Monday, April 8, 2013

Alison Pearlman's "Smart Casual"

Alison Pearlman is a Los Angeles–based art historian and cultural critic who blogs under the name the Eye in Dining. She teaches modern and contemporary art and design history at Cal Poly Pomona.

Pearlman is the author of Unpackaging Art of the 1980s (University of Chicago Press, 2003) and numerous articles on contemporary art and consumer culture.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America, and reported the following:
On page 99, I attempt to reconcile two seemingly contradictory public faces of the restaurant chef. One arises from the design and use of display kitchens (open to the dining room). By page 99, I’ve shown a variety of ways these “theaters of manual labor” construct an idealized image of kitchen work as constantly sensuous, fast-moving, operating on an individual (single-plate) scale, and only loosely hierarchical. Careful syncing of atmospheres between kitchen and dining room likewise creates the impression that work is like the elective and joyous realm of leisure. Exhibition kitchens tend to hide those aspects of kitchen work that are inconsistent with this picture: tasks that are disgusting, slow-moving, industrial-scale, and sharply distinguishing of rank.

A contrasting chef image has proliferated via a type of behind-the-kitchen-doors memoir popularized by Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential (2000). In that genre we invariably find war stories: about years of cruel discipline amid dirt, noise, and heat; accidentally cut fingers; and self-subordinating, military-style hierarchies.

How can the same “foodie” audience embrace—and thus sustain—both faces of the chef? On page 99, I conclude that the images “are not contradictory but complementary. Like exhibition kitchens, agonistic accounts of kitchen life have boosted the image of chefs as accomplished professionals…while preserving fans’ own distance from their manual-labor trials.”

Page 99 does not suggest the full scope of Smart Casual. But it does represent the book’s emphasis on star chefs and chefs’ idealization by the foodies who support them. I see top chefs and foodies as the principal agents of the transformation in gourmet restaurant style that Smart Casual tries to describe and explain the motives for. Since the mid-seventies, traditional forms of luxury in restaurant dĂ©cor, formality in attire, ceremoniousness in service, and a relatively rigid canon of cuisine have yielded to mixtures of highbrow and lowbrow elements, which express the creativity of individual chefs. In the book, I argue that this transition is a product of star chefs and the expanding base of gourmets asserting a set of shared and distinctively contemporary interests and values. Exhibition kitchens, for instance, reinforce their meritocratic admiration for professional achievement and self-determined, personally fulfilling work.
Learn more about the book and author at Alison Pearlman's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue