The Digest

The Restaurant Reckoning & Other News

17th December 2017

Words: James Hansen

In this week’s round-up of the best online food writing: two takes on the Mario Batali case and a dish that contains multitudes

We start with Irene Plagianos and Kitty Greenwald, and their investigation of Mario Batali for Eater NY. At a moment of cultural reckoning for the global restaurant industry, Plagianos and Greenwald detail Batali’s serial, unchecked harassment of numerous women, whose bravery in coming forward is the centre of the reckoning: powerful men in the restaurant world are, slowly, having their shackles on countless careers chipped away. Plagianos and Greenwald acknowledge the double-edged nature of Batali’s influence: “Batali’s reputation has left some of the women who’d benefited from his power and influence with mixed feelings about their relationship with him. He’s championed the careers of numerous women; his kitchen at Del Posto is led by a female executive chef and executive pastry chef.” The conclusion, though, is clear: this power comes from an endemically rotten system, in urgent need of regeneration, in the right ways: as this tweet from Mari Uyehara illustrates, using victims’ accounts for journalistic one-upmanship is not one of them.


Helen Rosner goes to the root of the rot for The New Yorker, connecting Batali’s self-made – and industry-bolstered – mythology to his behaviour: “Celebrity chefs sell more than food; they sell stories.” The crux of the piece is that the same imbalance of power that enabled Batali’s systemic abuse governs the act of eating – and by extension cooking – that chefs sell and their audiences consume: “It’s worth noting that appetites like Batali’s are, for the most part, not permitted to women; neither are bodies like his, with their evidence of hungers fulfilled.” Crucially too, Rosner addresses Heat, by Bill Buford – a book that spends most of its time swelling Batali’s mythology – and Jay Rayner’s 2009 profile of the chef, both of which document incidents whose overreaching was once admired, when they were inadmissible all along. Here the piece becomes self-reflexive, admitting to once being part of the chorus that made its protagonist larger than life: a chorus that, as Rosner makes clear, must find a new voice. It’s a chorus that this digest is part of, too. That new voice might start here, with an op-ed from Korsha Wilson for Eater: “If we want to move forward as an industry, we have to listen, and be self-critical.”

For The New York Times, Julia Moskin and Kim Severson write about similar accusations levelled against Ken Friedman of New York’s The Spotted Pig, a restaurant which counts Batali among its investors. Severson and Moskin’s investigation does not just spotlight the bravery of Friedman’s accusers and present another instance of a pandemic, it also highlights the mutuality of enabling, the kind of culture that lets a third-floor section of a restaurant be nicknamed “the rape room” by countless people without even a hint of questioning. Their final paragraph is perhaps the most telling of all, as Jamie Seet, a former general manager and one of Friedman’s accusers, explains the insidiously ambiguous nature of the restaurant’s culture: “Over all, Ms. Seet said, working for Mr. Friedman and Ms. Bloomfield was nearly as thrilling as it was abusive … ‘I feel guilty even talking to you,’ she said. ‘But it’s got to stop.'”

Ratna Rajaiah tells the tale of 1.2 billion kchidis at Swarajya. In the most general terms, a kchidi is a dish of rice, grains, and lentils, spiced according to taste, and served hot. These most general terms are exactly what Rajaiah challenges: kchidi is subject to so many variations of ingredient, terroir, need and appetite, that its resistance of definition is its defining feature:

Starting with the name itself, for example, you could say khichdi, or khichri, or even more – khichurikhechidikisuri, or if you are an Anglophile, kedgeree. (Only the English would think of ruining a perfectly ambrosial food by adding boiled fish and egg to it.) And you’d still be referring to the same thing. Just as if you say Rajput or Keralite or Marwari or Kashmiri or Maharashtrian or Kannadiga or Gujarati, you’d still be meaning “Indian”. And so, the khichdi is a perfect representation of what it means to be Indian – even if you call it niramish (a vegetarian dish prepared with mixed vegetables.)

Written in the wake of a campaign to make the food India’s national dish, Rajaiah agitates against: this would diminish its most important ingredient: kchidi contains multitudes.

Image: Neil Webb/Getty Images

Posted 17th December 2017

In The Digest


Words: James Hansen

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