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Friday, May 9, 2008

Second City or Late Roman Empire or . . . neither

Posted by on 05.09.08 at 03:42 PM

Steve Rhodes, of the Beachwood Reporter, weighs in on D.T. Max's excellent New Yorker profile of Grant Achatz and his battle with tongue cancer:

The story also says something about Chicago and, perhaps, its bumbled rush to be seen as sophisticated and worthy. "Chicago prides itself on being a city with more daring restaurants than Manhattan," [Max writes]. "The city also has Moto, an Asian-inflected outpost of molecular gastronomy--and the home-town response was unequivocal. The Tribune exalted the very dishes that the Times suggested were contrived or showy, declaring the P. B. & J. opener 'comfort food fit for the Museum of Contemporary Art.'" Which suggests the locals didn't have the guts to say the whole thing is ridiculous for fear of coming off like hayseeds. But whatever. (To be fair, Gourmet did name Alinea the best restaurant in America in 1997.)

OR it suggests that Rhodes, like blinkered Second City sufferers across our fair city, automatically believes in the inherent authority of Frank Bruni and the New York Times over anything anyone in his "hayseed" town might argue. Never mind Bruni's well-documented bias toward the rustic and Italian (not that there's anything wrong with that!). And never mind that New York is hardly a stranger to the mysteries of sous-vide and nitrogen griddles. But most especially, never mind that "Chicago " is not the one in a "bumbled rush to be seen as sophisticated and worldly." "Chicago" did not force Food and Wine, Saveur, Gourmet, or any of the other national food rags to turn their attention to its exploding, innovative dining scene. The international food media has been falling all over itself for the last two years to cover Chicago--a fact easily obtainable, had Rhodes bothered to do any research--thanks to the ahead-of-the-pack convergence here of the two biggest trends of the 'aughts: locavorism and molecular gastronomy--or whatever you want to call it.

(Also, uh, Steve, Alinea wasn't open in 1997, as the NY'er makes clear. The Gourmet accolade came in 2006.)

Elsewhere in the piece Rhodes argues that high-end dining is "decadent and even immoral" given a global food crisis. This hardy perennial of a topic is more interesting, and one that, quite honestly, I'm all over the map on on any given day. (With reason: it might be noted, for example, that Moto's Homaro Cantu firmly believes that molecular gastronomy  can feed the world--in the form of nutrient-enhanced paper and whatnot. Check out this 2006 Fast Company profile for more on that.) But I do think that condemnations of fine dining on "moral" grounds spring from the same sort of reductive romanticization of cultural authenticity that valorizes the Waco Brothers over Beethoven or hip-hop over ballet. That the cultural product in question is food just makes it more complicated, because starving kids don't need music to survive--the closest analogy is actually probably to the fashion industry, which critics routinely disdain as frivolous and amoral (though those critics may well be clad in $12.99 sweatshop-spun Target tees . . . but I digress). The idea that food is a primary need and art and music are secondary luxuries--isn't that what defenders of school arts programs have been fighting against for years? In a diverse, cosmopolitan society isn't there room for both high and low culture, "dehydrated bacon wrapped in apple leather" and hot dogs? Would Rhodes have us seize the CSO's budget to fund the expansionist ambitions of the Empty Bottle?

I often find the excesses of the restaurant industry depressing and disturbing, but temples of mindless conspicuous consumption like Il Mulino are far scarier than a place like Alinea. Achatz is a visionary and an obsessive determined to explore the far frontiers of his chosen medium. If he was a painter, would anyone find that morally offensive?

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