How We Eat: Examining Contemporary Restaurant Dining Through One Meal in Andrew Friedman’s The Dish

By on Wednesday, March 27th, 2024 at 9:18 pm

Book by Andrew Friedman, The Dish: the Lives and Labor Behind One Plate of Food

A few years back, a skit on Portlandia begins with a couple about to order at a restaurant. They ask for details about the local organic chicken. Eventually they leave the restaurant to find out about the source, driving out to the farm to meet the farmers and observe the conditions themselves. This is the premise of Andrew Friedman’s book, The Dish: the Lives and Labor Behind One Plate of Food. Friedman sits down to eat at a dish at Wherewithall, and then sets out to look at the stories of team members and, like the characters in Portlandia, the source of the food.

The restaurant first opened in 2019, quickly earning positive reviews. It was Johnny Clark’s and Beverly Clark’s followup to Parachute, a restaurant that earned them a James Beard Award. Friedman eats his dish at Wherewithall in the summer 2021, a year into the pandemic. The restaurant closed in 2020 and only restarted dinner service when Friedman began writing.

The concept for this book is an enviable one. What better way to eat delicious food then to write a book. Isn’t that the primary reason to write about food, anyway? But the project also achieves a kind of unique place as a historic documentation of a place and time, one that will never be replicated again.

The prix fixe menu changes regularly at the restaurant based on availability of ingredients, seasons and the whims of the chefs. Friedman includes the menu he will follow over the next several hundred pages, featuring multiple courses, proteins, and for an added price, a cheese course and wine pairings. It offers a moment in time, not just literally, but in the broader look at cuisine in America, such as oats with button chanterelles and corn, the hake with wax beans, or the dry-aged strip loin with tomato and sorrels. The menu already sounds like passing fads, but that’s both the nature of a restaurant industry and the beauty in this book. Trends dictate what and how we eat as much as anything else, and Friedman is laying out an exceptional diary of a day in the life of a restaurant. A new version of this book could be written again a decade from now and all the experiences will be different, the foods different, the people and production methods different. Friedman is capturing this precise moment in time.

The chapters of the book are laid out like dinner service with titles like menu meeting, prep, preshift, service, and plate-up. Through each of these we glimpse the process of servicing the meal. Its an intimate look too, with Chef Johnny showing domestic responsibility too, “having been home to spend time with the kids.” The couple, Friedman notes, employ two nannies to deal with the inflexible and nontraditional schedule of the restaurant business. There are other less personal tidbits too that are of interest, like the “family meal” consisting of leftover cod, roast beef and salad–an insider’s look at life on the line. And that’s sort of what is on display throughout this book–small nods to the industry and to restaurant’s generally, the secrets behind how the sausage is made.

Friedman also profiles the individuals, like Sous chef Thomas Hollensed, who we learn grew up in Mississippi. We explore their lives and how and why they ended up in the kitchen. From a narrative perspective, we’re meant to see them as characters, a way to better connect with the story. It works to some extent, although perhaps the technique is better at documenting a history of the profession. Unlike a novel where the writer is choosing who to focus on to maximize the plot, these cooks are ordinary people. Nobody is suddenly finding out they descend from wizards and end up sent off to school. Perhaps that is what is remarkable: these aren’t extraordinary people producing high quality food. They’ve all lived ordinary lives.

Ingredients too have a life in this book, and Freidman ends up on a farm that provides produce. Like every problem today, erratic weather from climate change is causing havoc for the growers. The food supply chain, especially organic and local food, is at serious risk in the near future. We are reminded too that it isn’t just restaurants hurt by the pandemic, but also their suppliers. The farm saw a shift during 2020 in what people wanted to eat since they were more likely to cook at home, and then reverse again as restaurants reopened.

The narrative shifts back to the present dinner service. Through this structure alternating between the present meal and a look back at the people and suppliers, Friedman builds a narrative. The concept mostly works to tie the parts together in a way that is relatively cohesive. Each course keeps us looking ahead even while reflecting at the past lives.

What is missing is a close examination of how any of this relates to class, how an $85 base prix fixe menu supports all this labor and the organic vegetables grown on the local farm. Even when we hear about Blanca, an immigrant who doesn’t speak English, the disparity here is glossed over: “immigration brought demotion, from cook to dishwasher.” But Friedman never really unpacks how any of this is related, how the people who can afford to dine regularly at this restaurant and the woman in the basement washing dishes never interact. For a book concerned with local farm products, the absence of class discussion seems short sighted.

The Dish does cook up an inside look into the back of the house. It’s a succinct profile of where food comes from, how it transforms in the kitchen to the table, and an dives into the individuals behind the food. But it’s also this beautiful capsule showcasing a very specific time and place, and a specific way of eating in the first half of the 21st century.

Freidman offers us in the The Dish an inside look at how restaurant food is made, by who, and from where it comes. Or at least, how it was. Wherewithall has closed again, this time permanently in the summer of 2023. However, the closure shows how the inevitably transient nature of the restaurant business. Even in the short time between the summer of 2021 and the final submission of the manuscript, Friedman acknowledges most of the cast had already moved on. It is the way of the industry: “It’s also the nature of restaurants to close. With few exceptions, all of them, like Broadway shows, eventually will shutter”.


The Dish: The Lives and Labor Behind One Plate of Food

By Andrew Friedman
Mariner Books
October 17, 2023

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