Knowing When Not to Be a Food Snob

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?

Related Articles:
Kelly Alexander's
Love Story to The Cheesecake Factory at
admission of defeat and description of his infamous Cheesecake Factory dinner

Related Posts:
Food Absolutism
How to Resist Temptation and Increase Your Power Over Food
Obesity and the Obama Administration: A Blogger Roundtable Discussion
On the True Value of a Forgotten Restaurant Meal

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Joanne said...

I totally agree with you Daniel. Sometimes you just want a good comfort food kind of meal. No frills. Just food. And when that craving hits, it's ridiculous to pay 30 bucks for some haute gourmet cheeseburger when you can get a perfectly delicious one for ten or less.

Some food critics need to take a step down off their pedestal and realize that everything doesn't have to be marinated in eighteen spices or confited to a tee in order to taste good. Thanks for posting this!

Marcia said...

What a bunch of bozos. I *know* I can be a food snob. I head to my family's house, which is in rural PA. My mom loves to eat out but it's so hard to find veggies and everything is deep fried and awful. I don't need haute cuisine. I would like vegetables.

I try and gently steer her away from the eating out when I'm home, mostly by doing all the cooking.

Then again, I know when to enjoy a good hot dog. My brother is a hunter and said "I know probably most vegetarians would HATE me about..."

To which I said "actually, most vegetarians I know - and I'm not one - would be happy that you actually have the guts to kill your own food. They think that it's too easy for people to eat meat and if people had to get messy, they'd eat less. It's the CAFO's they don't like."

Diane said...

Sure, they were snotty - no excuse for that.

But I have to say, I travel a lot for work to malls, and whenever my colleagues want to eat at Cheesecake Factory for lunch as a break in the site visit my heart sinks a little. Not because the food is bad. It isn't so bad (I like some of their salads quite a bit). But because the portions are enough to feed a family of five. I hate the horrid feeling of facing a meal that could feed me for days and being expected to eat it for lunch. The waste, the profligacy, the in-your-face celebration of the creation of an obese America. Erp...

Liz T. said...

I like Ruhlman too but, like you, I was extremely disappointed in his behavior. He's from Ohio, ferchrissakes! He should know how that works (I grew up in Indiana so I can say that).

But anytime you have someone 'specializing' in something, they by default move from the center to the extreme edges of the field. I saw that all the time when I was finishing my math degree -- many of the profs and grad students couldn't remember what it was like not to already know some of that stuff and couldn't break it down into common terms. Not necesarily their fault, it's just what happens unless they make a conscious effort to remember how to communicate with the rest of us.

Amber said...

I hadn't heard about this and it makes me sad. I really like Ruhlman, his blog, and his books and to know that he's a big snob is a real turn-off.

wosnes said...

My daughter works at a Cheesecake Factory. We used to eat there often, but not so much anymore. The one thing we're all pretty sick of? Cheesecake.

The one thing I like about The Cheesecake Factory is that most of their food is made from scratch on site. I'm not sure about the soups, but as far as I know, only some sauces and salad dressings are pre-made.

Yea, the portions are way too large, high in fat and calories. But since I eat there infrequently now, I don't worry about it. They're also very good about substituting vegetables for something else. All you have to do is ask.

I used to really enjoy eating out, but not so much anymore. Most of the food at casual chains doesn't seem worth what I pay for it. However, sometimes I don't want to cook and I'll eat whatever is put in front of me!

Lo said...

Gosh, I don't even know what to say. As prone to food snobbery as I've become, I'm not sure I have any excuses for Ruhlman. I generally enjoy his banter, but this is one time when he was out of line.

That said, any restaurant with "Factory" in the title should probably be a red flag...

Daniel said...

Thanks for the reactions so far. My goal with this post is call out the behavior, not Ruhlman's entire body of work. Many--if not most--of the food issues Ruhlman stands for I believe in too.

So if ever there's an instance where you can love the proverbial sinner and hate the proverbial sin, this is it.

And I think Liz Tee hits it on the head when she talks about "specializing." It's always a bit sad when somebody loses sight of where they came from, or (to phrase it a bit more confusingly) when somebody loses the ability to remember what they used to not know.

