Gabrielle Hamilton is looking at me like she’s deciding if I’m worthy of her hawk-like gaze. Her restaurant is called “Prune” and is lauded by restaurant critics but also by my mother, who sent me pictures of her meal there last year when I had typhoid and was on a steady diet of white rice and bananas. I cried with envy.
Or maybe Hamilton’s just bored. They’ve started the lecture with that clip of Julia Child roasting chickens. It’s what someone marginally knowledgeable about the food world would think that “foodies” (a gross word) would enjoy, but I can’t help but think Child’s legend has been super-saturated in recent years. She’s been the subject of a bestselling book and movie; her status as an icon of the American food movement has been repackaged for a new generation.
But the audience is loving it. I waltzed in at four-fifteen and was forced to take a seat in the front row because there are old people everywhere—standing, crouching, thanking God for their weekly yoga classes as they sit on the stairs. The noise is deafening—I’d forgotten how easily people laugh when they’re not constantly-posturing college students.
Christopher Albrecht, who works at Eno Terra, is the first to speak. He walked in wearing a leather jacket, but he’s changed into chef’s whites. He’s very eager—but too loud, not practiced. He talks about the importance of soil and GMOs and local food. Bruni and Hamilton exchange slyly mocking glances as he speaks. Hamilton looks at me again and I give what I hope is a look of commiseration. She smiles. I beam.
The next to go is Leonard Barkan. He wears tortoiseshell glasses and plaid pants with a tan coat. He talks about Slow Food and his time in Italy and the respectability of food writing. Of the five, he would be the easiest dinner companion. I take out my notebook, which was sheltered in my bag as Albrecht spoke, and Hamilton gives me an approving glance. I am desperate to please. I straighten my spine.
The panelists bicker about who’s going next and Bruni draws the short straw. He’s the star of this room and knows it. Even so, Professor Anne Cheng introduces him as “Paul,” and there is an audible gasp in the room. He goes pink in the face.
He mentions the Rome Bureau of the Times and how he’s a columnist now. It comes off as. “I’m better than a simple food writer.” He name-drops constantly—Hilary, who drank three glasses of wine at dinner; George W, who “liked things that were orange and crunchy.” He’s the columnist, his practiced point-anecdote-conclusion form evident in his story about a soap dispenser at an upscale restaurant that leaves the sixty-somethings in stitches.
He talks first about how he never wrote about food before his position as the restaurant critic at the Times. He says food is the best way to convey place, character, ritual. I have a hard time knowing if he’s sincere. He spends so much of his talk establishing his distance from the food world—defending his legitimacy as a journalist and apologizing for a job that required him to go out to dinner—that it strikes me not so much as self-deprecation but as defensiveness.
Anita Lo, of New York’s Annissa restaurant, speaks next. Of all the panelists, Lo is the one who immediately reads as a chef. She looks tired, on edge, but it seems like this combination is familiar to her. She speaks of different nannies—Hungarian, African-American—as her introduction to food, and there are quiet snorts until she gives her approval for their laughter by explaining, “I’m pretty much a WASP.”
It kills Bruni how natural she is. He’s given his talk dozens of times before but Lo is just winging it, to greater success. Her speech is punctuated with pauses and “um”s but these verbal tics only enhance the sensation that hers is the only truly personal talk. Barkan looks at the ceiling as Lo speaks, chin resting on his palms, thoughtful. Cheng perches on the edge of her seat with an affected look of concentration she’s borrowed from 92nd Street Y moderators.
The whole time, Hamilton has been writing in her notebook with a Sharpie. But she can’t avoid the podium any longer. “I would rather be boiled in oil than talk for ten minutes,” she says. Her hair is up, revealing stripes of black, blond, and gray. As she speaks, Bruni is smiling, respectful. She’s the only person in this room who can rival him in popularity. He and I are similar in that we both seek approval from the Queen Bee.
During the Q&A a woman complains about how fusion food combines things that “were never meant to go together” and become “disgusting” when they’re mixed. It comes off as a condemnation of cultural cross-pollination—even racism—and Lo fumes. “That’s not fusion,” she says. “That’s just a bad chef.” The woman argues with her and the other panelists step in. They’re about as close to yelling at her as you can get away with while seated at a table, under the lights. I like to think that Lo took her behind Marquand and really let her have it afterwards.
Each speaker has somehow qualified their affiliation with food with a different skill—Albrecht mentions his time studying finance at USC, Bruni of his column, Lo of her Columbia degree, Barkan of his academic writing, and now Hamilton’s flaunting of her master’s in writing and admission that she never wanted to be a chef.
So I ask a question. I ask how they deal with the stigma associated with their profession, when all have training that would qualify them to work in a more prestigious sector than what is still seen as a service industry.
“You’re asking me how to tell your parents you want to be a chef,” Hamilton interrupts, and the room explodes with laughter.
That’s not what I was asking, but I laugh along with them. Lo understands my query and says, “As a chef, you are a servant. But I had a French degree, so what’re you going to do?” It’s not the answer I want. I want you to tell me I’m going to be fine. I want you to offer me something. Advice. A job. An apartment for me to stay in while I intern in your restaurant.
At the end, a friend and I go up and say thank you to Bruni. He is polite and offers no further conversation. It’s embarrassing to be up on stage, waiting with the other overeager attendees. We move to Lo and she is far friendlier than Bruni. An older man jumps in the conversation. “Annie,” he calls her. She doesn’t know him. “We named our dog after you,” he says. We’re laughing as we jump down from the stage, infinitely less embarrassed about our presence.
We go to Wilcox and eat salad off plastic plates and talk about foie gras. We’re there for two-and-a-half hours. I wonder if Hamilton would approve.