About a year ago, there was an amusing dispute between Michael Ruhlman (author of Ratio and The Making of a Chef) and food writer Kelly Alexander. It all started when Alexander penned an article earnestly celebrating the miso salmon entree at The Cheesecake Factory.
Ruhlman, predictably, made fun of her.
So Alexander made a bet with him that if he actually went to The Cheesecake Factory, he'd like the food there too. Irony of ironies, she won the bet. Ruhlman liked the food!
But what interests me about this story isn't that The Cheesecake Factory's food is good (duh, of course it's good: it's specifically engineered that way). Rather, I'm interested in the behavior of Ruhlman and his friends while they were at the restaurant--in particular their appalling condescension and food snobbery.
A few examples:
1) One of Ruhlman's dinner guests asks, "Do you think the Roadside Sliders are made of possum?"
2) Another dinner guest wolfs down a plate of pasta carbonara, but excuses himself by saying, "it's a guilty pleasure, liking bad pasta."
3) And when asked if he'd like chicken on his pasta carbonara, Ruhlman responds, "why would I want chicken on it?" (by the way, kudos to the waitress for her flawless response to a question that I can only describe as existentially condescending).
Presumably, all of this banter is tres funny to Ruhlman and his pals. It must be a blast to join a group of foodies on a journey to the culinary hinterlands where you can sit around a dinner table, condescend to your waitress and make hilariously witty comments mocking the food. It's almost as if they fail to realize that the people and the environment around them are real, rather than some movie about the Midwest that they happen to be watching.
I like Ruhlman. I really like his thinking about food. But if this is how he typically behaves when he steps outside of his food bubble, the vast majority of Americans will never accept his ideas. And that's the real shame.
And seriously, if I had a nickel for every food critic who expects to find haute cuisine at a national restaurant chain... well, I guess I'd have a hell of a lot of nickels. Is it really so difficult to grasp the idea that normal people occasionally enjoy casual meals at casual restaurants?
Look, the food at the vast majority of American restaurants is casual, often mass-produced, usually hyperpalatable, and typically contains staggering amounts of calories. It's also often incredibly delicious. Understand this for what it is, and don't expect haute cuisine in places where it shouldn't be.
It goes without saying that you don't have to eat this food, or even like it. And you are more than welcome to campaign against it (heck, campaigning against overpriced, hyperpalatable, over-salted food is one of my favorite pastimes here at Casual Kitchen). You are welcome to like what you like, dislike what you dislike, and explain--on your own food blog, even!--exactly why.
But when you deliberately set foot inside a national restaurant chain, try to recognize that the food should be judged in the context of its genre. Stop recoiling in mock horreur when your pasta carbonara comes with peas or existentially optional grilled chicken. Don't be quite so oblivious to the fact that the rest of the world may not follow your obscure rules of food decorum. And at least try to be nice.
And that joke about possum? Come on.
Readers, what's your take?
Kelly Alexander's Love Story to The Cheesecake Factory at NPR.org
Ruhlman's admission of defeat and description of his infamous Cheesecake Factory dinner
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