The Week in Food [1-2-2017]
The NYT reviews Locol, the Golden Era is over, and those Jack in the Box tacos live on.
January 6, 2017 ● 4 min read
You survived the first week of 2017! Here what you might have missed:
Ravaged, Savaged, Blasted: NYT Critic Pete Wells Reviews Locol Oakland
We'll start with the biggie. On Tuesday, January 3, The New York Times published the latest from restaurant critic Pete Wells on the do-good fast-food endeavor from Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, Locol. Whether or not you believe reviewers still "matter" or maintain a power to determine our tastes and our fates, Wells's first-ever gift of zero stars seemed an unsettling strike aimed at those who need it least. The Los Angeles Times compared it to booing an elementary school musical.
The most revealing thing about the review is not, in fact, the review itself — which reads as the usual litany of critiques and mild zings leading into more aggressive ones, in classic Pete Wells fashion — but the immediate aftermath. From a measured and positive response from Roy Choi to not-so-measured responses from others, the industry began to circle the wagons, exactly the way it did when Wells set his sights on Thomas Keller and the team at Per Se last January. Cooks will always protect their own under fire, but this time was different — no disaffected diners mad at Per Se's stuffy price-tag, calling for the end of the out-of-touch luxe experience — because Locol is different. The larger point of Locol lies outside the scope of a traditional restaurant review, and it's as far away from debates about the star system as you can get. We won't make any grand claims about the lasting cultural effects of this ill-timed diatribe, but it certainly felt indicative of this new era between press and public.
If you only read three sentences:
“I don’t know of any other fast-food chain that has put street culture at the heart of its locations in this way. The closest most of them come to design that reflects the surroundings is a wall of bulletproof glass.”
“...Mr. Patterson and Mr. Choi have to figure out the menu. I understand why they want to take on fast food, but in the neighborhoods they hope to reach it’s one of the few kinds of food available. Why offer less satisfying versions of what’s already there, when they could be selling great versions of something new?”
“It is a restaurant, though, and it is run by two chefs who are famous for cooking food that people really, really want to eat. I had a hard time remembering that as I worked my way through Locol’s menu, where appeals to your appetite are about as scarce as chicken in the no-noodle soup.”
Andrew Testa for The New York Times
In Happier News Across the Pond: It's Just Food, So "Eat What You Love"
Perhaps no one noticed because of the bombshell above, but on the very same day, The New York Times also published a profile of Ruby Tandoh by the great Tejal Rao. Tandoh, a 24-year old food writer in Britain, is best known for her appearance on "The Great British Bake-Off" but appears here as a testament to what you might call the good old days of food — when it was championed for the enjoyment it brought, not warped into shadowy diet versions of itself. It's a quick, uplifting read, and a good reminder that sometimes, especially in this month of restriction and high-falutin' dictums, it's okay to chase flavor.
"Ms. Tandoh [...] doesn’t endorse a set of rules by which you should shop, cook and eat. Instead, she champions the miscellaneous delights, the quiet quotidian pleasures, of cooking without rules."
"'The language of some of our most beloved food writers has gone from flavor and feasting to cleanness and lightness,' Ms. Tandoh lamented in an essay written for Vice U.K. last year. Taking a closer look at the trends toward gluten-free and sugar-free foods, toward clean eating and wellness, she found a moralizing and restrictive message sometimes hiding between the lines, making unscientific promises about the benefits of certain foods and the damage caused by others."
Jason Hoffman for Thrillist
In Maybe Not So Great News: Apparently The "Golden Era" Of Restaurants Is Over?
This Thrillist piece about the impending restaurant bubble burst technically closed out 2016, but was everywhere we looked this week. Hyperbolic in its execution, it does contain a few very important notes about the numbers and margins that come with running a restaurant — important mental fodder for everyone who eats to consider — but it, along with every other dissection published in the last few years, doesn't answer the one question we'd ask: what exactly can chefs and cooks and everyone in between do in the face of such overwhelmingly pessimistic evidence? When does the construction of the next great era in dining begin? Who builds it?
"One of the unintended consequences of the Golden Age of Restaurants was unreasonable customer expectations for virtually every eating experience. "Customers now think life should be one endless brunch," says New Orleans' chef Cullen. "With freshly made bottomless mimosas." It is no longer impressive that things are local, farm-sourced, and handmade — it's expected. But, as Cullen explains, the rise of the Golden Age "scratch kitchen" (in which everything is made in-house), long a point of pride for fine-dining kitchens, isn't usually financially realistic in the more casual kitchens."
If you really want to deep dive, there's a part one and a part two to this story.
And Yes, Those Tacos are Still a Thing
"More than 1,000 times a minute," the Wall Street Journal's Russell Adams writes, "someone bites into what has been described as a wet envelope of cat food—and keeps eating." If you want to know how the hell Americans eat 554 million Jack in the Box tacos every year, you best read this.
Until next week.