The world has changed. One night we spend our hard-earned dollars on a lovely plate of Grenouilles Provençale at Le Périgord; all of a sudden, it’s 2013 and we’re clamoring for seats at the far more down-home Momofuku Noodle Bar. Instead of a tuxedo’d maitre d’ and tables swathed in tablecloths, we are welcomed by the sight of the kitchen and all the chefs chopping and perspiring within it. Design writer Alison Pearlman noticed this particular sea change, and, like many academic-minded folks, wondered—why?
Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America aims to answer this question. Pearlman tracks trends in restaurant design, food preparation, even the verbiage of menus. She approaches fine dining’s transformation from rarified and stuffy to irreverent and rule-breaking on a grand scale, pointing out a number of recent revolutions that many foodies will recognize: the advent of Alice Water’s groundbreaking Bay Area locale Chez Panisse, the newfound allure of the chef profession, the foie gras-smeared haute burger rat race of the mid-aughts, and the rise of “comfort food” in American parlance.
Pearlman defines her audience before Chapter 1 even begins: “Smart Casual is aimed partly at scholars… and partly at the wider world of restaurant producers and consumers…. Foodies and those who feed them are the main characters in this story, so I hope they will be its readers.” This statement is followed by four chapters of mostly jargon-free analysis of trends in fine dining from 1975 to 2010. Pearlman is not a food writer; she is a design writer and an academic. Thus, she avoids the obvious pitfalls of food writing—overwriting, over-sensualizing, purple prose about purple grapes, that kind of thing—but never manages to capture the joy that comes with eating a good meal at a precisely on-trend locale.
Not that Smart Casual is not a pleasurable read. An exhaustive amount of research has been done, yet the book is slim—Pearlman understands that, to engage the reader, one must be a bit like Wylie Dufresne’s postmodern morsels: potent, and to the point. The most pleasing paragraphs have to do with novelties of language, like the list of articles and cookbooks that reference our beloved “comfort food” (“Now, no diet has been excluded. Weight waters and the nutrition-minded can consult The Low-Carb Comfort Food Cookbook... Alternative dieters can open The Gluten-Free Gourmet Cook’s Comfort Foods), and in the hilarious names of Roy Choi’s dishes: Thick Ass Ice Cream Sandwiches, churros named Chu-Don’t-Know-Mang. Smart Casual takes more pleasure in the language of food than in the food itself.
Still, Pearlman’s acts of synthesis are impressive. Sections that appear unrelated end up knitted together with a deft pair of needles. One section focuses on the rise of “exhibition kitchens”—restaurant design that reveals the work of the chef, but not the drudgery. “At the original Spago in Hollywood, the display kitchen had all of the sexy stuff—the two brick wood-burning ovens, a mesquite grill, and various other cook surfaces for dishes’ final firing,” Pearlman writes. “Meanwhile, a large closed kitchen… concealed less exhibitionistic tools.” Later she weds her theory of the “theater of manual labor” to the rock-star-ification of chef’s work, á la Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Chefs do unglamorous prep work in the back but put the “sexy stuff” on full display; likewise, readers gobble up kitchen confidentials without having to endure the long hours and backaches of actual chefs. Pearlman concludes:
“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. They work like war stories on those who weren’t there. Readers…can coexist with the leisure script of restaurant display kitchens.”
After all, it’s the leisure class that has embraced and encouraged this new kind of chef-focused, exhibition kitchen, organic, free-range, postmodern, anti-fine-dining trend. Richard Florida’s theory of the creative class—educated, diversity-embracing, city-dwelling folk are culturally dominant—gets a lot of play here. The creative class rejects mass-produced food and turns to organic food; the creative class traffics in ideas but feels a certain longing toward hard labor, thus glamorizing chefs and their drudgery; the creative class, seeking diversity, aspires to omnivorous taste, but at the same time craves the “comfort foods” of yore.
The actual delight of eating food remains somewhere off to the side (M.F.K. Fisher is referenced but never really invoked), remembered in bursts but overshadowed by the academic logic that pervades the book. “Academic” does not equal stuffy, and Pearlman delivers her well-shined pearls of wisdom with a pleasant looseness. It’s almost as if the contemporary aversion toward stuffiness in dining has infiltrated the prose—and is that so bad? After all, most people aren’t mourning the figurative death of the snooty maitre d’. After finishing this book, I felt like I had absorbed just enough information—I wasn’t stuffed, but I felt pleasantly full.