By Amy Sherman
Professor Paul Freedman has many academic specialties at Yale University, including: medieval social history, the history of Catalonia, comparative studies of the peasantry, trade in luxury products, and — last but not least — the history of cuisine. His latest book is Ten Restaurants That Changed America, where he discusses which 10 restaurants have been the most influential –not necessarily the best — in terms of changing not only what Americans eat, but how we eat. That means who we share tables with, and how our eating habits reflect changes in the country — such as the end of slavery and the African diaspora, the rise of the middle class, the changing role of women in society, and much more.
This isn’t your first book about food, but how did a professor of medieval history come to write about restaurants in America?
I had a fellowship at the New York Public library. I was fascinated by the menu collection. There was one menu from Ladies Ordinary in Astor House in 1843, and it seemed so un-female. The menu had kidneys, calf brains, wild ducks. So that was my original interest. Coincidently I was asked to review books on food.
Why are New York and the San Francisco Bay Area so prominent in your list of the 10 restaurants that changed America?
If I were writing a history of American cuisines, they wouldn’t be so prominent. I would include the South and New England. But trends, including trends on dining, tend to start on the coasts. Both cities are influenced by ports and by France. Some of it is simply fashion.
Any restaurants that almost but didn’t quite make the cut?
Yes, the French Laundry and Alinea. The French Laundry combines farm-to-table and molecular trends. When it comes to runner-up categories it would be hard to ignore Mexican, steakhouses, and barbecue. I would choose sushi for its culinary influence. Sushi was regarded with virtual horror at first, and now it’s become ubiquitous.
Only a few of the 10 restaurants are still open. If you had to choose restaurants open today, which restaurants do you think are changing America?
In categories like fast casual — Shake Shack, or Chipotle— for Asian influences, Benu. With captive audiences (museum attendees)—In Situ or Danny Meyer’s Untitled at the Whitney. Sean Brock of Husk in Charleston and Nashville, and Frank Sitt of Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham are rediscovering Southern cuisine.
Your book begins with dining in the mid-1800s and ends in the 1970s with Chez Panisse. Which restaurateurs are the standard bearers of the trends of today?
David Chang might incorporate a number of them—Asian influence, informality, celebrity chef. Danny Meyer restaurants are meant to be non-intimidating, eclectic, farm-to-table with high-quality ingredients.
What do you make of the trend of restaurants being loud, either with music or ambient noise?
If you ask chefs why they do it, they say most of their clients under 40 like it. A too-quiet restaurant doesn’t have buzz. The celebrity chefs—they impose what they want. A genius chef can be slightly obnoxious.
Where are you dining on your book tour? What have been some of the standouts?
Since your book is about the dining experience, how do online reservations fit in?
Initially, I was afraid that restaurants would prefer it if you called; it was more personal. But I think it’s great. You don’t have to deal with people and you can see what’s available. OpenTable has made the experience much more convenient. It’s particularly useful in New York City, when you are looking for something in a particular walking distance. It has simplified things for the consumer. For the restaurateur, where you appear and how you’re ranked probably affects them.
What do you see in the future of dining in America?
Everything is an extrapolation, but vegetarian will be at the center of meals without people noticing it. There will be an adjustment around sustainable seafood, and also the revival of steakhouses.
In the wishful-thinking category, without being too scary, I’d say game rather than just meat. A lot of game is no longer plentiful but we have way too many deer, and wild pigs are a plague in the West. There are issues to work out to make it viable.
What’s happening behind the scenes in restaurants?
I was involved with a seminar in collaboration with MAD, an initiative at Yale to discuss sustainability, the environment, labor, immigrants, etc. The chefs were interested in a more humane kitchen, one more friendly towards women. All of the chefs meditated.
There are some things where you can’t humanize because it’s not based on humane values. You have to be on your feet if you want to be a waiter. But there could be a lot less yelling in some kitchens.
Many restaurant jobs are the ones that pay the least. Tipping is a big issue. Abolishing tipping can work for restaurateurs like Colicchio and Meyer, but it has failed many other places. Interestingly enough, at another time abolishing tipping in America was associated with decadence and being too European.
Amy Sherman is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, blogger, and cookbook author. She is the publisher of the food blog Cooking with Amy. She currently contributes to numerous online publications including Food Network, Fodor’s and Refinery 29 and never says no to a warm donut. Follow her @cookingwithamy.