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Why We Still Love Restaurants
Talking with Corey Mintz about his new book, 'The Next Supper'
Pre-pandemic, we were only beginning to examine the many pitfalls that plague the restaurant industry: low wages, few benefits, sexism, racism, parasitic delivery apps, food that wasn’t good for our collective health, and Big Ag practices that harm the environment. As we are well aware, all of these problems have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
For his new book, The Next Supper: The End of Restaurants as We Knew Them, and What Comes After, Canadian cook-turned-writer Corey Mintz has been chronicling how the industry has been changing — and how we can make it better in a post-pandemic era.
“Brilliantly written and deeply researched,” Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of NYC’s Dirt Candy wrote, “Corey has delivered the book the restaurant industry has been waiting for. We're in a crisis, and this book turns every question on its head and gives us real-life answers. Every single person interested in food needs to read this book.”
For Broken Palate, Corey tells us about his disillusionment with restaurants — and why he grew to love them again.
How Can You Still Love Restaurants?
By Corey Mintz
Over the last couple of months, doing press for my book, I’ve been asked the same question in a dozen different ways: Given how many years I’ve spent focusing on all the problems within the restaurant industry — if I still love restaurants, and if so, how.
Yes, I still love restaurants. But having had time to really consider this question, I realize that for a long stretch, I did not.
It didn’t take long into my cooking career to see the rot and inequality. But I was in love, so I looked the other way. I was enthralled by the almost supernatural abilities taught by my elders; the physical sensitivity to know when a piece of meat is medium-rare simply by poking it, or the mental dexterity to keep track of 30 things happening within my arm’s reach. Later, when I became a restaurant critic, I was daunted by the responsibility of the job and awed by the new world of gastronomic pleasures opened by the privilege of my position. So I looked the other way.
Eventually, I started reporting about the exploitative nature of fine dining, and the host of inequities pinballing around the restaurant sector. After I stopped looking the other way, I couldn’t look away. And the closer I looked, the less I was able to love restaurants.
It wasn’t just the structural pay inequality amplified by tipping. And it wasn’t just chefs and owners, at the peak of their popularity, happy to spout Darwinian mantras to justify why their employees weren’t paid for all the hours they worked. It was also workers, both vigorous young rookies and sore-backed veterans, so conditioned to accept the insubstantial pay and abusive environments, who would vocally object to any calls for the system to change. Accepting that they’d never get a dollar more than minimum wage, so many seemed willing to settle for a boss who didn’t scream at them. It’s always been this way, they’d tell me. Even in 2015, as chefs complained of a growing worker shortage, they wouldn’t consider a connection between the dwindling roster of job applicants and the lousy compensation.
If diners didn’t care, and the workers being exploited didn’t either, why did I?
For a while, I contemplated a new line of work. I’d fallen out of love with restaurants and there didn’t seem to be an audience for the stories about how the industry needed to modernize. I remember one editor telling me that a story I’d filed, about rooftop restaurants, sounded angry. She was right. I didn’t want to eat in restaurants or write about them.
And then, two editors encouraged me not to quit. They did so in the way that mattered. They offered me work. They let me write not just about labor in the restaurant industry, but in agriculture, about the economics of hospital and prison food, the history of Indigenous cuisine, land rights, Canada’s exportation of beef and lobster, edible insects, and public school food education.
Having dug my own professional grave — steering my career into the dead-end lane of restaurant labor — I went in the only direction I had left. I dug deeper. Eventually, having gone as far as I could with short-form writing, I decided to write a book, looking not just at problems in the industry, but solutions. Halfway through that process, a pandemic began. One of the unexpected consequences was that the culture of restaurants, in addition to the economic model, was thrown into a blender.
We knew restaurants were going to change as a result of the pandemic, and not merely by putting up sneeze guards and focusing on takeout. But for nearly 18 months, I didn’t sit down to eat in a restaurant. Spending that time thinking about nothing but restaurants, and needing to research and write a book that channeled criticism into a positive, constructive message, I had to tap into my dormant love.
What I did, in those moments when I couldn’t connect my contemporary view of the industry with good feelings, is go back to the beginning — to my first restaurant crush.
