My grandfather came to the United States from Norway at the age of 17.  He worked his way over on a ship as a carpenter and set his sight on the fortunes that would await him on our shores.  Like so many in the early 1900’s, he entered the land of the free through Ellis Island, and with a wing and a prayer headed for Minnesota and the rush to lay stake on a piece of land.  He did and soon after took a one-year job as a ships carpenter in South America.  When he returned, his land was lost to another claimant so he shuffled off to Buffalo where he would stay and raise a family.  My grandfather was proud and determined to become American.  All through my early years he never shared a story about Norway, nor did he say much to my father, his son.  He wanted to be American, to speak only English, and to set aside his heritage.  Such a shame.

Many of those early immigrants to our soil felt the same.  A few hung on to their cultural heritage, but after time more and more of this would be lost.  My parents (Norwegian and Irish decent) never shared a story about their roots, their parents rarely shared anything with them.  Those wonderful traditional dishes from Norway and Ireland never graced our family table as the 1950’s gave way to ease and convenience.  TV dinners, box mixes, frozen and canned goods, and restaurant take out became the basis for the new American food culture.  Some pockets of ethnicity remained – my friends from strong Italian, German, and Polish neighborhoods still carried on with the traditions of their original homeland, but so many others enthusiastically embraced the American Way.  Within a few decades the U.S. became a cultural desert, a homogenized country without much historical perspective.

This homogenization has become an obsession.  To try and hold on to cultural backgrounds is somehow less than American.  It is often expected that we only use the English language, we dress as American fashion dictates, and we eat what is assumed to be American food.  So, what is American food and where is its story?  We are a melting pot nation of people from every corner of the world and with them come the traditions, beliefs, and food that encapsulated their culture.  It is this culture and all that it encompasses that gives their food meaning and flavor.

What is most interesting is that FLAVOR is far more complex than it may seem on the surface.  We commonly accept that flavor is a composite of taste, smell, and touch but there are many other factors that play a role that is just as significant as those three senses.  Of course, the visual impact of food is important as is any connection to sound (the sizzle of a metal plate, the crunch of a fresh apple or potato chip, the snap of a green bean or the chew of a bagel or crusty artisan bread), but we rarely associate CONTEXT as an element of taste, yet it may be the most important.

Context refers to whom you are enjoying a food with, the environment where eating takes place, your connection with the person who prepared it, the source of components, the history of the dish and its ingredients, memories connected to the item, or the ceremony that may be part of enjoying that dish.  All these factors play into how a dish tastes, and how it will be remembered.

This being said, take a look at the restaurant where you work and begin to dissect the experience.  Talk with the service staff and inquire about their knowledge of those contextual factors associated with items on the menu.  How much do they know?  What have they been taught?  What have they experienced and how are they able to build a customer experience with the knowledge that they have?  For that matter, go through the same exercise with the culinary staff.  I would be willing to bet that even the cooks real understanding doesn’t go very far beyond taste, smell, texture, and plate presentation.  The question is: “can they really own a dish and express their craft without a deeper understanding of context?”

I remember an experience decades ago when I had the privilege of dining at Andre Soltner’s Lutece Restaurant in New York City.  In my mind, Soltner has always been the consummate example of a professional chef.  The food, of course, was exceptional – classic French executed to the highest level.  What was even more impressive was our waiter.  He was certainly in his mid to late 70’s, maybe even older, but he knew as much about the food, the source of ingredients, the way it was prepared, and the historical significance of each menu item as Soltner.  Beyond this, he was excited about the food and the opportunity to serve it to us – CONTEXT. 

The point is – homogenized restaurant and family menus have left us stranded in a cultural desert.  There is a place for “filling station” food in support of legitimate hunger, but the experience of dining must be much more than this.  There is something lacking in experience when a seafood restaurant is located in a strip mall, a northern Italian restaurant offers food prepared by cooks who have never been to Italy, never studied the culture, or never been part of the important rituals of Italian family life.  There is something lacking when a rich culinary culture like that from Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula is expressed on a menu that portrays the cuisine as pinto beans and melted cheese and there is something confusing about a healthy spa or vegetarian influenced menu when it is prepared by those who have never personally engaged in the lifestyle that accompanies it.  Context.

So, what should be done?  If restaurants propose to be authentic in any way, regardless of the concept, ethnicity, or influence portrayed, then we all have an obligation to teach, train, engage, and embrace all stakeholders in the context that is so important to real flavor.  If you are a chef – what are you doing to teach and train and create real contextual experiences for staff?  If you are a dining room manager – the same question applies to you.  The people who represent the food and the experience of the restaurant must have real understanding to accompany the process of doing their job.  It is the context that will make their jobs more enjoyable and more rewarding.  Make sure that you invest in becoming a learning organization that talks as much about culture, history, and the people who influenced a dish as you do in the steps associated with preparing, plating, and serving the finished dish.  When this is accomplished then the flavor experience will be unique and sought after and quality staff members will see the value gained in being part of your team.


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