Setting aside the challenges of today, it is important to recognize just how instrumental the restaurant business is to society and how significant the role of cooks and chefs. I feel privileged to come from a lineage of restaurateurs, and although not chefs, they represented a taste of this importance.
Throughout history it has been the cook and the restaurateur who have given a spark of hope and life to even the bleakest of times. Whether war, economic depression, plague, or political upheaval – the work of the restaurant has been a bright spot in history. Looking back is always important as we face the challenges of today and such is the case with those of us in the restaurant field.
The local tavern, bistro, trattoria, or café has always been a place of respite, renewal, and neutral gathering. A place to celebrate or commiserate; a place where friends, neighbors, family, or even adversaries can take a break, raise a glass, and break bread. Restaurants are places where we can forget our challenges for a moment, set aside our differences, resist the temptation to delve into the negative and invest a little time in grasping onto a positive future. This has always been the case and as such is one of the important roles that restaurants, restaurateurs, cooks, and chefs play.
When the sirens of impending bombings cried their awful sound through the streets of London and Paris during WWI and WWII, there were bakers in basement shops kneading dough and finding ways to bake loaves of bread for those who literally had nothing. Hidden taverns pouring contraband alcohol and serving simple food could still be found as a beam of light for a world that seemed to be crumbling all around.
From 1920-1933 a combination of the impending depression and the ill-conceived Prohibition of alcohol in the U.S. seemed impossible for a business that depended on disposable income, and distilled and fermented beverages, yet creative entrepreneurs like my grandfather ran underground “speak-easies” for a local population that needed the comfort of taverns and cafes to try and make sense of it all. My grandfather’s work led to a series of restaurants that found a home in 1933 when prohibition was repealed and later as America clawed its way out of economic Armageddon. Aunts, uncles, and grandmothers on both sides of my family continued the legacy of restaurateur for the better part of twenty more years. This was the case in many families of immigrants who found their way to America and brought with them the traditions and recipes for hospitality that were born in Europe. Americans found their way to these safe havens of food and beverage and held their heads high knowing that better days were ahead.
Throughout the world, these small, neighborhood havens were a breath of fresh air. This tradition of salvation through a full glass and a plate of food continues to prevail today. After all, it is a full stomach that helps us stand tall and face our challenges. It is the cook and the chef, through their craft who reward us for our hard labor, and comfort us when it is needed. The impact of the cook’s work is physical, emotional, and even spiritual.
In war torn parts of the world, when the dust settles and it is time to rebuild – cafes, bistros, trattoria’s and taqueria’s are the first to rise up. People need these places of business as a sign that life returns, and hope remains eternal. When places of food and beverage close, the lifeblood of a community is cut off. When these same operations open, we know that everything else that is good in a community will likely follow. We are social creatures who draw our energy from being with others and cooks and restaurateurs are the catalyst for this energy.
After WWII, the U.S. stepped into a period of growth. We build an infrastructure of highways to connect the country and wherever roads intersected a gas station and a diner seemed to crop up. This was the signal that another village or town would follow. The introduction of restaurants, cooks and chefs stimulates hope and prosperity.
What humanitarians like Chef Jose Andres work in impossible conditions to bring a plate of food to those who have nothing else, he is demonstrating the power of the chef and restaurateur to heal. His work is the first step in bringing restaurants back to a community in despair and seeking out the light that others crave. This has been the case with so many in our field of work. When the towers collapsed in New York City – restaurateurs and chefs came together to feed the firefighters, police, construction workers, and volunteers. It was almost immediate and a sign that good cannot be stopped by evil and that we would rebuild. When the floods destroyed much of New Orleans after devastating hurricanes it was restaurateurs and chefs like John Folse who rallied the industry to feed those affected and start the rebuilding process for communities just days after. It is always the people of this important business: the owners, operators, chefs, cooks, dishwashers, servers, and bartenders who come to the aid of their communities. It is the farmers, fishmongers, ranchers, and vendors who open their storerooms to take care of the most basic human needs.
Yes, we work for a paycheck, and we have definitive needs in this regard. Yes, there is a real need to improve this and some of the historical working conditions that have been part of the business for generations, but there is a heart and soul aspect to the work that we do. We are giving people, people who understand just how important that plate of food is to rebuild the human spirit and heal the wounds of a sometimes-unfriendly world. What we do is so important, and we should never lose sight of this. As we collectively face challenging times, times of pandemics, economic uncertainty, hate and struggles for power, we can find comfort in the work of the cook, the chef, the restaurateur, and the server – we represent that glimmer of hope.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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