I recently got an email from an editor at the East Bay Express stating that my lengthy, thoughtful (apparently) letter in response to a recent series of food articles in their insert ‘Taste’ would be published in their newspaper.
Note–this letter pretty much sums up my general feelings these days about a lot that is going on in the food and restaurant world anyway.
We’d love to publish this as a letter to the editor, if that’s all right with you. What’s your city?
Subject: FW: Street Food Grows Up-Taste and Reaction
From: email@example.com [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Saturday, March 30, 2013 1:44 PM
Subject: Street Food Grows Up–Taste and reaction
I read Street Food Grows Up with some interest, particularly because it dealt with The Ramen Shop and my own position about their restaurant and pricing concurring with all those great unwashed who had a preconceived notion that paying something in the vicinity of $12-15 for a bowl of ramen was, well…crazy talk and would eschew going there on those general principles. (whew, long sentence!)
More on that later, but it was the comments of Preeti Mistry that got me a bit perturbed, equating folks resistance to her pricing as simply racism. Racism? Ridiculous, I say. There have been plenty enough restaurants where I have paid somewhat exorbitant prices for south Asian cuisine, so I firmly believe that, at least in the ‘foodie’ culture, racism simply doesn’t enter into the equation for determining whether or not to attend a given restaurant.
It’s the price point. Period.
Look, my wife and I earn decently enough, got a couple of kids through college, saw a Mom through her final days and the attendant costs, and have always enjoyed eating out at ‘fine dining’ places throughout the Bay Area. While recent years have slammed our finances a bit such that we don’t eat out quite as often, my wife counts herself fortunate that my penchant and skill with cooking is such that I can provide the ‘fine dining’ experience on my own–because I like to be in the kitchen and prepare food for my wife and friends.
When The Ramen Shop opened for business, I followed its opening with great interest, followed the reviews, checked out the varied Yelp comments, but honestly–I simply have chosen to forego paying $15 or more for a bowl of ramen. As for Preeti Mistry’s restaurant, wherever it is, please let her know that I won’t pay $16 for a hamburger by the young Turk ex-Chez Panisse chefs much less $13 for three vegetarian Indian sliders, either. No racism involved–it’s maybe just the fact that, now that I’m on more of a budget as I close in on retirement, that excess is still simply that–excess.
Still, as a consumer and a simple homecook, I’m working my way through and ‘processing’ my feelings about this new ‘middle ground’ area where professional chefs leave their trademarked high-end restaurants and break out into the area of ‘street food fare’. My problem is, of course, that I’ve been all over the world, from the Philippines to North Africa to Mexico to Southeast Asia, and my general sense of street food fare is–it’s cheap, it’s quick, and hopefully tasty. Emphasis on ‘cheap’, let me say again.
Now, with all the awareness being brought to bear on chic new mid-level restaurants by established and adventurous chefs looking to make their mark, we as consumers are being asked to seriously consider all the hidden costs of opening and running a restaurant, from sourcing foodstuffs locally and ethically-grown to being aware that the BOH (back of house) folks from the dishwashers to the chefs to whomever are getting a living wage, healthcare insurance, etc. Yes, I get all that. I understand and appreciate that there are these costs accruing that have been ignored and pushed under the rug for years.
I realize that yes, I do have a choice. I face it every day that I go to Berkeley Bowl West or Mi Tierra Market, or Trader Joe’s in Berkeley. Do I buy commercial produce? Organic? Bulk flour? How was that steer raised and butchered? Did the workers get a fair wage for doing it? How about that artisanal cheese? Organic milk? Were the sheep read bedtime stories at night of humans leaping over a fence? Did that chicken experience free-range and free of antibiotic feed? Were my coffee beans bought at Peet’s fair trade? What about that chocolate I bought?
So many questions, and we as consumers are entering into a very different world of ‘aware consuming’, notwithstanding the ridiculous (and funny) portrayals of this on Portlandia. Seriously, when we eat out…when we buy our produce and meats and such, we make a decision every day to support our own health and the economic livelihood of people in other countries with ethical choices.
It’s a pretty damned heavy process to carry through any restaurant’s door or in front of a meat market display every day. Most of us want to remain blissfully unaware of the ramifications of our decision, and the tenor of the article here in your newspaper was certainly informative about, at least insofar as new pricy restaurants might be concerned, all the secret costs facing these young entrepreneurs who are opening up businesses, trying to do the local, ethical, fair thing for their employees and customers.
I appreciate it–even if it makes me crazy, and guilty, or nervous about my food choices. So at the last, I simply want to say that I appreciate the article, and I have my response to it, so that if others read this, they’ll at least have a sense of why I make the decisions that I make about what I eat and where I eat.
I buy commercial produce because it’s what I can realistically afford. I buy commercial meats and fish, because it’s what I can afford. I tend to eat more vegetables than I do meats and fish because its a healthier choice to make. I go out to restaurants whose prices I can afford. As for The Ramen Shop or Juhu Beach Club or Hawker Fare, all of whom seem to specialize in street food which is traditionally cheap, I am both unwilling and, to a degree, unable to support paying a premium to support all their overhead in order to support their ethical and fair businesses. This doesn’t mean I don’t wish them well, and I expect those who are well-heeled (more than I) or the ‘ten percent’ out there will continue to keep these places afloat–and more power to them. Bottom line is this–I can’t afford it and I’m not willing to pay excess bucks for a plate of food, regardless of the pedigree of the chefs or their sourcing of quality ingredients.
I am lucky, at least, that I love to cook and love to serve my friends and family, and can do this at home, so that I can have delicious meals several times a week. I’d like to be able to afford to pay on a more regular basis the prices that Ramen Shop etc has for their ethically, healthfully-sourced meats and produce and to provide living wages and healthcare for their staff. But it’s not in the cards, unless I win the lottery or come into a pile of an inheritance that would allow me to do my part to support these business and the hidden lives behind them.
For what it’s worth, the article ‘From Web To Table’ is an intriguing one, which I might very seriously get involved in to satisfy both my nascent desire to cook and serve people, as well as possibly earn a scoche of money. Private dinner clubs appeal to me at many levels, not the least of which is community and doing what I love. It’s not the ‘middle ground’ of the restaurants described in your initial article, but another level that folks who aren’t in the ten percent might be able to take part in and appreciate.
As ever, I enjoy the variety of opinions expressed in this insert. Great series of articles. Thanks.