Wednesday, January 12, 2011

This is(n't) a post about food

Since 2002, I have moved between NYC and LA 8 times:
  • 2002: To NYC for my NYU PhD program in Literature
  • 2003: Back to LA on a leave from my program to reevaluate my career
  • 2004: To NYC with a new perspective, if not a new career in restaurants
  • 2005: Back to LA after getting a nice beating in NYC restaurants
  • 2008: To NYC for my Columbia MBA
  • 2009: Back to LA with no career prospects from my MBA
  • 2010: To NYC to work for the NPO, Restaurant Opportunities Center
  • 2010: Back to LA to do my own thing

In that same span of time, I've had 13 different residences: Williamsburg, Bushwick, Arcadia, E. 19th St, Jersey City, Robertson, Los Feliz, Santa Monica, 182nd St, Hollywood, E. 22nd St, E. 29th St, and finally Corralitas Drive. Each time, I've been extraordinarily lucky to have had family in both places to support me (i.e. store my stuff) when I move, but ultimately, I have learned to live with the possessions that fit within two suitcases.

I've never been wedded to my material possessions and have almost always chosen to discard household necessities and start fresh in each new living situation. A caveat is, I've never owned anything I've wanted to keep all that badly (except my books and my knives, which remind me of how much of a badass I once was within academia and the kitchen, respectively). Because I've developed a mindset that all things are replaceable and will eventually be replaced, I don't often seek permanence, material or otherwise. Given all this, it is somewhat ironic that what has made me reconsider my approach to permanence are some material objects, antiques that have been left me by my grandfather.

Initially, these pieces simply planted me in LA (they won't fit in two suitcases or my mom's closet), but eventually they led to our first substantial furniture purchase - very fittingly, a dining room table. It isn't a fancy table, or one that cost an extraordinary amount of money. It is a sturdy, thick, mango-wood table, and has seated 1 and 10 with the same ease. It is the center of our home, and gives me pride in ownership and craftsmanship, and I want the table to last our lifetimes.

In a recent Dwell interview of a vintage furniture shop owner, the interviewee argues for a house free of "shit [you] don't need," and instead, for a few quality pieces: "the stuff that costs more [because someone was paid a living wage to make it], that you have to think hard about, and that you're not going to get rid of." His approach to investing in quality as opposed to quantity made me think about my own approach to permanence: 1) how easily I have discarded or donated past possessions (do I really know that x will be taken care of in its second life) 2) how my pride (in ownership, craftsmanship, etc.) has satiated my drive for more/something else, and 3) whether what is permanent is necessarily more expensive.

Obviously, this post is about our restaurant. So to bring it back, I guess I would begin by asking, what is so immutable about the industry that you cannot offer both quality and affordability? Why has the drive for affordability chosen the path of separating the grower of the food from the preparer of the food from the eater of the food so much so that there are trucks, distribution centers, kitchen doors all in your line of sight as you sit in a restaurant dining room just trying to understand where your food came from? Who gave us the idea that more food is better than good food, so much so that we will waste food (on the plate or in our refrigerator) to support those restaurants that pile thousands of low-quality calories on plates in an effort to draw more customers?

Obviously, I have no answers beside this idea of permanence. That if you understand waste is permanent, that it cannot be recycled or even composted away, that to truly reduce waste you must "think hard" about what you purchase or consume to begin with, it will help you reevaluate how you choose to eat. As hopeful restaurant operators, Teresa and I have the potential to make an even greater impact - our choice of responsible vendors, ability to realize the greatest product yield, management of an efficient inventory, maintenance of a clean and organized facility, and ultimately production of a superior dish will all determine how other people realize waste individually. At the end of the day we won't be perfect, but if we continually examine - and allow others to examine - our practices, perhaps we will be one step closer to understanding what moves us each to behave differently.

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