The Culinary Theater

The Good Food Fight

I had walked passed the street a million times and it looked just the same, save for a hardly noticeable sign trying to pass itself off as a lamp post: “Saloon.” Walk down two flights of stairs into a dimly lit basement and you will think you have entered the past, complete with handlebar moustaches and hermetic flasks.

Saloon, in Somerville, Mass., is one of many new bars and restaurants embracing the feel of the Prohibition and pre-Prohibition era. It is all part of the experience—today customers are seeking more than just tasty food or creative drinks; they are seeking a full interactive event. The décor, the menu, the restaurant staff, the customer—all contribute to a theatrical reenactment of the food culture of a distinct historical period. And what better way to build community than through this form of art, a staged dining experience based on customer participation?

Forget Islands, a kitschy family-oriented chain of eateries that aims to evoke a tropical atmosphere while serving burgers and fries and selling merchandise, or Rainforest Cafe—same idea, different biome. At Saloon, somehow the whole experience manages to avoid being so trite. The alcoholic punch for two is delicious and actually uses ingredients popular in the pre-Prohibition era (brandy, wine, yellow Chartreuse), as does the authentic cuisine, which includes bubble and squeak (assorted remnants of last night’s dinner, mushed together and grilled like a pancake) and fish and chips.

Interested in more ways to play a part? You need not look further than Saloon’s community celebrations. At the recent Valentine’s Day Sadie Hawkins Dinner & Dance, women asked men to accompany them to the event, as per tradition, with many dressed in appropriate period attire. Now, the movement to make the local community a more vital part of local food business expands beyond attempts at authentic and theatrical play.

Consider the quickly expanding fast food company, Clover Food Lab, in Harvard Square and Boston, Mass., where I work in food preparation and greeting. Customers are encouraged to attend quarterly all-team meetings to voice opinions, provide suggestions, and become informed about the newest features of this local eatery. Clover works to keep an open dialogue with the community through an often-updated blog and Twitter account. Just this week, my friend and I discussed and decided upon the advantages of each local coffee roaster with a manager there. Managers are not only open to fulfilling customer requests but also to taking customers’ ideas into consideration. Indeed, just as the dinner table functions in a domestic setting, a restaurant can become a place of local gathering and discussion. At Clover, you can even pick up a weekly supply of farm-fresh vegetables. One of Clover’s locations now functions as a Community Supported Agriculture pick-up so community members can enjoy seasonal, local produce from organic farms.

As such, the roles of the consumer and producer—and their associated hierarchy—becomes blurred. The play, the openness, the community emphasis of today’s modern restaurants and bars reminds us that everyone can be a cook, an innovator, a participant, or an actor rather than just a passive consumer.

This creed has expanded far beyond traditional brick-and-mortar businesses, whose function is tied to its location and setting. Take the recently established community share, Kitchensurfing.com. Say you want to host a large dinner party but your tiny New York apartment is too small, not to mention you hardly know how to cook. Kitchensurfing, like couchsurfing.org, provides an interface where people can find kitchens to rent and chefs to hire for just such an event.

More than that, you can be the one to offer your kitchen to rent as a host or to provide your skills as a cook. I was happy to find there is no experience necessary to participate and signed up right away. Maybe being a cheap vegan cook who specializes in Asian and South Asian cuisine may just be my most marketable skill. Anyone and everyone is encouraged to sign up and participate. As the website says, “Food eaten alone is not delicious.” And while I would venture to say that is not always the case, it is clear that breaking open traditional culinary roles and expanding the power and participation of the community are surely appetizing. We can all play a part in this shared theater of eating, cooking, and sharing.

—Columnist Natalie C. Padilla can be reached at npadilla@fas.harvard.edu.

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