The thing I’ve been working on…

What follows is the introduction to the thing I’ve been working on for a while in between life stuff and cigar writing.  It’s the primary reason I haven’t been, and won’t be, publishing blog posts until the whole thing is complete.  I’m not sure what I’ll do with it when it’s done, but it will be way too big in scope for the blog.  I wanted to at least post SOMETHING since it has been so long, and if all goes well this is pretty close to what the opening to the story will be….

INTRODUCTION

            I honestly don’t give a fuck what you put on your hot dog. For me, anything more than two toppings is too much.  I prefer mustard when it comes to solo condiments, but if you like ketchup there’s no reason to be ashamed.  Anyone with a strong opinion otherwise probably has at least one duck face photo posing with a lemongrass spiked housemade sausage adorned with classic banh mi accoutrements or some such nightmare concept.  Or they have wrenched their heart from the grip of Christ in order to lie prostrate on the altar of No High Fructose Ever. The simple hot dog is patient zero in this media-driven culture.  There was a time when the height of food media was the affable chiding of Emeril Lagasse when he would pull the knobs off of his stove right there on his tv show and remind you…those knobs are there for a reason. And it wasn’t really that long ago when you think about it.  But as attention spans have been dehydrated, pulverized and dispersed via giant networks of delivery systems for opinions, trends, pretty pictures and predictions, the humble hot dog and the single incorrect way to eat it if you’re older than three somehow became the tip of the spear. On this very evening, relationships will be strengthened or destroyed over ketchup. Because wherever you are in America when that sun goes down and the evening star shines on your piece of this great land, you don’t have to have much money or available dining options to know mustard is what separates you from the vast fields of the blissfully ignorant.

            A trend isn’t a trend unless you have access to enough options by which to judge the best and the worst. And there is no best or worst unless you have way more places to read or talk about than anyone could ever possibly need. Does your town have ramen yet?  We’ve got ramen, but our dumpling game isn’t very strong.  And by that I mean we have enough ramen to rate which is best according to completely arbitrary standards, but we don’t have enough of a cohesive selection of dumplings to do the same.  And we don’t have a good representation of regional Thai to speak intelligently about it beyond our borders. I pick these three things because they tend to appear regularly on the Eater, Munchies, and Lucky Peach sites, which are three of the main industry barometers for people who want easiest access to the information but still want to sound like an authority. Overall we’re pretty far behind any of the larger markets where ramen, dumplings and regional Thai are probably taken for granted. It’s a hard-fought achievement to establish what we DO have…you don’t realize until it’s too late that a customer’s expertise gained from a single trip to Japan is enough to write off the ramen in your entire city.  And if they have a friend who lived in Chicago or New York, you can only hope that they take a long enough breath between name dropping far superior restaurants for you to escape and rethink your entire life. That’s just the way it goes. You can spend your entire career perfecting your pasta techniques, but on any given evening when that plate hits the table, your credibility depends upon how closely you mirror that one time in Rome when that person had something very similar. But much better. Because, well, Rome.

            Some people wonder what will happen to America after November of last year, so it’s more than a little ironic that here in the Midwest we said goodbye to The American Restaurant as everyone was ringing in 2017.  I don’t know when or even if the restaurant was ever profitable in its forty-plus year run, but it was a proud and important institution for a whole lot of reasons beyond being the crown jewel for an iconic local family. And maybe I missed it, but I don’t remember seeing the deluge of articles from local writers who would normally provide perspective on the importance of The American as the end neared; the history,the careers, the awards, the cuisine, and all of those parallel journeys spanning decades.  Granted, I’m an asshole with tunnel vision when I get something in my crosshairs, but I do hope that the next significant mention The American Restaurant receives isn’t forced excitement over the ubiquitous “pop up” concept that I deeply hope never happens.  That is my hope because the only thing left is that big, empty room.  The people who made it the reason any guest or visiting chef would want to visit are all gone.  I’m sure there are people in the organization whose livelihoods depend upon a successful rebranding of some kind, and there is no shortage of local PR types whose livelihoods depend upon trying to make it sound cool to people who don’t know any better, and there is damn sure an army of food writers and bloggers who will jump at the chance to be FIRST to try and pretend that there is some hope for that space beyond hotel banquet service.  History will only matter enough to add legitimacy to a completely unattached new reality.  Because haven’t you heard?  The death of fine dining is here.  And even if it wasn’t, the entire restaurant industry is a bubble that is about to burst anyway.  So just dive into the attention deficit disorder style of food culture, the photo ops are plentiful and you don’t have to worry about a deep end.

