The Culture of Food

I’ve been giving my spiel a lot lately. The “how did you end up in Napa” spiel. Which, on the one hand, is good, because it’s the spiel I give when I meet someone new, and if I’ve been giving it a lot lately, it’s because I’m meeting a lot of new people. Which has been a struggle and constant source of frustration for the now year and a half that I have lived here. So that’s nice. Of course I’d rather have an actual conversation with someone than just give them the elevator pitch version of my last five years, but, at the very least, it is a start.

I came here for work. I met one of my current bosses while I was living in Rome. I was in Rome because I moved to Italy to take 6 months off before starting law school. Six months became three years, and law school became food school. I stayed in Rome for two years, and realized I was falling in love with the food world. But, I didn’t want to be a chef. So I moved to Piedmont and studied at the University of Gastronomic Sciences for a year. It was great. Then I moved back to the Bay Area for the first time in a decade to try and figure out what came next. I did some consulting work, some hands on experience at the Fatted Calf, and then I reconnected with some friends from my time in Rome and an opportunity arose to move to Napa, help open a new establishment, and take on all kinds of responsibilities for which I was not remotely qualified in a traditional sense.

So yes, I came here for work. But I also thought I was coming here for the lifestyle. For the culture.

People move here to build a life. And a career. This is a center of industry just as New York, or Los Angeles, or Detroit, or Silicon Valley, or any other destination that you associate so strongly with a particular type of business that you don’t question why someone would move there to get a start in that field.

The difference, of course, is that the industry here is wine. And, concurrently, food & tourism. All of which function as commodities in the local and greater economy. Which makes it a particular sort of place. A place where the local culture is both for the community and for the world to see. When I go to a local bar, where I know the bartenders and can sit and have a glass of wine by myself after work, it is a place that will be mentioned in countless travel guides. And, yes, any place with a draw for tourism will inevitably have its “for the locals” places splashed all over blogs, magazines, and whatever iteration of Anthony Bourdain we are currently experiencing, closely followed by whichever second rate derivatives of Anthony Bourdain currently have cable television contracts. I get that. But here, it’s like the same dozen are cycled through over and over again, regardless of the medium.

And that is not to diminish the accomplishments of those dozen establishments that do get heralded, so much as to observe that there’s no spectrum of dining here. I know I sound like a snob. And I know I’m lucky. I’ve been blown away by meals everywhere from a dumpling shop in New York’s Chinatown, to a grandmother’s kitchen in southern Italy, to a hillside in Slovenia so beautiful it can turn a frozen pizza into the tastiest morsel to ever cross your lips, to where an arbitrary group of industry professionals recently deemed the World’s Best Restaurant (although the likelihood of a majority of them having dined at the given restaurant in the last year hovers slightly above the chances Bernie Sanders maintains of securing the nomination, and, as I’ve commented on in this very forum, I have some issues with the best-ness of this particular restaurant).

The point is I’ve eaten. A lot. A lot of good things in a lot of good places, and a lot of weird places, and a lot of beautiful places, and a lot of dirty places. And, as the very existence of this blog attests, I like to think about it, consider it, and, ultimately, write about it. And so it’s frustrating to me to live in a place renowned for its food and wine culture, when, quite frankly, the food isn’t that good. No, let me correct that. The food is good. The food culture, however, is not that good. And it’s not the fault of the restaurants or the chefs or anyone for that matter. But food exists on a scale, on the spectrum I alluded to earlier. It is, as I’ve explored over and over again, about context. However, context is not simply the environment and state of mind in which you experience a single meal. It is the context within which that meal exists as a part of its community and a part of its cuisine and its culture.

There is a block of Main Street in downtown Napa sandwiched between 1st and 2nd street. It is home to a pizzeria, two tapas-style restaurant/bars, Napa’s exploration of new California cuisine, a dive bar, and a Chinese restaurant known only by the sign broadcasting “Chop Suey” in a neon glow at all hours of the night. It’s an interesting microcosm, for it comes the closest to showcasing the diversity that can exist in a truly great food culture. Except, that’s it. It’s that block, a handful of restaurants on the surrounding blocks, each of which more or less corresponds in cuisine to one on the original block in question, and then an assortment of taquerias and take out places (yes, my establishment included), scattered around town.

I want to be clear, I am not writing this to criticize the restaurants of Napa, and its workers least of all. I am simply considering what it means to have a truly great food culture – which to me is something more than having the appropriate number of decent restaurants to check off the boxes of the most popular cuisines. Because Napa’s restaurants must appeal to an international crowd, many of whom are here for a very limited amount of time. So any given restaurant, in order to sustain itself, must be appealing to anyone who might pass through town. Boundaries must be defined, experimentation must be limited in order to guarantee success.

Of course, having boundaries does not mean a restaurant is not good. Food culture progresses through experimentation, but it is not sustained by it. I can expand my definition of Napa to include the whole valley, not just the city itself, and draw The French Laundry into the fold (pun totally intended). Regularly considered one of the best restaurants in the nation, nearly every meal there for nearly every diner has started in the exact same way for the last two decades. But that’s exactly it. You know what you’re going to get, and it’s so well regarded that even if you don’t like what you’re going to get, if you can afford it and score the reservation, you’re probably still going to go. It is an excellent restaurant, but the world knows that, so there is no need to push or pull or stretch in order to maintain universal appeal. And moreover, although it, and several of the restaurants in Napa itself, are truly great, there is very little in the surrounding businesses to demonstrate the influences and steps that make them great.

Because to me, a truly great food culture exists in a place that can sustain restaurants or food establishments that might only appeal to a segment of its population, but which give context to other establishments that appeal to different, yet overlapping segments. Not every place needs to be for every diner, leaving cooks, chefs, experimenters, and restauranteurs free to explore areas of cuisine or styles of dining that are not universally appealing. And yes, I understand that even though I live in an international tourist destination, it is still a small town. I am not asking for anything to change, I guess that what I’m saying is in our food culture here we just see the end result, and I’d like to see more of the process.



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