Finally, yep, Ruhlman hails originally from the Cleveland area, if I'm not mistaken.


Melissa said...

First, on the food snobbery note: I have been guilty of doing this silently many times. I can't help but feel annoyed and disgusted at the menu and food at Chili's or TGI Friday's or FAST FOOD, everywhere I am pretty much forced to go when out of town for the holidays, simply because Steve's family doesn't know or understand anything better. God, just writing that has me so irked, and anxious about this December. I had a terrible, terrible week of food unlike anything I had eaten in years when I went last year. So I can understand his feelings. He was being a jerk, but I get it.

On another note, I like Ruhlman for many reasons, but this is not the first time he's been a snot. Like other food writers and food (for lack of a better word) politic-y people, I think he is sometimes out of touch. Remember this?

I got his point, absolutely, but I also remember being rather irritated by this article because he is speaking ONLY to middle class to upper class people here. Maybe, possibly, just a little bit lower middle class. Anybody below that income level he seems to have no clue about. When you have two jobs and two kids and are just barely scraping by, "roasting a chicken with potatoes for an hour while you help your kid with their geometry or do laundry" is so far out of the bounds of their reality...

Not gonna get into this. *Deep breath* But Dan, you remember my article about "being poor like me" from Bitch PhD. You know where I'm coming from.

Melissa said...

My apologies for the ramble. Remembering the holiday week of 2009 got me all tense and worked up. Ugh.

Daniel said...

Melissa, I actually applauded him for the "I call bullshit" article. Yes, it's from the standpoint of a middle class person, sure. And yes, it can be read as, well, a tad elitist (however, it is the Huffington Post after all).

But the thing is, I see many, many people who are in a perfectly good position to cook at home use the "he's being classist" excuse as just another excuse for them not to take action. That's nothing more than excuse-making by proxy (What I mean by that: making an excuse for yourself on behalf of a theoretical disadvantaged person who theoretically struggles with advice that's really for you and that you should follow). I don't by any means lump you into this group, but I see many other bloggers and blog readers use this by-proxy excuse as a reason for not taking action.

This subject has been on my mind lately (and it's off topic from this post, so apologies for that), and I'll have a post series coming up in early August that explores this concept in more detail.


Melissa said...

I totally get what you're saying here Dan. I do! And I know you don't lump me in that. Been readin' ya and talkin' to ya long enough. ;) Look forward to seeing more about this in August!

chacha1 said...

Dan, I can't wait for the "excuse-making-by-proxy." That is so brilliant.

Re: Mr. Snob and the CF, I just think it's kind of sad that some people, when they get educated and broaden their horizons, forget how to see and enjoy the entire continuum of their experience.

The last, best thing we've had (or done) is not the only good thing on Earth.

As for the big portions ... frankly, I appreciate being able to go and order a dish of hyperpalatable goodness that will feed me two or three times. Splitting the dish also, obviously, makes a big dent in the calorie count. When traveling? Just order an appetizer. It's not rocket science.

Anonymous said...

I have gluten intolerance, and I know of chains that will accomodate that. That means that I'll choose them over an expensive restaurant that will fix me a plate of lettuce, and call that a gluten free meal.

Yes, chain restaurants offer up large servings of hyperpalatable food. I know how much I can safely eat (I'm also diabetic) and the rest goes into a takeout container. I don't need to cook the next day! And, sometimes, all you want is the comfort of the familiar, and someone to serve it up to you.

the michelin project said...

Very good point. A meal doesn't always have to be rigorous to the T just to be worthy and enjoyable, and it's nice to be able to mentally check out from whether or not the food preparation was 'this' or 'that', and simply just enjoy a meal for what it is. In fact, I had a similar, strange epiphany at the Olive Garden once -- posted about the experience on yelp, and endured a good amount of chiding one afternoon.
I think we all have preconceived notions about places like the Cheesecake Factory (Ruhlman's are just a lot more in the open). It's just important to look at the bigger picture when it comes to food, and it's nice to know that Ruhlman ate his words, and this all ended in a seemingly light hearted manner.

Anonymous said...