            The fact that I’m taking a shit on the culture by which I am most defined is not lost on me.  The necessity of a mutually beneficial structure through which the general public can interact with an industry that is of critical importance to my hometown is not lost on me either. The Groundhog Day aspect of the whole thing has just been building for a while. It makes me wonder if food really matters or if the same people would find some other random thing to think about too much if Food Network never happened. It’s basically just another hobby, but since you have to eat every day this is the way to make it some kind of achievement.  And honestly, if you’re like me and you have no intention of ever working in the industry, assigning an unrealistic level of importance to what you CAN do is what makes all the difference. It’s like someone suddenly implemented caste systems to account for everything from “I’m feeling…a little peckish” all the way to the cesspool of self-aggrandizement that is Yelp.  You’re hungry?  Well how hungry are you?  Are you small plates hungry or full-blown eating challenge for a free t-shirt hungry?  Because we’ve got ALL of that and everything in between.  We have successfully taken the most primal of all instincts to a point that dwarfs the mapping of the human genome. Does your meal need a backstory?  Because we’ve gotten past all of that local seasonal farm-driven bullshit for now and have created an ongoing dialogue about the importance of local chefs having their souls tested in larger cities before we can take them seriously (and of course keeping an eye on who might be best sous chef to suck up to before they leave on that same journey and eventually return to us).  Did you know in order to be the best at eating you either have to have a LOT of money or NO money? If you have a lot of money, people can know you’re good at it because of your pictures from all of the special events that cost a minimum of $100 each before tax, gratuity, and sometimes alcohol which is not always included.  If you have no money that’s great too, because you bring an everyman voice to this dialogue that consists of pictures of a lot of food trucks, holes in the wall, and random ethnic spots nobody has heard of in parts of town nobody wants to go. You have to be careful though because the people WITH money enhance their profile by journeying to a ghetto once every few weeks for a meal….so if you truly love a place it’s best to sacrifice the associated street cred and never mention it.

            If you are someone who aspires to take your love of capturing information on your social media to a level where you can do the same thing for a magazine or something that pays way less than you think, there’s no reason to fear the already over-saturated world of local blogs and periodicals.  There’s always room for more. Seriously, think about it. When was the last time you ever saw a story about a restaurant opening or closing, a new chef at an old restaurant, an old chef at a new restaurant, or an event or trend that finally made its way in from the coasts, that wasn’t covered nearly identically in ALL of the usual places within days if not hours of each other?  The only way to make a name for yourself in that environment is to be one of the people who will sell all dignity and burn every bridge in order to be FIRST at breaking every story…but that’s pretty one-note, not a growth position. That’s like being the very best hall monitor or something.  What you could do is capture the lifecycle of a trend.  For example, the street taco would be a good trend.  It would start with…. a Mexican would be my best guess. Then you could trace its path from the first local who accidentally stopped at that Mexican’s restaurant and received something unlike any taco they had ever eaten.  They loved it, so of course they told everyone about it, including someone who had either visited Mexico, or better yet New York, who could not believe the same thing they tried one time was HERE now.  So they went to verify that “Yes, this is real.”, and excitedly told some chef who thought “Really? No shit?  My fucking cooks have been bringing those in for family meal for twenty years, but hey good for you!”.  They would think it but not say it to a paying customer. But when you take the vetting that came from someone who has eaten tacos near and far and multiply it times fucking CHEF, that is the blasting cap that sets off the remainder of the approximate two year lifecycle of a bona fide trend. It is during that time that all street tacos in the city are mapped and rated, “The Best” is hotly contested enough for you to find plenty of restaurants via Google, and they make their way from random foodie blogs through the major indie periodicals, to the main newspaper, locally hosted radio shows, and possibly even television.  The end of the lifecycle is just the life of the trend, delicious tacos will always remain. The trend dies once it hits a point of saturation where you see one of the aforementioned people with a LOT of money holding a taco in a painfully staged photo, hawking the new offering at a local chain that has absolutely nothing to do with Mexican food and happens to be owned by their friend and/or client.  The original guy who started the whole thing will see that Facebook post or advertisement and think “They have street tacos THERE now? Sweet! That’s two blocks from my house!”.

