One couldn’t ask for a better guide through the complex social world of some of the major figures in the American restaurant scene of the past several decades.
Everybody eats, and even those who don’t consider themselves foodies will surely have noticed how much American cuisine has changed in the 21st century. From the simple TV dinners of yore, the modern era features such previously unknown extravagances as food trucks, commodified street food, the farm-to-table movement and, for those who can afford it, molecular gastronomy. Mainstream media has followed suit with ever-multiplying panoply of food shows and celebrity chefs.
How we got from here to there is (sort of) the story of food writer Andrew Friedman’s book Chef, Drugs and Rock & Roll, which hones in on a select group of innovators in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s who changed the face of American cuisine. It is, in short, a portrait of what Thomas Keller calls a “universal mind,” exploded by the sociopolitical upheavals of the ‘60s and the countercultural, iconoclastic élan that seemed possible because of them.
Friedman has a charming, light touch as a writer, like a friend who subtly encourages you to try an unexpected restaurant while making you feel like you’ve discovered it on your own. He peppers his prose with ample quotes from a host of subjects who offer vivid, at times hazy and often conflicting recollections of their formative experiences in the restaurant world, lending an oral history quality to the book that itself mirrors the hustle-and-bustle of a busy kitchen.
The origin story, as with many things American, involves (simplifying greatly) drawing from European sources (mainly French), rediscovering some of that spirit on its own terms and ultimately crafting a new type of cooking. Friedman does the reader a great service by not focusing exclusively on the figures that are now near-ubiquitous, as though they had sprung phoenix-like out of nothing, but rather opts to give a much more interesting, panoramic sense of the milieu in which they originated and helped shape. In the case of Wolfgang Puck, for example, we do not only hear of Puck’s squabbles with Patrick Terrail, but also other figures like Jonathan Waxman, Nancy Silverton, Mary Sue Milliken, Susan Feniger and others who rotated in the same orbit in Los Angeles—not to mention Puck’s own former wife, Barbara Lazaroff.
Readers are also treated to the saga behind John McPhee’s famed “Brigade de Cuisine” story in The New Yorker, the unlikely rise of now-legendary places like Barry and Susan Wine’s The Quilted Giraffe and Buzzy O’Keeffe’s The River Café and the influence of the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), which brought together European faculty with American novitiates and much, much else.
Those not already well-versed in the names and places Friedman describes with such contagious enthusiasm should probably read chapters out of order, according to one’s inclinations. Tackled consecutively, the book at times feels like a series of sprawling magazine features, so thorough and minutiae-oriented is Friedman’s approach.
But from Chez Panisse to Blue Ribbon, one couldn’t ask for a better guide through the complex social world of some of the major figures in the American restaurant scene of the past several decades.