To make it big in food right now, it’s not enough just to open a coffee microroastery you carved out of an old cabinet shop in Portland, or start making jam out of the kitchen in your brownstone on Bed-Stuy, or open a bagel shop in a Korean food ghetto in a bad neighborhood in Oakland, California. These days you can’t just make good food. These days you’ve got to have a good story.
Take a look at Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz’s Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas from an Improbable Restaurant, a book published last year. Myint and Leibowitz have perhaps the ultimate modern restaurant story: how a compulsion to serve food by any means possible ultimately led to Mission Chinese Food, a restaurant—if you knew it in San Francisco, in its early days—that seemed like the place least likely to take over New York City.
But now, food writers in New York are showing up to do photo essays of what’s in Mission Chinese chef Danny Bowien’s fridge, and Bowien himself told a reporter recently that he has plans to open three more locations. It shows you the power of a good story.
THE DAD NARRATIVE
Last Sunday in Oakland, California, I was part of the Beauty’s Bagel Shop story, or at least I tried to be. So did a lot of other people, lined up on the sidewalk out front of Blake Joffe and Amy Remsen’s Montreal-style bagel café just before 9 a.m., in gray summer fog.
Joffe’s story isn’t unusual, but it’s set in a place so particular it feels quasi-exotic. Joffe’s originally from Philadelphia, but his dad was from Montreal. On trips to the homeland, Joffe recalls being taken to places like St-Viateur and Fairmount Bagel, with its enormous, sagging wood oven turning out hand-rolled bagels. The name of his own shop Joffe got from Beautys diner, also in Montreal, a place he associated with his dad.
That yearning for family is crucial to a good food story—a grounding in memory, evoking a world that exists only in the past, attended by ghosts. (Mission Street Food opens with a tribute to Myint’s father, an eccentric who handed out rotting bananas so they wouldn’t go to waste.)
The rest of the Beauty's story is about striving: how Joffe nurtured this dream of a Montreal bagel shop, cooked in San Francisco restaurants, saving his money—even worked at a pizza place for experience with dough and an oven—while Remsen, his wife, pulled down restaurant shifts to make it happen.
Don’t think I’m cynical about this. Hey, I’m a writer, and if anything keeps a writer engaged it’s narrative. Maybe I was the first to report Joffe’s story, the first to mythologize his desire to re-create the bagels of his childhood. I accept whatever guilt I deserve. But I also know that, while we certainly feed the public’s hunger for stories, food writers didn’t create it—the thing that’ll get your Kickstarter funded, or get a couple hundred people out of bed on a Sunday morning to be among the first to buy your bagels is having a story they crave a connection to.
CHASING THE REAL
That marks a change in the way we think about food. Whereas once we expected food to be correct, in a formal sense. Sixty years ago, authorities like Craig Claiborne expected a dinner at the top crust of French restaurants in Manhattan to conform to certain unchangeable standards (hollandaise should always taste like an ideal of hollandaise); nowadays we expect food to be a chef’s artistic self-expression. We want it to come from the depths of its maker’s soul, whether that maker is a high-end chef, a pickle artisan, or someone who bakes bread.
We judge food today by an intangible quality called “authenticity.” And how we score that is partly to do with how well the food fits into some narrative of the person who made it. And food writers, rather than being mere critics, are now the tellers of those stories.
Back to Sunday morning on that foggy Oakland sidewalk, where I shared the line with other bagel hopefuls on Beauty’s first day in business: moms pushing double strollers, a kid with hip-hop bleeding out of his earbuds, other unshaved middle-aged guys like me, hoping for a quick half-dozen before darting home to sleeping wives or husbands. But soon a Beauty’s employee was elbowing her way outside to make an announcement. The bagels were almost gone. As a result there would be strict rationing—one bagel sandwich per customer.
The employee shrugged by way of an apology. “We didn’t know so many people would buy half-dozens.” By noon, the bagels would be completely gone. Sold out.
As I left the line to get in my car and face Whole Foods I was pissed, but only a little. Though the first chapter had ended in a bummer, I was part of Joffe and Remsen’s story after all. That’s what a lot of us in line had wanted, maybe even more than bagels: to experience—through someone else’s memory—an overheated bakery in Montreal 30 years ago, amid the reek of winter coats and burned flour.
Beauty's bagel photo by John Birdsall