            The role I’ve managed to carve out within my community isn’t unique and has only ever required some consistent behavior.  I’m the recovering alcoholic who will always manage to worm that into the conversation, and will always have to have an unhealthy, obsessive relationship with something that doesn’t kill as quickly as booze or drugs.  I seek some degree of approval through writing shit like this, but I’m generally never going to move too far from the center of a life that’s pretty risk free compared to most of the people I know who have made a hell of a lot of progress in the industry.  If I can provide occasional entertainment for my friends and support their businesses at the same time, that’s pretty good.  But I do try to keep my expectations low because you never want to be one of the people who is always trying to weasel something that isn’t really meant for them.  Restaurant people experience some incredibly cool shit because that’s the world in which they live. It can be pretty tribal but from what I can tell there is a very high premium placed on being yourself…because when your livelihood depends on hospitality you can’t be totally real during your hours in that competitive, fickle fishbowl… with the forced interactions and constant demand to explain yourself within the context of any random expectation.  So they get to do the cool stuff and go to the cool places that makes them the envy of the foodie world when glimpses of it appear outside of that community within a community.  I don’t think I’m any better or more important than any random photo-op seeking foodie, I just try to be careful about trading the humanity and authenticity of a situation for something cheap and redundant, or mistake the necessities inherent to running a business with the spirit of community.  I have no club or organization to use as leverage, I just have my name.  And not one penny of my income is dependent upon the industry, so I get to say whatever I want and be my own target demographic without worrying about whether it’s fair or balanced.  When I go someplace with any regularity, I probably like the food but I absolutely love the people. And that is their burden.

            I have a bunch of random memorable bonding moments that illustrate what I’m talking about when I mention business vs. community.  What always comes back to me as my most significant moment was one time at my favorite restaurant when I was sitting at the chef’s counter during line up.  All of the nightly specials were being explained to the front of house staff as they took turns tasting each item.  Food would make its way from person to person, everyone taking a bite and passing it along.  At some point, I became the last stop for the dishes.  That in itself is a much bigger deal than most people probably realize, but within that gesture was also a test that I didn’t even recognize until after it was all done.  Each dish was on its own plate, but everyone shared the same fork or spoon as the food came around. I realized I was getting eyeballed but at first I thought it was to see if I approved of the dish.  And though I’m sure people were happy if I liked the food, it was more about “Is he going to eat from the community spoon or use his own spoon?”.  Pro-tip: When offered, you eat from the community spoon.  It’s those little details that begin to help you understand people and traditions in an organic way.  Shortly after I got sober I began to wonder how to make sense of dining now that my usual bourbon and wine rituals were no longer part of it.  Those accounted for much more than I wanted to admit.  For me the new way of approaching everything was to make it about the people.  If I knew one farmer or one chef, through the natural course of our relationship I’d learn about other farmers, producers and chefs that they appreciated. Word of mouth ended up becoming the way that I relearned my city.  The bigger regular you become at your favorite places, the more people you get to know in the front and back of house, and when they go someplace else you check out their new venture.  Servers are possibly your greatest allies in all of this, so be very good to them. In addition to time and money, what keeps it in check if you’re doing it right is learning quality over quantity in your relationships.  It’s like if you had to choose only one of the two: being the best in the world at collecting stamps or decent at fucking.  My approach to all of this has never deviated one bit from being an okay fucker. You understand what I mean, or you do not.