And sometimes you have been camping and haven't showered in a week (until you checked into the hotel and washed your hair 4 times before dinner) and you just want something familiar. My husband and I always hit up either red lobster or olive garden after a long camping trip for something familiar. Which one depends on what's available and if we are craving cheddar bay biscuits (that I have mad at home) or bread sticks (can't replicate OG on those yet). We frequent those types of restaurants maybe once/twice a year otherwise. Sometimes chain food goodness is the best thing ever. We rarely eat out at home. I have more fun cooking it, and lobster costs alot less when it cooks on our grill vs theirs.

galnoir said...

I just returned from a nine-day road trip/vacation, and we left with the best of intentions of eating only in the best local restaurants. I searched Urbanspoon for recommendations for each leg of our trip -- not high-end restaurants, but quality, cheap, local eats. I had places marked on a Google Map that I'd created especially for the trip.

Reality: Most of the cheap, local eats are in the heart of a city. The chains cluster at the interstates. When you've been on the road for eight hours, it's storming, it's rush hour, you don't know the city, and the roads are a confusing mess, you may not want to then navigate your way to the heart of the city for local eats. You just want to get to the nearest place where you know you will get a half-decent meal. And that is how we ended up at a Ruby Tuesday on the way home. Local? No. Quality? Questionable. But my salmon was reasonably tasty, and I do have a weakness for their salad bar (which has real vegetables, and not just iceberg lettuce and fake bacon bits).

That said, we did find one local gem in Nashville, just by being willing to drive up and down and find something that looked promising. Well, okay, Charlie Bob's looks like a bit of a dive. But the food is to die for. If you're ever in Nashville, go to Charlie Bob's. And holler Sandy; she'll take amazing care of you.

Daniel said...

Galnoir raises a good point--finding good, local eats on the road can be frustrating, and it can take up quite a bit of travel time. And agreed that the chain restaurants and other "convenience foods" are, unsurprisingly, the most convenient to the highway too. I'll see if I can write up a post on this subject to help readers.

Thanks for spurring the idea!


Anonymous said...

Ruhl and friends made me think "Oh boo hoo rich people. You feel sad because Americans eat this way. " Does this attitude help folks try new foods? No. Is Ruhlman and friends going places to teach families to cook? No. We try to eat at local establishments but as someone pointed out - you can end up with crap there too.

Little Les said...

Never heard of Ruhlman, and he's never heard of me, but I thought the possum comment was hilarious!

James said...

Leeches and restaurant critics have an awful lot in common.

Daniel said...

Anonymous: There are lots of things I like about Ruhlman, but in this case, yes, I agree with you, the condescension here does not help.

Little Les: Maybe. I'd argue that it would have been much funnier if it were said privately in the restaurant, rather than shouted across the internet.

James: What's interesting to me in this particular case is Ruhlman actually liked the food. Yet for some reason, he felt like he still needed to project all this condescension and elitism, not just in what he wrote, but in his behavior in the restaurant. It makes no sense to me.


Anonymous said...

Great advertising for CF. I never wanted to go before but now am totally giving it a try...

Conor @ Hold the Beef said...

An interesting read, and a good reminder for me to keep my own food snobbery in check.

Surely it can't *really* come as a surprise that some of these chain places actually turn out nicely palatable food? I am not familiar with Ruhlman but it seems that he doesn't have a high opinion of the palates of the general public, and this may be warranted in many respects, but it must be clear that these places are doing something right in terms of flavour.

I must admit to having a craving for pasta now (bad pasta?)

Daniel said...

Conor, thanks for your comment. Clearly it was a shocking surprise to Ruhlman.


wosnes said...

"Ruhl and friends made me think 'Oh boo hoo rich people. You feel sad because Americans eat this way.'"

There's a world of difference between wealthy people and food snobs. The two don't go hand in hand.

Two of the wealthiest men in our community, among Forbes 400 richest Americans, routinely eat at the CF here. On the other hand, I have two solidly middle-class friends. One wouldn't set foot in it because it's a chain and the other thinks it's too uppity (and she doesn't know about the two wealthy guys eating there!).

Daniel said...

Wosnes, thanks for a very intriguing point. Ruhlman's pretentions may not actually the pretentions of "the rich"--rather they are the pretentions of middle-class or upper middle-class people who suffer from pretentiousness.

Readers, roll that over in your mind for a minute and tell me your thoughts and reactions.