, but it isn't. Shaw dismisses those who wish their foods to reflect their politics, seemingly having little time for those who believe in foods that are organic, local, or authentic. (He blasts Slow Food, those goodmen and women who imagine the artisan in the fields. For the record, I am a member of this group, but am no better a member there than in most things). The case of foie gras could - and will - provide a window to how food politics becomes lifestyle politics. Only time will tell if Mike Bloomberg finds bloated poultry liver as easy a target as nicotine.

I admire eGullet as much as the next dweeb, but I couldn't help feeling that "The Restaurant Information Age" involved special pleading. Steve Shaw likes cooks and embracing the ethics of a Times critic would cramp his style. Frank Bruni is roughed up in these pages. Shaw argues, and there is some truth in his claims, that the critic should judge the artist at his best. Should we focus on those Leonardo caricatures that he sold for two bits each at the Florence county fair? And Shaw is right that there is only so much one can do when a VIP arrives: if you don't have plump strawberries, the Fat Guy gets the dregs, like the rest of us. Of course, he should expect fawning service for a pasha, but at least we can share his posh life. This kind of critic is not everyman, but Someone.

Shaw's strategy is to present several cases within each chapter (a residue from law school). In the case of describing the "The Business of he Restaurant Business," this strategy is ineffective, erasing those structural forces that organize the restaurant industry. It is interesting to observe the attempts of Gray Kunz to open a restaurant at the Time Warner Center (no more so than on a day on which Charlie Trotter called it quits as Kunz's neighbor), but we don't see the role that tax rates, building codes, labor markets, political pressure, and real estate vacancies play on which restaurants succeed. And how, for instance, do recent immigrants see restaurants as the ticket to the good life (cheap labor, coupled with easy rents and ignoring Bloomberg's burdensome laws), finding a community audience, even if chowhounds never discover these fragrant aromas. The depiction of Ed Mitchell's Ribs (of Wilson, North Carolina) tells us precious little about finances as messy as the ribs themselves.

Shaw concludes his text by speculating on the future of dining: pretty good, thank you. And located in W.'s USA. Just so long as we rescue authenticity from the authentologists (my goofy word, not Steve's). Novices to the food game will find Shaw's appendix a brisk compendium of culinary resources.

Will reading Turning the Tables provide $24.95 worth of better dining (or $16.47 worth of better dining from Probably. Shaw exudes a chirpy warmth that one finds neither in Winning the Restaurant Game or Kitchen Confidential (much less in George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, Bourdain's ur-text). One finishes infected by the virus of Shaw's enthusiasm, strategic and simultaneously the billet-doux of a fat man in love.


Carolyn Tillie said...

Bloody brilliant piece of writing. Bravo.

Carolyn Tillie said...

Post script - I would love to read your book... is it still available?

kitchenmage said...

applause both for the writing and posting it on eGullet... I am with Carolyn in being interested in your book, still available?