Last night I read a piece in the “Dine” section of Asterisk San Francisco magazine, by someone named Mark Holland. Titled, “Eating Out,” Holland’s essay seems to be primarily an indictment of supposed San Francisco food snobbery, with a conclusion that offers street food as the “authentic” alternative to the creations born from the giant-sized egos of too many restaurant chefs.
As someone who is equally passionate about food and media, I spend a lot of time engaging in discussions of both. And in fact, Holland’s piece caught my attention in part because it makes for an interesting intersection of the theme currently dominating the larger discourse in each of these spheres: the question of “how the sausage is made.” With foodies, the focus is on the making of the literal sausage: Where did my food come from, and how was it treated before it ended up on my plate? With journalists and people who care about good journalism, the sausage here is literal, but the concern is the same: What information is being presented, where did it come from, and how was it acquired? Holland’s essay stands as a good example of why so many journalists are concerned about the rise of “citizen journalism.”
The argument that so many chefs are just elitist, talentless hacks is tiresome and old, yet Holland makes it anyway, stating early in his piece that, “Chefs love taking food off the dining tables of the poor, stuffing it with truffles, frying it in duck fat and serving it in the lofty dining rooms of some of the city’s finest restaurants.” The phrasing is a bit over-the-top, calling to mind the image of a white-coated, toque-bedecked culinary school grad ripping a chicken leg out of the hands of a starving child, only to then stud the meat with expensive ingredients that will make this once humble fare no longer affordable to the masses. Granted, in recent years we’ve all seen examples of this trend in which a chef takes what Holland terms, “blue collar staples” and reworks them into a ridiculous–and cost-prohibitive–reincarnation. (Remember the $175 Richard Nouveau burger, featuring an ingredient list that read like a menu and a jewlery catalog? Foie gras, truffles, and even “flakes of gold leaf” topped the burger’s half-pound-plus Kobe beef patty.)
But that kind of excess has–for awhile now–been ebbing, rather than flowing along in a stronger current. Restaurant newcomers like Frances and Marlowe adopt a pared-down approach designed to feature seasonal ingredients and celebrate what these ingredients have to offer. That these restaurants are among San Francisco’s newest offerings suggests that local, seasonal, unpretentious food is replacing the love for all things over-the-top that was the hallmark of the culinary years leading up to the recession.
But to Holland, the answer to the excesses of previous years is not more restaurants, but rather something with wheels. Holland advises that, “If your food needs a clever twist, serve it out of a bike basket or a converted ice cream truck.” His assertion, it appears, is that the “clever twist” is the method by which the item is sold to customers, not the innovation of the item being sold. At the end of his article, Holland lists some of the “Street Food Players,” and the second one in this list is the Crème Brûlée Cart. Yet someone like Curtis Kimball, the man behind the Crème Brûlée Cart, is known for adding items like Frosted Flakes and S’mores fixin’s to his custardy treats. I say this not to denigrate the Crème Brûlée Cart (indeed, I like many of his flavors), but rather to point out the contradictions in Holland’s own argument. Holland derides chefs for making things like “lobster corn dogs,” but isn’t a Frosted-Flake-flavored crème brûlée the same thing? Or is it just that it’s OK to play with your food as long as you’re selling it from a cart rather than in a restaurant?
The growing street cart scene is particularly well-suited to this time in which people are increasingly interested in, as Michael Pollan would say, “shaking the hand that feeds them.” From a cart or a van or even a bicycle basket, food is served to customers often by the same hands that prepared it. (Though everyone who has had Chapeau!‘s Philippe Gardelle greet them with a kiss on both cheeks can tell you such an opportunity exists in restaurants as well, not just on the street.) The growing rise of “citizen journalism,” on the other hand, often seems to be gaining steam for the opposite reason–that it’s easy to put “information” out in the world without any nod to where this information came from, without any credentials to back it up, and therefore without any adherence to ethics or editorial standards. It’s one thing for people to yammer away on Yelp, but to have the same kind of yammering (and fully unedited yammering at that) published in a magazine (even one in its early stages) speaks to the very concerns professional writers and journalists have about a world in which anyone with a computer, minimal software, and an Internet connection can produce “content.” Such conditions can be “democratizing,” for sure, but certain standards still need to be in place if that content is going to move beyond being just more yelling in an already very noisy place.
The conclusion of Holland’s essay suffers from the same ailment as the rest of his piece–a complete lack of support that would help establish him as someone worth listening to when it comes to food culture in the Bay Area. In his conclusion, Holland tells the reader that the tone of his essay reflects not any “venom” toward the restaurant chefs who so clearly annoy him, but rather, “the bridled excitement in my heart to see what San Francisco turns out in 2010.” I can only guess that Holland means “unbridled,” seeing as how “bridled” refers to the act of keeping something restrained, and I can’t imagine why someone would write a piece championing his restrained enthusiasm for anything, especially if he feels that what he is championing (in this case, street food) makes for the most “authentic” (to use Holland’s terminology) food experience one can have. An editor should have caught such a mistake, but if Holland actually knew what he was talking about, he would have been unlikely to make such an error to begin with.
This is to say nothing of the fact that the “predictions” Holland makes about where food trends are headed in 2010 are just downright strange. (I’ll leave it to the reader to puzzle why Asterisk would publish a piece throwing out “predictions” for a year that is already more than well underway.) Among Holland’s seemingly random glimpses into the future is the vision that, “vegetarians may have even fewer places to eat in the New Year, even in a town like San Francisco.” But it’s not in any way clear why he thinks that’s the case. And in fact, anyone closely watching the evolution of the larger “food conversation” in San Francisco (and, indeed, surrounding areas) would have to make the opposite prediction: with the rise of the popular “meatless Monday” trend among food bloggers and food “tweeters,” as well as the success of Michael Pollan’s books and the Academy-Award-nominated documentary, Food Inc., growing numbers of passionate eaters are making an effort to eat less meat. If the consumer drives the market, then a more logical prediction would be that we will see more vegetarian options from restaurants and street carts alike–not less. (Roaming Hunger, for example, sports a full six pages of carts and trucks in the Bay Area alone that are either completely vegetarian or even vegan, or that offer vegetarian options. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Frances and Marlowe both offer multiple vegetarian dishes, and it’s worth noting that, unlike the vegetarian dishes on menus of restaurants past, these items have been prepared with as much care and attention as the establishments’ meat-centered dishes, making them entrees that anyone–even a card-carrying carnivore–would be happy to devour.)
Despite the fact that Holland’s essay lacks an informed point-of-view, Asterisk‘s editors called it “great,” and one reader remarked on the magazine’s Facebook fan page that he “loved” the piece. But the absolute lack of research, not to mention the number of typos and errors in usage, make the essay undeserving of such praise, and instead contribute to the opinion many professionals journalists have of the “civilians” trying to walk in their shoes: The magazine’s glossy graphics, designed with a high-end e-reader in mind, appear to be the attractive wrapper that obscures what exactly it was that went into this particular sausage.
It’s clear from Holland’s essay that he feels that San Francisco’s hot-shot chefs need to engage in a bit of self-editing, lest they become parodies of their craft rather than examples of it at its finest. After reading his essay, I would have to offer him the same advice.