The Bad Chef and The Bubble
Another day, another exposé.
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On the occasion of yet another Bad Chef exposé, I exchanged a few text messages with a friend who’s also worked in and around food and restaurants. We talked about how there are, broadly defined, two camps here: Those who experience shock and surprise at news like this – and those who think, no shit. (We both fall into the latter category.)
Many factors play into the problems with the restaurant as a business model: labor laws, social and gender norms, class, and so on. The factor that fascinates me most, however, is food media.
By “food media”, I mean the writers, restaurant critics, television show hosts, documentary filmmakers, and (sigh) social-media influencers that produce content about chefs and restaurants. Put another way, the constellation of coverage that, you could argue, runs cover for the industry.
By way of example, in my rant about best lists – that most masturbatory of food-media customs– I proposed the term “list-washing”, noting that high-profile and -status coverage “can also serve to launder problems common to the hospitality industry”. Taking the latest Bad Chef as our object of study, we find that their prestige restaurant, Menton, made the best new restaurant lists in Bon Appetit and Esquire magazines, and was nominated for best new restaurant by the James Beard Award Foundation. Further, Menton is Boston’s only Relais & Châteaux property and Forbes Travel Guide five-star destination, and also scored a four-star review from the Boston Globe.
All that attention, all those accolades – and that’s only one restaurant. I’d encourage you to read about the Bad Chef’s other adulations, as it’s a lot (like, A LOT). Twenty-five years of running restaurants, who knows how much phosphorescent coverage from food media – and only now the exposé. (Actually, two: The Boston Globe published their version on the same day.)
Do you see my point? I hope that the forest is falling into focus.
Truth is, food media can represent a kind of “industrial complex” (not to mention the veritable cottage industry of individual influencers). Its function: The manufacture of entertainment and marketing that has the look and feel of journalism or documentary – without the substance or rigor (i.e. reporting).
In my thinking of late, I have taken to calling this “The Bubble”, i.e. a space that floats above the complicated politics of food and restaurants, the many issues that intersect with what and how we eat. Occasionally, pressure outside The Bubble builds enough so that something penetrates, and food media offers a nod to this or that issue in a very food-media way – a kind of culinary land acknowledgement – before turning back to business as usual.
I should note here that this is not about blame. Yes, there are some food critics and writers who have built careers – and acquired capital and access aplenty – on bullshit. But, they don’t own the conglomerates, that own the corporations, that own the magazines, the newspapers, and production companies; they’re just doing what pays the bills. Spilling ink over a new restaurant opening – i.e. marketing – can cover the rent for a week, for example (particularly if it plays to the tune of this country’s “good immigrant trope”).
Anyway, that’s The Bubble. I expect to write more about this in the coming months. Stay tuned.
PS. By the way, the Bad Chef in this case is a woman; I’ll be curious to see how the reaction plays out, as well as the consequences. You can be a Bad Boss as a woman, for example, and end up in prison (cf. Elizabeth Holmes); you can be far, far worse as a man and become President.My hope is that coverage of this particular Bad Chef exercises some level of awareness here.
A propos: The New York Times recently published their Food Critic’s top one-hundred list.
Useful here is the work of philosopher Kate Manne, e.g. her term “himpathy”, which describes “the inappropriate and disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, homicide and other misogynistic behavior”.