Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Vanina Leschziner's "At the Chef's Table"

Vanina Leschziner is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, At the Chef's Table: Culinary Creativity in Elite Restaurants, and reported the following:
Sometime after agreeing to put my book to the Page 99 Test, I anxiously picked up a copy of the book to see what I would find. As I was getting closer to the page, it looked like there was a good chance that page 99 would be blank, marking the transition from one chapter to another. A blank page would have been a pretty ironic result. Luckily, page 99 is the beginning of chapter five, and one of the central chapters in the book. Here is the opening paragraph:
Running a high-end restaurant is not an easy job. There is an incessant expectation of excellence in everything from the food to the wine program, décor, and service. The food must be not just flawless but also creative, and chefs need to keep their menus looking novel. This is not so easily done because chefs typically do not have a lot of time to develop new dishes, and because they do not always have the inspiration. There is no one way to manage these pressures and constraints, and chefs vary greatly in how they deal with them.
This book is about the creative work of chefs at top restaurants in New York and San Francisco. Based on interviews with chefs and observation in restaurant kitchens, it examines how and why chefs make choices about the dishes they put on their menus. To answer these questions, I look at a wide range of factors, including chefs’ careers, restaurant ratings and reviews, cognitive patterns and work processes, and how status and social connections influence chefs’ work and careers. Chapter five is about how chefs think about food and how they go about creating dishes.

The opening paragraph of this chapter, quoted above, actually captures some of the central themes in the book, in particular that elite chefs face competing pressures in their work, and must find ways to navigate an uncertain market and make choices between those pressures. Chefs are responsible for the creation of dishes but also for the management of the restaurant, and this limits the time they can dedicate to the creative part of their job, and the dishes they may conceive. They must deliver complex and creative dishes but also run a profitable business in an industry with exceptionally high costs and low profit margins, which manifests itself as contradictory pressures to create original dishes but also offer the familiar foodstuffs that customers are more likely to order. The book explains how they do it, using this as a case study to analyze characteristics common to creative occupations.
Learn more about At the Chef's Table at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue