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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Christoph Ribbat's cultural history of the restaurant

Ribbat’s characters know the industry inside out, thus he sees it from a refreshingly broad variety of angles

Chef Anthony Bourdain from New York in Sydney Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Chef Anthony Bourdain from New York in Sydney Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Anthropologists David Beriss and David Sutton declared the restaurant the “ideal postmodern institution”. As Christoph Ribbat puts it in his book In the Restaurant: Society in Four Courses: “To them, this is where everything that interests students of culture comes together: production, consumption, exchange, the sensory, the symbolic, the local and the global.”

The book cover of In the Restaurant: Society in Four Courses
The book cover of In the Restaurant: Society in Four Courses

Ribbat’s fascinating work of narrative non-fiction, which is beautifully translated from the original German by Jamie Searle Romanelli, is evidence of these anthropologists’ claim in action. To describe Ribbat’s work as a cultural history of the restaurant is to only scratch its surface. Ostensibly, this is what he has produced; but he has approached the subject in a truly innovative manner, by means in large part of a collection of vignettes focused on an extremely broad cast of characters, each of whom has their own story to tell about all things gastronomic.

Ribbat’s characters know the industry inside out, thus he sees it from a refreshingly broad variety of angles. From the calm glory of the dining room to the manic hustle and bustle behind the scenes. There is the perfection of elBulli’s artichoke rose-petal dish – the cooked petals of imported Ecuadorean eco-roses, blanched, refreshed in ice-water, then arranged on the plate in the shape of a rose, but smell and taste like artichoke – Ferran Adrià’s “techno-emotional cuisine” at its finest. And the unsanitary filth and grime of Paris’s Auberge de Jehan Cottard in the 1930s, as exposed by none other than George Orwell in his first novel Down and Out in Paris and London having moved to the French capital to write, he finds himself making a living as a plongeur, the lowest-of-low kitchen hand.

Magnus Nilsson’s restaurant Fäviken, in the wilds of Sweden, showcases New Nordic cooking, a cuisine based on ideas of “sincerity, authenticity and nurturing tradition” that uses seasonal, freshly sourced ingredients, scavenged, picked or slaughtered by Nilsson himself as close as possible to serving them to his guests. The diners, somewhat ironically, will have travelled hundreds of miles, more often than not by plane, to dine in his exclusive 14-head establishment in the middle of nowhere. And there is also the rice, bean and cornflour stew that Faith Muthoni cooks daily over an open fire and serves to her customers on plastic plates found in the huge Nairobi rubbish dump next to which she lives. As Ribbat explains it, “In the restaurant as a narrowly limited space, people collide with people and ideas with ideas”. Whole worlds are contained therein.

It is therefore no coincidence that he begins the book with the story of Frances Donovan in Chicago in 1917. When Ribbat introduces us to Donovan, she is walking door-to-door in the city, searching for a job as a waitress. What she isn’t telling her potential employers is that she is a guerrilla sociologist using the city as her laboratory. The results of her research will be published three years later as the monograph The Woman Who Waits: “the first academic study of the modern waitress”. In investigating this figure – a woman characterised by questionable personal hygiene and bad teeth, but one with a “free spirit”, unafraid of life – Donovan also spills the secrets of the kitchens she works in: more often than not they’re rat-infested, dirty and full of human “scum”.

When Orwell does the same 13 years later, he becomes persona non grata in the hospitality world. His book, on the other hand, is a huge success, both commercially and critically: a “vivid picture of an apparently mad world” praises The Times Literary Supplement. It makes sense that readers would love this behind the scenes, warts-and-all portrait of a world that makes every effort to show a clean, gleaming façade of perfection.

The culinary world is one of stark contrasts. There’s something of a parallel here to be drawn with Ribbat’s discussion of elBulli. It is not this three-Michelin-starred establishment’s hygiene that’s in question – not that those stars are any defence against dirt: the infamous 2009 norovirus outbreak traced to Heston Blumenthal’s world famous establishment The Fat Duck, the home of molecular gastronomy, also makes an appearance in Ribbat’s pages. Instead, it is the disparity between the kitchen labour needed to make each rose artichoke or bowl of lentil soup (made from lentils that aren’t lentils, merely teeny, tiny droplets of butter and sesame paste passed through syringes into iced water) and the perfect plate presented to the customer.

The “most creative restaurant in the world” is built on the most boring and dull “cooking” – if we can call them that –procedures: “monotony is the true secret to Adrià’s success”. As Ribbat points out, “no one grows as a chef by pushing 250 sesame-paste-butter-lentils through a syringe with exactly the right amount of pressure”, day in, day out. Nevertheless, the job applications keep on coming.

Food writing is an industry all of its own, and this wouldn’t be any kind of culinary history without reference to the most famous practitioners of this genre. Anthony Bourdain, for example, whose New Yorker essay exposing the secrets of the New York restaurant scene catapulted him to stardom in 1999; and M F K Fisher, the American novelist, dramatist and poet who wrote “sensual culinary essays”. When Fisher was asked why she devoted such attention to writing about food rather than war, love or power, she said “the three most basic human needs – for food, security and love – are so ‘mixed and mingled and intertwined’ that one cannot conceive of one without the other”.

In the Restaurant is a veritable smorgasbord of mouthwatering gastronomic tales, but what is most appetising of all is that it is a new kind of culinary writing. Ribbat’s montage effect is reminiscent of Florian Illies’s wonderful 1913: The Year Before the Storm – a panoramic portrait of a year that shaped the 20th century told via a collection similarly snapshot-like scenes – but unlike any other food writing I have ever come across.

As such, the book’s appeal is deliciously broad, sure to delight everyone from the most knowledgeable foodie to those of us who struggle to boil an egg.

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In the Restaurant: Society in Four Courses
Christoph Ribbat
Translated by Jamie Searle Romanelli
Pushkin Press 

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