When food porn got boring

Oops, I think I just made one of those clickbait titles. But what else do you call the demise of the thing that’s gotten everyone salivating up till now?

It started with the announcement that (the generally excellent) Lucky Peach is folding after their final issue is published in May. Confession: I have a subscription (though my pile does not include the elusive first copy that apparently sells for upwards of $175), and my first thought was will I get my money back for the issues I won’t be getting? ☹️

But I was also sad to hear it because it’s a fun read, and generally good quality journalism. (We can agree that ‘food journalism’ is a stupid moniker – the best writing about food is just journalism that happens to be about food.) Did their subscription rate drop? Did they run into a corporate snafu? Did they run out of direction? Or did their readers get irritated with the double-dipping attention-grabbing of subscribing to their newsletter only to be asked to subscribe to their newsletter every time you click on something in said newsletter?

Then I read this excellent review of the latest season of Chef’s Table this morning, and the two seemed to related somehow. Obviously I’m a huge fan of Chef’s Table (come on – I wrote a PhD on celebrity chefs, and not because I hate food TV, or Jamie Oliver, but because I was intrigued by why we suddenly started paying so much attention to chefs), but this review is spot on in pointing out that at least one episode of season 3 is just entirely gratuitous, and does little else than fill the “Episode 5” slot of an otherwise fascinating – and beautiful – narrativising of chefs who have somehow made an impact. A sample (on the episode on Tim Raue, who describes the earlier version of himself as a “Fucking evil, mean boy”):

Sadly the episode suffers from a lack of focus. Is it about how he’s a jerkface in the kitchen? Is he even a jerkface in the kitchen? Sometimes. Is it about how food rationing and cultural isolation suffocated Berlin’s food scene? Is it about the redemption of Raue through cooking? Or is it about how brilliant he is for using Southeast Asian spices? It’s anybody’s guess but the result is rather aimless and meh.

It was during these moments of boredom that the idea began to occur to me that perhaps Chef’s Table has transcended itself. The stories have outstripped the form. The tension of Raue’s narrative is of holding the pain of his youth, the pain he inflicted on others as a hoodlum and the pain (and pleasure) he gives now as a chef in one’s mind at once. It is about how we build ego around us as protection and how then those guns turn inwards to torture us. Vanity food shots, Goodfella-sian tracking shots through the kitchen, colonialist food aping masked as culinary genius just pollute that story.

“Transcended itself” is, I think, the perfect summary here, and reminds me of Pete Wells’ review of David Chang’s then-newly-opened Nishi:

Too much of the cooking at Nishi is self-referential, inward looking and so concerned with technique that you can’t help being conscious of it. In his early days, Mr. Chang served the kind of food chefs like to eat: intense, animalistic, O.K. with messiness, indifferent to prettiness. Nishi serves the kind of food chefs cook to impress one another.

Perhaps it’s the same with Chef’s Table, and possibly Lucky Peach. In the beginning, plates (and stories) were big and bold and raucous and raunchy. But then the formula got boring, because it became a slave to itself. I’m no brand expert, but I imagine that some key part of success lies in (the admittedly tricky process of) figuring out how to keep things fresh and also loyal to the key values of what you’re selling.

Let’s not bullshit here – all the stories us food porn “addicts” love are about people finding value/comfort/escape/transcendence through food and cooking, but not everything looks good tied up in the same old ribbon.

Leave a Reply