What possesses people to willingly open a restaurant is beyond normal comprehension. The amount of money spent to give one of these unaerodynamic giants lift for even a minute far outweighs what they pay out in years. Famously, the odds are against the restaurateur.
People trade a perfectly functional life punching in and out wherever to worry about the Styrofoam take-out reserves at 3:30am, to put marker lists of vegetables on their hands in public, to wonder if some seventeen year old drop out will show up for their crucial dish shift this afternoon.
The average folk misunderstands when they think opening a restaurant is just another entrepreneurial venture. It’s a disfiguring disease deeper than blood. The usual circadian rhythms are replaced by cartoon coyotes chasing cartoon roadrunners. Important social skills include managing a wolf pack and smiling at an old bag that’s telling you where to go. Every clock runs five minutes fast to provoke a sense of urgency. An obsession with control coincides with being completely at the mercy of variables.
Somewhere inside of this mutation, however, there are moments. Not moments of normal humanity as the others experience them though: they are moments of triumph. A gamble with the restaurateurs life is paid back, sometimes exceedingly, in strange joy.
The question of what food is haunted the 20th century. The West reduced it down to nothing, it was a problem to be solved. At it’s most fundamental food is simply calories and nutrients – the building blocks of life, and the fuel to keep it going. A strong intellectual current since the so-called Enlightenment has fought to relegate it to be merely that. Ready in ten minute prepared foods pack the grocery store, the unit of the meal has become anti-social grab-and-go. Sustaining oneself is a chore, too regular, too consistent to give much thought to. In this modern Utopian vision, we will use all the time we’ve saved preparing meals and cleaning up after ourselves to build an ideal society.
This repressive vision of food consumption has taken over. From the energy bar to the fruit smoothy, everything is presented as an amorphous complete. This single block of grains and nuts contains all of the fiber, energy, and nutrients that a 180lb male needs to keep going for the entire morning – just add coffee: instant human.
Whether this is dystopia or truly revolutionary is still up for debate. Past societies were structured in a way where the individual family had to spend proportionately more time growing or acquiring, preparing and processing the food they were going to eat. All of that time freed up is dedicated to other things. The bureaucratic structure, the modern rat-race, exists because people don’t have to constantly tend the struggle to eat. That part has been made easy through modernity. Now over-consumption of calorie rich foods is the growing problem, surpassing starvation and malnutrition as the food-related health crisis in the developed world.
A response to this has begun to emerge, seeing in simple, home-grown foods all of life’s answers. Echoing Hippocrates, the notion has become popular that food is medicine. Pure, natural, plant-based diets, low on refined foods, and free of pesticides are lauded as a panacea, promising to aid with everything from arthritis to terminal cancer. Still, unable to find time to create this diet by their own hands, people that subscribe to it put their faith in the label makers. It’s a market of standards councils and certification bodies. These people can come across as born-again fanatical with their search for holistic healthy foods. They wave the kale in the air, screaming: “Can somebody promise me that what I’m doing is not fucked?”
With all that time freed up to earn money with, a class of professional cook has emerged to cater to the appetite of the middle class. People prepare less and less food for themselves at home, and yet seem to have more and more of an obsession with what they eat and where they eat. Social media has created an atmosphere of food fetishism and food elitism that pervades society, from the poor to the very rich. Side by side with a culture of increasingly picky eaters runs a current of food exhibitionists that brag and demonstrate how varied their diet is and how bottomless their hunger is for strange and new things. The pendulum swings back from the 20th century obsession with cheap, easy, and mass produced food goods toward an equally unhealthy voyeuristic fixation with eating trendy and new things.
At the same time concurrent trends run side-by-side: unhealthy diets stemming from easily accessible, cheap, prepared food; sensualistic foodyism, seeking foodtainment and delicious thrills; and a moralistic food religiosity, seeking organic one-with-the-earth health purity sold at a premium. The chef – awe inspiring because they can do the thing that the rest of the society has forgotten, cook – is willing to feed any of these appetites at whatever price. There are more McDonalds in the world than ever; trendy new restaurants popping up in any community that will support them with patronage; and raw, organic health conscious establishments sprouting wherever wants them. Somehow, with all of these different food trends, they still rarely address the questions of food’s importance in a traditional sense. Many preparations from modern chefs resemble the painter rolling their naked body in paint and hurling themselves at the canvas, or painfully constructing a cathedral with parts from a toaster.
Granted, food is all it seems that anyone ever is talking about, so the urge to make a risky investment in the form of a restaurant seems natural if one wants to be part of the conversation.
“If you heard me, my brother, and Ricky talking about it when we were younger, you’d probably think these guys should never open a restaurant.” Chris never has a shortage to say on the topic of food. “We’d say that we fried chicken done our way, potato salad, all kinds of Lao dishes…”
“My puttanesca was supposed to be on the original menu,” Charlie says.
“We’d always talk about what we’d do when we opened a restaurant. The surprising thing is probably that we did it.”
Last Saturday Laohaus threw its second anniversary party. We planned about what to do for the week leading up to it, although admitted most of it would probably happen on the fly. The theme, if there was one, would be a block party barbecue. For ten days following the party the restaurant would be closed for Chris and Charlie to attend a wedding out West, so the party would be a way to clear the fridges of perishable goods while giving back to the restaurants supporters. In typical fashion, just a bit of word-of-mouth consisted of all of the advertising.
Would-be customers trickled in through the afternoon, informed they were barred from ordering off the menu. Instead, they were given a paper plate and told to make up a free plate of BBQ and fried rice from a table full of food. People could buy drinks and leave a donation if they felt like it.
As evening approached, more and more people came out with the intention of supporting their favorite restaurant. Three guys came out from Hamilton – not a short drive – to show love. “We always support our culture.” Soon the doors closed to the public as the private party commenced. The front dining room, kitchen, and back filled up with close Lao friends and family, regular customers, and a snapshot of some of Stratford’s best culinary talent, everyone eating, drinking and having a good time.
“You have a great thing here,” Gilad, of Stratford’s respected Bruce Hotel, told Charlie as Charlie made a carbonara for his guests. “Many people think that this will happen when they open a restaurant. Look around: people are here, with you, having a good time. The reality in most cases is that everyone disappears.”
Perhaps a clue to answering the question “what is food?” is to examine its context. Good food is made all over the world, but usually rooted inside the traditions of a community. The makers of food are doing it to provide sustenance for the people they love. It’s nourishing, not only in the sense that it provides people with the necessary calories to continue working: it provides people with a reason to come together and reflect on their shared experience. Making food gives people a reason to show people what they know, and to have the honor of providing for another. In Classical Greek literature, Zeus was praised as “the god of guests” and the way one showed devotion to him was through hospitality. In its right context, the good cook is as devoted to the care-taking of those around them. Underneath the trappings of modern foodyism, what separates the real cooking for the fake is the cook revealing themselves through the cooking, and their sense of responsibility for the customer’s well-being. You know eating real food that its real; no trends and no gimmicks.