Saturday, February 18, 2012

It's Lonely in The Modern World

Have you ever noticed that all the photos in design/lifestyle magazines are full of sterile, minimalist settings and populated with unsmiling people in unrealistic, contrived poses? If so, then you are going to love “It’s lonely on the Modern World,” written by Molly Jane Quinn and illustrated by Jenna Talbott. It’s an essential guide to understanding self-serious, elitist, sometimes-pretentious designers, architects, artists and the folks that emulate, follow and consume what they produce. A handsome, funny book that is satire at it’s best. It might confuse you at first, because the book appears to be a serious design guide. A Dwell subscriber might even be tempted to buy a copy for the coffee table. Delving in a little further, it becomes clear that there is good information here, with illuminating facts about movers and shakers in the design world. With rye wink, Jenna, Molly and their hilarious captions are in fact, as the British say: “taking the piss” out of arty Dwell photos and high-end toilet comparisons.
    As someone who takes his art seriously, and who has been accused of being both elitist and pretentious, encouraging everyone to eat local and to know where our food comes from, I was struck by a realization.  At some point in the design process, while pursuing passion, the appeal of the final product is lost in the ego and singular vision of the artist. The good news is that there is a cure for grand egos: The ability to laugh at yourself. While food is not the focus of Quinn and Talbott’s It’s lonely in the Modern World, if you check out the following YouTube clip, you will see I have been taken to task...

Fortunately, I have the ability to laugh at myself and encourage it in other artists and craftsmen. So, after discovering Jenna’s book and blog,, I was able to track her down through a friend of a friend. As it turns out, her writing partner lives in the epicenter of hipdom, Portland OR, and Jenna lives right here in Boston. Once I explained to Jenna the concept of the “At The Table With…” series, she graciously accepted our invitation to host.
I met with Jenna recently for a cup of coffee at Blue State, near BU, where she works. We discussed the origins of hipsters, the new book, her blog and menu ideas for her dinner.
            In 2006 Jenna and her soon to be co-conspirator, Molly, met while working for an off-shoot of the Boston Globe; a magazine called Design New England. The magazine’s mission: to feature New England’s residential design and architecture. As part of their research, Jenna and Molly poured over piles of Shelter/Dwell type magazines. After a few years of looking at one, after another, of the photographs in these magazines, they noticed that most of the people in the images looked sad, aloof and posed; in minimalist, stuffy poses. They soon came up with the idea of re-captioning the photos with funny, satirical phrases and posting them on their Tumbler blog: “Unhappy Hipsters.”  Within a week the blog went viral, with thousands of hits daily. Eventually, it even caught the attention of Dwell…  Fortunately, they too are able to laugh at themselves, and wrote about the blog as well, drawing more attention to Jenna and Molly’s effort. 
At the time, there were a number of blogs that had parlayed their on-line success into a book, like “Stuff White People Like,” and “Ideas in Food.”  To Jenna and Molly’s surprise, an agent approached them, asking to hash out a book deal. They agreed. 
While reviewing the concept, they realized that they needed to flesh the book out with more than just captioned photos, so they set out to create a book that is not only funny, but informative about designers, architects, style and products. San Francisco based Chronicle Publishing, a neighbor of Dwell, liked the book proposal and contracted it to be written. 16 months later, in October of 2011, the book was released.  Not everyone is gifted with the ability to laugh at oneself and, as such, there has been some backlash to the satire, especially for the use of the word “hipster”.  (The urban dictionary defines hipsters as: “ a composite of individuals with a certain bohemian life situation and lifestyle. He or she rejects ‘mainstream’ culture and embraces and contributes to independent culture, and prides him/herself on this.”)
While the subjects of the photos in the book and blog might not depict actual hipsters, the point that Jenna and Molly intend is that someone that has all the attributes of a hipster: an apathetic, self indulgent dude with an indie attitude, not to mention Buddy Holly glasses, skinny jeans, vintage flannel shirt and ironic John Deer hat is, in fact, following a trend. This type of thinking, where people base their decisions on what to wear, buy and consume on what the crowd around them is buying and consuming, creates an environment where the true value of an object is clouded by the perceived value that has been inflated by the trend. This is why hipsters come across as pretentious. While they cling to an indie culture that looks down on the main stream, they are in fact following an anti-trend.
            While discussing the fact that the people she satires in her book are just people following a trend, and not necessarily hipsters with Jenna, I suggested that she should have called the blog “Unhappy Trendster”, but she demurred, and is sticking with the original title.
Following a trend can come in many forms. In the design world, well-healed trendsters will line up for something based entirely on who designed it, not taking in to account aesthetic comforts or real value. For example, Philippe Starck’s Louis Ghost Chair. It’s made of polycarbonate, looks like something you would see on a patio at a beach house in the pan handle of Florida and is as comfortable as the bench that you sit on while waiting for a bus.

