Home > Critic-At-Large > Cafe Inauthentica
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
One interesting thing about working in the food service industry for many years is that you tend to acquire a pretty comprehensive education about the tricks of the trade, especially the ones that restaurant owners don't particularly want the public to know about.
Most of this "profane knowledge" is hardly the stuff that would cause Health Inspectors to shut down a restaurant on the spot; most of it is insider dope about cost-cutting and corner-cutting practices that even popular and successful restaurants often have to employ. Owning a restaurant is such a volatile proposition to begin with, and the margins are always so tight, that it seems inevitable that at some point, some "creative" solutions to a sudden restaurant dilemma are going to have to be used.
I once worked at a popular coffee shop in the city that suddenly found itself without coffee for an entire weekend. Uh-oh! While this seems like an incomprehensibly boneheaded mistake to the public, shop owners know this sort of thing can happen a lot. All it takes is a missed delivery, or poor communication, maybe a switch of purveyors, tight cash flow, a bizarre stretch of supremely busy weekdays, etc. Then bam: you're a coffee shop that's out of coffee on your busiest day. (I should point out that this was a long time ago, before "specialty coffees" were available everywhere.)
So what do you do? You can't close on your busiest day. And you can't NOT have coffee in a coffee shop. If you were truly honorable and above-board, you'd simply tell your customers--every one of them--that you're out of the specialty Ethiopian, Kenyan, and Italian roasts that you usually feature. You're using a replacement brand, and since you know that this is not the Special Coffee that people come here for, you're gonna knock 50% off every coffee drink. You're sorry about the switch, and you expect to have your usual coffee next week, but you hope your customers understand that you're trying to make the best out of a bad situation.
Or. . . you could, you know, just NOT TELL anyone. You could send your assistant manager over to Scott's, and buy a ton of Eight O'Clock whole coffee beans and simply use those in place of the Ethiopian, Kenyan, and Italian roasts that your shop is so well-known for. And you could tell your wait staff to just sell the shit out of the deception and hope that your coffee-aficionado customers actually can't tell the difference between a Kenyan roast with notes of chocolate and cardamon and gas-station Folger's that's eight hours old. And you could also make sure to break out the old out-of-service white mugs from the storeroom, instead of the stylish browns ones you've been using, for you know that people perceive that coffee is stronger if it's served in a white mug. (This is true, by the way: Another trick of the trade.)
It's hard to imagine today, in an era where everybody expects an authentic, farm-to-fork experience every time they go out for a meal, that such culinary sleight-of-hand could go on (and if you're still wondering if the coffee shop in my story did the fraudulent deed: Of course they did. And yes, as a waiter, I was a willing accomplice.) But it did go on, and it does go on, and I have to admit that my larcenous heart gets a big kick out of that memory. Because I like the corner-cutters, the think-on-your-feet types that aren't afraid of committing a little fraud when they're in a pinch. And I like them more now, in contrast, because I'm getting pretty exhausted by the righteousness of your average farm-to-fork, locally grown, local core regional cooking purist.
And before you even begin: I know Monsanto is the devil, all right? I'm aware that the agribusiness multinationals are killing everyone with hormones and sugar and fat and that they're basically forcing every American to guzzle two gallons of high fructose corn syrup at every meal. They're responsible for destroying the land and killing economies and they're also responsible for obesity and diabetes and gout and depression and suicide and shingles and color-blindness. Got it.
Knowing all this, however, doesn't make me like the food snob aesthete any better, and man, that guy is everywhere in 2017 — he's bragging about the purity of his food, and his transparency, about how he knows HIS farmer and how shameful it is that you don't know YOURS. He's taking something that should be a good, decent thing — cooking well for the public, taking great pains to do it right — and turning it into condescension. It's the same old, usual elitist spiel: old as time, but reinvigorated now with an anti-corporation zeal. But I know a lot of people who have no choice but to order off the "Value Menu" several times a week, and it's a pretty safe bet that they don't know who their farmer is, either. Not that they'd spend a second thinking about that. Not that they'd ever have the luxury to think about that.
And of course I'm painting with a miles-wide brush here, and I know how foolish it is to apparently champion processed, additive-laden crap over the "real" experience. But I'm wearying a bit of the "real" experience. Every time I go out for sushi there's always that guy that feels obligated to be the Authenticity Police: "Well, that's certainly not how it's done in Tokyo." Wow, really? You mean Indiana isn't surrounded by an ocean?! I've always sort of accepted that the sushi I've had on Coldwater Road is probably different from the stuff that's just gotten off the boat in Lake Kawaguchi. And it's weird, I'm constantly getting chastised by cultured friends to not use so much wasabi and soy sauce when I have sushi. "That's so American," they say. And I'm thinking: Exactly. I'm American. It would feel ridiculous to pretend otherwise. They seem worried that we're going to offend the restaurant owners with our gauche American manners, but I don't know: they always seem happy to see us, and I'm betting that if they really cared about their fish being sullied by wasabi and ginger and soy sauce, they wouldn't put it on the plate. And they're probably aware by now that Indiana is a tiny bit different from Japan.
Over lunch at a Korean joint I was once encouraged by a friend to "slurp" the soup: it's customary, she said, as if we'd both been born in Seoul and "slurping" soup was as natural as breathing. And, true to form, as soon as she was served her noodles she began slurping. But I couldn't join her; it would have felt wholly false to me. That's the problem with being an Authentic Food Aesthete in 2017 — it's almost impossible not to feel unnatural when you're being authentic.