I am not now, nor would I have ever called myself at any point in my life, fashionable. Not even in college when I started wearing those enormous pants with all the unnecessary straps and half-heartedly dyed my hair blue.
I might have been trend-chasing, and I’m sure I thought I was cool at the time, but I was never fashionable- and likely never will be as I slouch gracefully toward early middle age.
Instead, when people see the effort I do put into looking put together, they say I’m “stylish.” That is a lesson I learned from Quentin Crisp, and I think we as an industry will be happier when we learn to apply it to our food.
Fashion Vs. Style
Quentin Crisp was a British writer, actor, and raconteur who’s remarkable life (which included being an artist’s model, an exhibitionist, and a male prostitute) led to him being respected as a satirist, a social critic, and a gay icon of the early 20th Century. Regardless of his role or position in society, one thing was always true for Crisp- he adamantly refused to be anything other than himself.
When I first heard the quote above, it was paraphrased and stuck with me as:
“Fashion is wearing what other people tell you looks good. Style is wearing whatever you want, but doing it on purpose.”
I can’t say I ever possessed such self-assuredness for most of my life. Of course I wanted to look and be “cool.” I wanted to be invited to fun parties, have friends, get a cute girlfriend, and so on. I was bullied and picked on for my efforts, of course. It was kinda the definition of being a try-hard.
At some point these words clicked for me. Why was I trying so hard? “Matt, you don’t want to ‘belong’- you just don’t want to be lonely.”
Eventually, I learned that I didn’t care about fashionable. I cared about looking good in clothes that worked for me and feeling good with how I dressed. I gave up chasing fashion trends and found my own style.
What does all this have to do with cooking? A lot, especially lately.
Let’s be real- food is a commodity. Dining and restaurant service are commodities. There is a market and competition involved, expected price points, and a notion that we as cooks and chefs need to keep up with the newest trends. When one of these trends is “figure out how to make crappy gimmicky food that separates wealthy idiots from their money,” I think we’ve missed the point. Even more so when competition includes coming up the with next glitzy, over-the-top luxury trend.
Not every change in the culinary world is a fad or trend, though. Some have been good and need to stick around- the rise of organic, Locavore, slow food, and alternative diets for example. Classically, I don’t think any of us scoff at Paul Bocuse’s nouvelle cuisine doctrine to “make it new.”
We aren’t “making it new” anymore, though. Not so much as we are “making it fancy.”
There is literally no point in making buffalo wings covered in gold.
Activated charcoal in pastries and desserts- aside from acting as a natural food color- serves no purpose except to make your colon look like a goth club.
“Wagyu” and “Kobe” beef burgers- where they aren’t a complete lie aimed at nouveau riche rubes- completely ruin what makes that beef special, especially when jackasses order them well-done.
And no, not every seafood bar in the world can have a Prince Edward Island mussel or a Bellon oyster. They were good or at least funny ideas, and now- through the miracle of trends and marketing- are rendered meaningless.
We are merchants, though- selling commodities, and with actual skin in the game. We need to make that money. We have bills to pay and mouths to feed, and if telling some self-important shmuck that their hockey puck of a burger was once a prized Japanese cow kissed by the Virgin Mary herself will make them shell out $200 for $5 of meat? More than a few of us will shrug and say “You do you, boss.”
No, this isn’t a screed against “selling out.” I’m not that green. Like I said, we’ve all gotta feed the monkey. Fads and trends come and go, though, and we’ve already seen what happens when a business banks fully on a trend and then runs into trouble when the zeitgeist changes– crippling their business and wrecking livelihoods for the sake of chasing a short-term buck. It’s the culinary equivalent of a “boomtown” where the mine dried up and all those big dreams appear on ghost-hunting shows.
There will always be better business in, as Crisp put it, “deciding who you are and being able to perpetuate it.” That is, deciding what you as a chef and a business are about, sticking with it, and dedicating yourself to do it better than anyone else. No one says you can’t change when you don’t feel like your “thing” suits you anymore. We’re human beings, not stone statues. Whatever you change into, though, make sure it’s something you love and believe in, not just the latest Instagram money-maker. It’ll go out the window soon enough, and you don’t want to be the one tip-toeing over broken glass.
I love all kinds of baking, and I have a fairly varied set of skills in the culinary field- but simpler, homey desserts are my style, and currently I express that style through making amazing pie. My style is to make the best pies anyone has ever made or will make again- regardless of whether “people are into pie these days.” Fashion tends to be cyclical- they’ll be back.