            This is now a world where any random customer has the power to go online and rebrand their ego as community service in any number of groups or review sites, and rely on bottom of the barrel socialization as a means to band together with the only other people who can stand them in order to create the illusion of influence.  And honestly, when the only reviews from The New York Times that get on anyone’s radar are basically just hit pieces on the least and most highly regarded restaurants, how do you expect people with little knowledge and even less discipline to act? Hospitality means you can never just tell someone to shut up and stop being a fucking idiot, and in a real-time digital world that is incredibly empowering to idiots.  Stupid people don’t know that they are stupid, so when loud works for them they feel smart or connected.  That’s a big part of why I get overly defensive watching people work in my worst nightmare of a customer facing environment….and manage to handle that shit.  The God business I used to work in doesn’t hold a candle to dealing with that kind of customer. I don’t put much value on knowing a lot of people for the sake of having dining companions, so it’s rare to find a group as genuinely cool as folks in the service industry.  Everyone is the right kind of fucked up, they have a certain patina to their character that can only exist under the right pressure. You’re obviously in good company when talking about food, but also art, music, movies, travel, and everyone is about digging right into the good shit.  Shit gets real and moves pretty quickly.  Loyalty and discretion count for a lot. My sense of humor demands a pretty specific audience, and for the most part that is exactly the right one.  You have to get close enough to learn first hand the impacts of most not having health insurance, or how much work has to get done before and after the two hours you spend at your table.  The general ass busting to mop the bar and dining room after a First Friday clusterfuck or getting a lung full of degreaser cleaning the hoods. Plus every kind of injury. Cars breaking down. POS system breaking down. Puke in the bathroom. The dark side of everyone’s beloved goddamn Restaurant Week. Drunk naked guys wrestling in the alley outside the back door. You learn quickly that the chefs who run the top kitchens in the most expensive restaurants are not automatically rich,  and other than samples during line up your server may or may not ever get to sit down and have the same meal they just brought you.  When you see an owner’s cute baby in the dining room with them and their spouse, it’s probably because there is work they both have to get done and also this might be the most time they all spend with each other all week.  There are a million things to add that could better illustrate my point, but I’m not the best suited to tell that story.

            So yeah, I don’t care what you put on your hot dog.  And if you don’t want to eat gluten I’m more likely to understand your feelings than the person who scours the internet to find articles about why you’re wrong. With all of this contrast that seems to complicate things in this culture as much as possible, I have been trying to back off a bit and examine what really motivates me. When is food just food and when is it something more?  Where does business stop and community begin?  How seriously am I taking my own stupid white people problems? Beyond any fear of the future has been relief in the fact that 2016 finally let us all go, and now maybe we can try and come to terms with the people we lost by understanding what makes them matter to us.  I’ve been digging back into my mind to trace sense memory and meals where I think of the people before I try and remember what I even ate. After the first time I ever saw someone get shot we went to KoKoMo Drive-In on Leavenworth Road.  The food was never as good as Peter’s Drive-In on State Avenue, but in those moments of complete sensory overload you stick with what’s far more low-key.  And those first dates at Metropolis, with women I would never get to sleep with even though I was fancy enough to take them someplace where fried oysters were in the salad and one sauce even had caviar.  Awkward moments either highlighted or soothed by food.  All of this stuff is what was bubbling in my brain when I got in my car and headed to Topeka of all places. I ran into a childhood friend last summer. Steven and I were both from the same neighborhood and had the same friends through grade school and junior high. We hung out with some of the same incredibly bad people during high school and would see each other from time to time. Neither of us had any idea what the other had been up to for all of these years, and both of us were probably a little surprised that the other was alive and well with no prison record.  Because it’s what I do, the conversation eventually went to food and it turned out he was still close to a friend we had in common until they moved away in seventh or eighth grade. I didn’t think too much of it when Steven told me that our friend Joe ran a restaurant in Topeka now, because when am I ever going to Topeka for dinner?  But I got ahold of him again to see if he could reach out to Joe for me after I read about his place in an article from a couple of years ago.  I’ve been around for a while and have heard of, or actually visited, every type of gimmick or theme restaurant you can think of. But something made Joe’s place sound legitimate, and popular.  If someone just died, or was dying, or if you were going through a divorce or needed to tell your spouse you WANTED a divorce…his restaurant had somehow become the place people went.  At the most difficult time of your life, whatever it was, it was the place to go.  So I headed out.

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Categories: Food Blog, Kansas City, New, Uncategorized

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