I wrote this musing about what I do, or rather, what the company I work for is doing, some time ago but didn’t yet feel comfortable about where to put it or how I felt about it. After this week’s paltry excuse for an article in the Eater on the subject however (and my amazing co-worker’s reaction to said piece) I can’t help but at least start with something, as I’m sure I at least gave it more thought than that person did.
The Taste of a Story
Before dinner service a chef sits down at the table with his staff, over a meal, and begins his story. The cooks, the servers, the bussers, the host and the dishwashers all listen as a dish gets passed around. The chef talks about their inspiration, maybe a recent trip they took to Portugal, the Philippines or Kentucky, or maybe a dish their grandmother used to make every year for their birthday or maybe about the effort they are making to perfect the ideal version of a familiar food. Filled with this story, the staff shares and tastes the dish. As they chew they think about what the chef has said, what he is trying to achieve with the combination of flavors he’s put before them, and then they make their assessment. This is commensality, the act of sharing a meal together, of exchanging sensory memories and emotions and of substances, bringing to life memory and feeling (Seremetakis, 2008). Armed with this narrative and taste they prepare for a night of past-paced night of service on the dining room floor.
How many diners will get to hear this explanation and share this experience?
As tables turn and lines form out the door, the server has no time to transmit the chef’s story to the guest and certainly not the story behind each dish they order, or of the hand-crafted wood floors or antique clock they discovered in the restaurant’s basement. But what if you could?
As humans, with our large brains and penchant for language, we innately know that stories are important. Narratives not only help us to string together the events of our own lives, defining our person, but they also work to create shared understandings among us, forging bonds and representing cohesion across the social world. Stories give us a way to relate to others and to paint a picture of a reality that might otherwise be difficult to explain. All human societies have histories of folklore; the first histories were oral and many cultures still have strong oral cultures today. Award-winning journalists are usually those whose reporting is the most personal. People yearn for stories because they express connection and enhance our reality.
Then there’s food, eating, dining. Food culture in the United States has changed drastically over the last decade. In regard to restaurants, diners have become more savvy, more open-minded and more curious than ever before. We often go into restaurants with pre-conceived ideas about the food based on a repertoire of experiences we’ve had before. These affect our expectations and alter how we experience our meal. What if we were able to, rather than knowing what Sally has to say about it on Yelp or John B. on Bon Appetite, sit down with the chefs themselves before dining in their restaurant? You may not be able to sit down and eat the day’s speciality along with the chef, like his staff, but can that human experience of commensality be transmitted through a story?
We know that our lives are filled with stories that connect us, we know too that food, and the sharing of food connects us. Bringing those stories, from the mind and the lips of a chef, to the diner help forge an understanding that connects us to the chef, to the food and to others who have shared that story and that meal. And, since our sense of taste is as cultural as it is a biological function, we get to experience that connection through each bite. This is what you call synesthesia, or a union of the senses; this is the power of story. It is building these social links between diners and the chefs, by understanding who they are and why they do what they do, that we can enhance and strengthen our community through food.
Recently, Kristen Hawley, writer on food and technology, had this to say as part of her article, “Technology and the Future of Dining Out”:
The best ideas combine elements of all of the above concepts into well-designed, interesting, and useful packages. They use technology to heighten our awareness and break down barriers. They apply technology to all of the elements of dining out to enhance — or even improve — the experience.
New ideas and products should enhance the human experience of eating while respecting and honoring the strong social tradition of dining out. Restaurants work hard to create a memorable and enjoyable experience for customers; associated technology should be an extension of this important work.
Chefs, whether naturally gregarious or on the shy side, are passionate about their food, including the entire restaurant experience that surrounds it. This is why they take the time to sit down with their restaurant family to tell the story behind each item on their menu. What would a window into that world look like? How would it change your experience of dining at that restaurant? With all that understanding, what else could you taste in the food, see in the atmosphere or feel from the story’s memory?
This is what Ellen is building – a place to honor both the guest and the chef, something she has done for her entire life and knows more about than possibly anyone else. And now, she’s using the best tools of our day to forge that memorable connection. This is what media can be.