Here is how it is described in an online catalogue: “the playful Louis Ghost Armchair (2002) is a postmodern triumph of technical innovation and historical style. Translating the varied lines and formal geometry of its predecessor into a single form of translucent or opaque black or white injection-molded polycarbonate, it is a robust chair with not a single weak point.”
            We are talking about a plastic chair that costs $400. I could go on and on. But before opening the can of worms of Apple or Whole Foods, I suggest that you all check out Jenna’s book for design-specific things. The question is: how do we apply this concept of poking fun at trends to a five-course dinner. The answer: Pick five of our favorite food trends and then create matching courses for each trend. We came up with the following:

1.Over the top sourcing/farm to table cuisine. As a mea culpa, yes, Season To Taste is guilty as charged. But really the blame lies with the French. As I was trained classically, grounded in Europe and had always looked towards Alice Waters as the vanguard for modern American cuisine, I learned to let ingredients dictate technique when planning menus. Seven years ago, no other full service caterer offered menus with a focus on eating in season/local sourcing. I sensed a gap in the market where we could make our mark and hopefully be a leader in the Boston area for this movement. Reading The Omnivores Dilemma sealed the deal, and STT was born. Of course the West Coast is well ahead of us on this, but local sourcing is a much easier decision when you have access to world class produce year round.

2.Molecular Gastronomy. All hail the kings of technique-based cuisine with their emersion circulators, calcium chloride spherification, emulsifiers and anti-grills. Ferran Adria, Grant Achatz, Wylie Dufresne and José Andrés are masterful magicians using industrial inspired techniques and ingredients to transform the freshest ingredients from all over the world into jaw-dropping, theatrical food art.  Despite my intuition that creating a menu based on parlor trick techniques before ingredients is putting the cart before the horse, the kings are grounded in classic technique and are insanely talented, they make it all work. What about all the pretenders following the trend?  Chef six-pack at the local bistro with visions of grandeur can sear then encase a chicken breast in plastic, let it hang out in a warm water bath for several hours, cool, re-heat to order, cut it out of the plastic, slice, and finally serve with maltodextrin-infused brown butter powder. That might be good on an airplane, but not in a restaurant. I’d rather eat a dirty water hot dog from a food cart, or a properly roasted, crispy skinned and juicy chicken breast with real brown butter.

3. Knock Knock? Who is there? Not the celebrity, multiple-restaurant-owning chef with a tv show and eponymous cookware. Look, I get it. A chef works in a hell-scape of sharp objects, interminable heat, repetitive motions, and endless hours of back breaking work for basically subsistence money, sacrificing any chance for familial relations, all for the chance for a shot at one day owning their own restaurant that has a 76% chance of failing in two years. If, by some chance, a chef’s restaurant is a success, the profit margin on a successful restaurant ranges between 5% and 15%. So, for example, if you own a million dollar restaurant that is run well, you walk away with $150,000, which after taxes is $100,000. Now this is a good chunk of change, and if you live frugally and don’t have culinary school debt, you can have nice place to live, pay for your kid’s school, take a vacation once a year, and hopefully have enough to retire. But wouldn’t it be tempting to open more restaurants? Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could walk away from the fryer or broiler to get paid a pile of money to fly around the world to promote your awesome restaurants/brand? The only thing you have to sacrifice is your integrity, values and dignity. A Faustian bargain for sure, but where does that leave the customer?

4.Tail to Snout or should I say lips to assholes (pun intended)? I understand the logic of serving seared blood sausage topped with crispy lamb brains, stuffed in a pig’s colon. When you take the life of an animal, by knocking it unconscious then slitting its throat and letting it bleed to death, one must honor the animal’s sacrifice by treating the meat it produces with great care and respect. Not a single bit of the dispatched should be wasted, including all the good bits such as the muscles, organs, bones, lips and of course, assholes. If you think about it, does it make sense that we prefer to eat the muscles of an animal and not the organs? Americans prefer muscle tissue, due to that fact that most of us are raised in an industrial society that grinds all the tails and snouts into an emulsified hot dog, bologna, cheeseburger, or peperoni that is then packaged and sold in a fashion that makes it indistinguishable from muscles. I guess I’m a prisoner of the cultural mime that formed my palate, but I get a little grossed out eating lamb brain and think that some chefs just go too far with the trend. I worked for a chef who served fried duck testicle and braised cockscomb. Yes, they were prepared correctly and tasted delicious, but when you bite in to a duck nut there is a popping sensation in your mouth, which is entirely unappetizing and makes me want to cross my legs. Grind and emulsify it, stuff it into a bun and drown it in ketchup... I’m all over it.

5.The Food Network/Food Reality Shows. Anthony Bourdain pretty much owns this gripe and has written extensively about the dumbing down and mainstreaming of the Food Network. So I’m not going to go in to too many details about this. I will say that as much as food and kitchen life is part of the a common narrative across all cultures, it frustrates me that television shows and movies have done such a poor job of capturing the essence of cooking, and of enjoying a great meal in a great restaurant. When will the pirate life of a restaurant be portrayed in a tv show or movie correctly? A movie resplendent with incredible food, homeless dishwashers, transvestite waiters, substance-abusing line cooks, cheating,lying owners, the crazy wealthy regular customer, and finally, the horror of working Sunday brunch service. We all just want something that is real and not “reality”.
Just as Jenna has managed to be creative and still sassy, these five food trends we have mentioned will make there way into a delicious and comical five-course dinner at The Table. Please stay tuned, for our menu will be posted shortly. We look forward to having you join us for an eventful, and as always, satisfying dinner.

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