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By Elizabeth Royte
If only truth in advertising laws pertained to book subtitles and promotional copy. Andrew Friedman’s The Dish: The Lives and Labor Behind One Plate of Food promises to introduce every hand behind a single restaurant dish and trace each key ingredient back to its origin, thus providing a “vivid snapshot of the contemporary restaurant community, modern farming industry, and food-supply chain.” But Friedman’s purview is almost willfully myopic, stopping far short of laudable goals. Our food system contains many dark corners: this book has little interest in exploring, or even acknowledging, most of them.
Chicago’s Wherewithall restaurant, helmed by Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark — winners of a James Beard: Great Lakes award in 2019 for their restaurant Parachute — serves a seasonal prix fixe menu for $160, including wines and cheese, and Friedman chooses to focus on the last of its savory courses, a dry-aged strip loin served with a dehydrated tomato and a scattering of sorrel leaves. He introduces us to the dramatis personae — front of house and back — tracing the toils and snares that led them to Wherewithall’s door. But when he leaves the restaurant to follow the breadcrumbs backward, the book turns into a bland promotion for various regional producers of vegetables and meat.
Friedman’s first stop is in Forrest, Illinois, where the Slagel Family Farm raises the cattle — outdoors, on both grasses and grains — from which the restaurant’s strip loins derive. With its farm dinners and green-leaning practices (running its delivery trucks on used cooking oil, for example), Slagel sounds like a great place, the kind of farm envisioned by the “good food movement,” which aims to revolutionize how food is produced and eaten.
But despite the movement’s best efforts, the vast majority of meat consumed in American restaurants and purchased at grocery stores doesn’t come from operations like Slagel, but from industrial feedlots where tens of thousands of animals gorge on taxpayer subsidized grain often laced with hormones and antibiotics. Once animals are slaughtered, they’re processed in huge plants by foreign-born workers — increasingly refugees — who work on fast-moving lines in freezing temperatures for hours at a time. Meatpacking is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.
It’s fine if Friedman didn’t want to tell that story, but if the goal of a nonfiction book is to educate as well as entertain, then this broader reality is important context for readers who may not be aware how unusual a place like Slagle Family Farm is.
Friedman spends oodles of time with farm owners, but he has a blind spot for farmworkers, mostly declining to individualize them or detail their demanding and essential labor, what they are paid, or what their lives are like (he spends six pages on a young waitress’s backstory). At a tomato farm “some young Latinos” help “on an as-needed basis” and “a team member” cleans vegetables at a washing station. At an herb farm, an anonymous “team” arrives at 4:30 a.m. to harvest, wash, and pack. Do team members have children sleeping at home without adult supervision? Are they paid enough to buy health insurance? What accommodations are made for work days when the heat is extreme? Unknown.
The Dish is at its best unpacking restaurant culture, discussing the toxic atmosphere of cooking schools and many fine-dining kitchens (but not Wherewithall’s, apparently), reporting on sexism, racism, bullying, locker room talk, and exploitative practices. And the book does a good job explaining how a chef places orders with vendors, how diners’ orders get tracked, how meals are cooked, plated, and served. (Spoiler: It’s less exciting than depicted on The Bear.) All this makes The Dish a valuable primer for the kitchen curious — it includes definitions of terms like “walk in,” “deuce,” and “amuse bouche” — and a welcome corrective to the fantasy of cooking shows, social media, and celebrity chef tell-alls.
But therein lies a conundrum: those other forms — however fictionalized — tend to be exciting and fun. In contrast, Wherewithall’s employees lead fairly quotidian lives, and their voices are often anodyne and bland. Many stumbled through school, suffered from depression, ADHD, and low self-esteem before finding fulfillment at Wherewithall.
There’s nothing wrong with elevating such voices. But The Dish would have been a far more interesting project if Friedman hadn’t opted out of interrogating or even slightly complicating his narrative to address class, labor, and environmental issues far beyond the kitchen pass-through.
Still, one theme — the precarious nature of restaurant work — enters the picture organically. Just five months before Friedman’s book was published, the sewer line from the restaurant to the street ruptured and Wherewithall was forced to close. And just like that, everyone was out of job.