Taste of Szechuan, an unremarkable restaurant on Eglinton Street in Toronto, served less of the fiery cuisine of its namesake province, than the Cantonese-style cooking common to Chinese-Canadian restaurants of the 1980s. Think wok-fried celery and gloopy, cornstarch-y sauces.
Today, I have no taste for this style of food (I can’t eat there anyway because it’s long gone). But as a kid, it was magical. Raised by a single father, on Fridays we’d go to a movie and dinner. So I have strong memories of sitting down at Taste of Szechuan, after The Goonies, or Tron, or Return of the Jedi, and ordering “chicken in a pot” and a Coke (with no ice, per my father’s instructions, to get more drink in the glass). The dish was stir-fried chunks of boneless chicken, garlic, scallions, and big discs of ginger, a sauce made in the wok with chicken stock and soy sauce, thickened with cornstarch, and served in a French onion soup bowl. If there were any Szechuan peppercorns, they were barely a cameo. It’s a dish that is out of vogue with today’s enthusiasm for regional Chinese specialties. These days, we’re not supposed to use the word “exotic” to describe food outside our culture; as a child from a Jewish background, where our diets consisted of the six dishes my father knew how to make, it was exotic (as was pizza).
In the moments when my distrust of the restaurant industry took hold, I thought of that chicken in a pot. The scent of ginger, mingled with the warm memories of a 10-year-old’s post-cinema haze, the luxury of a server taking our orders and bringing food to our table: food that we couldn’t or wouldn’t make at home reminds me why I love restaurants.
That memory was like a bookmark for my affection — until I was able to renew my vows, which happened unexpectedly, as the pandemic reshaped the relationship between restaurants, workers, owners, and the public.
In 2015, cooks were reluctant to talk to me, even off the record, or anonymously. They were so afraid of being labeled as ungrateful, or worse, as agitators. By the spring of 2020, so many took to their own social media accounts to voice their objections to labor standards harassment and discrimination from employers, managers, and diners. Fed up, the disruption to employment loosened many a tongue.
Here’s what a famous chef/restaurateur said to me in 2015, in response to allegations of his cooks working two hours a day for free.
“The problem is that you have guys that are like, ‘I’m coming in at noon. I don’t care that start time is 2:00 p.m. I’m going to come and help.’ That’s our culture. You have students and younger cooks that are incredibly motivated and driven. And we are all about pushing to improve yourself, to become a chef. The guys that don’t come in two hours early, they do absolutely not get flack as long as they’re on top of their shit. These guys are just as valuable as anybody else.”
I’m not saying that this type of chef has changed their attitude. But they wouldn’t dream of saying this to a reporter today. Because the tone has shifted. Because workers are not propping up this kind of boss anymore. They have become much more aware of their legal rights, and much less afraid to stand up for them. When as much as a quarter of your workforce doesn’t return from a pandemic break, it’s hard to ignore the message.
Doing the reporting for The Next Supper, I spoke with restaurateurs who are using different models of hierarchy — profit-sharing, employee-ownership, open-book management — in order to create more sustainable jobs. Listening to their stories, and seeing that they are not having any trouble attracting talent, while their peers complain that “no one wants to work anymore,” has reawakened my hopefulness about change in the restaurant industry.
Lately, I’ve been asking restaurateurs: if I’m thinking of eating in their place, how they pay and/or divide tips. It’s not as rude as you might think. While this isn’t happening everywhere, I am hearing more and more from restaurateurs who have changed the division of tips between front-of-house and back-of-house, from the old practice of 95:5 to a 70:30 or 60:40 split.
I was just in touch with an Ottawa restaurateur, and before I could even ask, she told me, “It’s important to me that you know our restaurant has, from the onset (April 2020) been part of the living wage network guidelines. No one makes less than $18.22 an hour, plus health benefits (the equivalent of $14.01 USD). And our tips are shared equally with FOH / BOH with a point system of daily hours worked. I employ 26 people. This is the only model I wish to be involved in, and if it doesn’t work I don’t want to operate.”
For years, I used my Taste of Szechuan memory to “fake it till you make it” get me through, the way an actor channels a personal experience to connect with the emotions of the scene.
I don’t need it anymore. Because I’m hearing more and more from restaurateurs, willing to reconsider the dynamic of their business in order to treat everyone as fairly as possible. That’s inspiring. That makes me love restaurants again.