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Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Time Event
5:26p
Brothels for the Mouth?
So, I found this up at the dollar store. In my “previous life” in PR, I worked in the consumer products end of the food industry, and we did a lot of functions, soirees, and events involving hotels, restaurants, Chefs, etc., and part of me is always nostalgic for that world. I figured that Trevor White's Kitchen Con: Writing on the Restaurant Racket would be a fun walk through those synapses, at least as presented by this author. However, being that the book was a “chance encounter” (and not a planned or recommended acquisition), I did the always-embarrassing skulk over to Amazon to get the broad strokes on its content, and see what other people were saying about it. I was shocked to find that this book was averaging a mere two stars, with some folks outright savaging it. Needless to say, this produced some trepidation when approaching it, but, having read and enjoyed it, I have come to the conclusion that the review page over on Amazon has become the stage for a particular piece of performance art … with a barrage of nasty one-star reviews being countered by a couple of five-star reviews, with one by somebody who claims to have actually married Mr. White, and saying that the negative voices were coming from “bitter restaurateurs, desperately trying to get their own back on a well-known food critic” … the author himself, in his biographical note, outright says that he was urged to seed the reviews with fake postings, which lends yet another level to the strangeness there. My guess is that it's all “theater”, but I suppose it could be a mix of that and vindictive restaurateurs, but it's not your average review page!

This is not a book that takes itself overly seriously. It is, generally speaking, a memoir of the author's experience as a restaurant critic in the UK (where the publishing biz is a blood sport). White was a child of reasonably well-to-do parents, who sent him off to boarding school (and so gave him a grounding in really bad food), and then “forced him to eat in most of the great restaurants in France” thus providing him with sufficient experiences to recognize really good food. Beyond this, they endeavored to open a gourmet restaurant in Dublin when he was in his teens, in which he was somewhat reluctantly employed. He is constantly brushing off the suggestion that he knows anything about food (and certainly nothing about cooking), which sets up many of his musings on the industry as a whole. I found the following passage (originating from a story of a junket with other food critics later on) rather arch:

In seventy-two hours, I had acquired some allies, a delicate head, and a little understanding. In a hotel bed, alone, when all they can hear is the distant flushing of a loo, critics know what they do is more of a scam than a proper occupation. If humans earned prizes for ingenuity, getting paid to consume good food and wine would merit some special award. Cooks who moonlight as critics cannot quite believe their luck, and the rest of us think their dream will end in the morning. No wonder we're all so insecure.
While Kitchen Con does have an arc, it's not exactly a linear telling of a story. The author starts with defining a few things, talking about the history of the modern restaurant and the discussion and writing about food (with some choice bits from Samuel Johnson in the 1760's), and the development of the food business as opposed to subsistence, and then gets into his story, from his initial badgering of a local magazine to give him a column, on to writing for In Dublin and Food & Wine, and eventually his own not terribly successful The Dubliner.

The first half of the book is largely contained within the UK, and so the names being named: critics, publishers, politicians, chefs, restaurateurs, hotels and restaurants, don't have the warm fuzzy aura of recognition (for me) as were they the fabled notables of the New York culinary scene, for instance. There certainly is enough “general” dirt being dished that the exercise is not without its own guilty pleasures, but it's not as fun a ride as it might have been. Nobody comes off particularly well here, as there is certainly enough deserved snark to go around, and White is all too willing to dish this up by the ladle-full. Again, he too is subject to this, most notably in his New York years when he was pulled in on a book project marketed to the ultra-rich (or those who wished to take on those airs). This was an indulgent tumult of extreme luxe events and dining, but ultimately a failure that had him headed back to Ireland to lick his wounds and start his own project … “There is a business with a higher failure rate than restaurants. I know because I left a well-paid job, crossed an ocean, and re-mortgaged my home in order to enter that business.” … this, of course (ask me to show you my emotional scars sometime), was publishing.

It appears at the 2/3rds mark in the book (end of Part 1) that the author had a bit of a breakdown, and he seems (the linearity here is a bit thin) to have wandered around the world as a journalist for a spell. It also seems that the remaining third of the book was composed later, and has some odd material, such as an extensive interview with Travel Channel star Anthony Bourdain, who is reported as being perfectly OK with White essentially cribbing the title of Kitchen Con from Bourdain's “Kitchen Confidential”. Much of the last third of the book could be dismissed as “navel gazing” by the author, but I think it would be kinder to call it “reflections on the industry” (inclusive of some rather damning tidbits about the guide book business, where visits to the places reviewed are frequently spaced many years apart, if not simply amalgamated from other sources!). Oddly enough, the book ends on something of a high note … it turns out that the last-minute desperation move of publishing a book of White's restaurant reviews became quite successful, and saved his magazine.

Anyway, this was an odd book, but an enjoyable read for me … as I guess it would be for anybody who has an enthusiasm for restaurants, etc. Despite my finding this on the dollar store shelf, it does appear to still be in print, or at least available via the on-line guys (at a rather deep discount). If you enjoy "foodie reading" do find a copy, as it's an interesting, if disjointed, read … and certainly not deserving of all those one-star reviews!


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