Packed away in the back of my closet somewhere is a silver spoon from the restaurant Per Se, designed expressly for the purpose of eating foie-gras mousse. It commemorates a nine-course meal cooked by chef Thomas Keller in 2012 for a cabal of American Express premium cardmembers who paid, as best I can recall, close to $1,000 for the privilege of eating food personally cooked by one of the masters of our time.
Earlier that day, a last-minute press invite for the dinner fell in my lap, and who was I, a young and hungry food blogger, to say no? I have a clear memory of the immaculate dinner rolls and nearly gamey grass-fed butter that began the meal; of an eye-opening dessert wine that showed off all the wild things that wine can do; of a foie-gras mousse smooth and rich as gelato. As for the other dishes, and all the pomp and precision that went into making them, all I remember is how unmemorable they tasted. My table companions — a trio of Amex suits chatting quarterly earnings and summer homes — seemed as bored as I was. The dinner stretched over four hours. When it finally ended, a room full of crooning mandarins applauded Keller’s closing remarks and we got our freebie spoons.
I’m reminded of this strange evening thanks to Keller’s tweet that he was “honored” to be asked by Donald Trump to join the White House’s new Great American Economic Revival Industry Group, along with Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Wolfgang Puck. The full list of hospitality-industry representatives is a funny one; Keller and his fine-dining capos are the only representatives of the 11-million-strong independent-restaurant workforce, designated to work alongside the CEOs of McDonald’s, Subway, PepsiCo, and others to restart the American restaurant economy. They will do so in tandem with an administration that has left hospitality workers teetering on destitution, scrounging over an exhausted pittance of the $2 trillion federal stimulus package while the steakhouse chain Ruth’s Chris hoovers up $20 million. This is the same administration that routinely describes the undocumented immigrants who power this economy as dark-skinned invaders, all while its leader shamelessly employs said people at his private properties.
If it weren’t so galling, I’d be tickled by Keller’s pablum, as if there is anything productive to be gained from collaborating with this regime of robber barons. But it is so galling. And if we ever needed concrete evidence that the fine-dining world we lionize is fundamentally irrelevant to the true joys and business of American eating, this Potemkin panel is it.
Charged with saving American restaurants, this seemingly unlikely alliance of Big Macs and Burgundy mints a truth that our culinary mythology strains to elide: The fast-food industry and the fine-dining world are two sides of the same golden coin. One exudes wealth through luxurious trappings for the elite, built on the backs of minimum-wage laborers deemed unworthy to be seen or heard. The other creates wealth through populist marketing for a slightly broader spectrum of elite stockholders, built on the backs of minimum-wage laborers deemed unworthy of the profits they produce.
Commenters have already noted the absurdity that the vast and varied ecosystem of American restaurants is to be represented by celebrity chefs and fast food executives who are exclusively male and overwhelmingly white. Some have offered a diverse list of names who would give the restaurant panel much-needed efficacy and authority — chefs such as José Andrés, who routinely mobilizes large-scale meal services at sites of natural disasters, or Kwame Onwuachi, a former employee of Keller’s who, in addition to documenting the abusive conditions of the Per Se kitchen, has spoken extensively of the indignities that people of color must face to work in the restaurant industry. Of course, the merits of these candidates are precisely what disqualify them from such an enterprise.
I’m curious to hear what advice Chris Kempczinski, CEO of McDonald’s, has for the owners of America’s 46,000 Chinese restaurants — three times the number of McDonald’s locations in the U.S. — gobsmacked by a double whammy of shuttered dining rooms and racism-fueled backlash to the coronavirus. I wonder what strategies Jean-Georges Vongerichten will suggest to the undocumented immigrants who account for 10 percent of the American hospitality industry, and are excluded from the federal stimulus package, when he wouldn’t even comment on the death of one of his own staff. The tasting menu at Keller’s Per Se costs $355 per person, before the $125 black-truffle supplement. A meal for two with wine pairings at that restaurant would deplete the savings of most American households.
During my time in quarantine I’ve kept a list of the foods I miss eating — foods that, to paraphrase the late Nora Ephron, fortify me with garlic and courage. I worry that by the time we’re allowed out of our homes, all the places that make the hot dogs and eggplant Parms and water-boiled fish I’m craving will be gone for good. One food I have not been craving is foie-gras mousse, even though I now have a foie-gras spoon. It’s honestly been refreshing, as a food writer, to spend a month not having to think about fine dining at all. It’s not that Keller and his fellow oligarchs have nothing to offer us. They’re just far enough down my list that I’ve paid them no mind.
When we are let out of our homes and we can survey our new reality, New York’s restaurant business may be unrecognizable. What role will Keller’s and Vongerichten’s and Boulud’s restaurants play in this landscape? How much will they matter to us? About as little, I suspect, as we matter to them.