In the Restaurant: Society in Four Courses
Pushkin Press, 2018
While the practice of making food for sale to others dates back as far as the human race (apparently the Egyptians were really into street food), the concept of a restaurant — a place where people were seated and served food and drink, then left when the meal was done — exists within Western society for only about the past 250 years. Started in France as a place to buy and consume restorative dishes such as soup, the concept grew and modernized over the centuries.
Of course, there are so many stories, so many chefs, so many food writers, that it’s impossible to talk about them all, but Christoph Ribbat gives it his best effort, interweaving stories of chefs, servers, writers, activists, and even sociologists studying parts of the restaurant industry into one book full of the most poignant stories and events.
Readers may find Ribbat’s style disconcerting. While still moving chronologically, he jumps from place to place, person to person, and restaurant to restaurant, interlacing the story of sociologist Frances Donovan writing about waitresses in 1917 with the first Parisian restaurants in the 1760s. I actually quite enjoyed this format; the reader is not bored by the unnecessary biographies and details of the chefs or servers featured, but is given the meat of the matter in a quick and concise format. Ribbat expects the reader to be familiar with most of the individuals mentioned, but for the most part we are, so it’s all good, and for those whose names we don’t immediately recognize, he does a good job of telling their story in a succinct manner. This felt like the written version of a Julien Temple documentary, with quick cuts and intense imagery. Paired with a cool soundtrack and some grainy historical footage worked in between vignettes, this would actually make a great documentary film.
Ribbat moves the story of restaurants forward by including pieces about Sartre setting up a pseudo office in his favourite cafe, George Orwell working as a dishwasher, Jacques Pepin as a young apprentice, a young Gael Green having sex with Elvis and then ordering him a fried egg sandwich from room service, the first meeting of Hitler henchmen Goring and Goebbels across a restaurant table, the civil rights protests at southern US lunch counters, and a discussion of the emotional labour required to work in a job as a server where you’re expected to smile all the time, usually for very little pay.
Like any documentary, there’s more left out than what gets included but when you look at the massive amount of information Ribbat had to work with, I think he curated the work in a very sharp and concise manner, touching on the most important aspects of the restaurant business (racism, classism, sexism, food activism), both historically and looking forward to the future.
In the final chapter Ribbat moves away from the disparate, inter-cut stories to a more academic tone in which he discusses why he chose to present the work in this format. This feels slightly unnecessary, even with his assertion that the tales and anecdotes presented may be taken (or presented) out of context, they work together to form a cohesive story with a strong, shared theme. He might be undermining his own work here because, while the various stories all spliced together feel a bit like a very delicious rock video, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just as the restaurant progresses through the ages with changing tastes and trends and the adaptation of modern technology, so too does they way we discuss, remember, and analyze the restaurant industry.
With thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley, this book was reviewed from an Advance Reader Copy and may not include exactly the same content or format when published.