Why The Death Of Restaurants Could Be The Death Of Culture In America
Updated: May 8
I can acknowledge very few things, that in the same capacity, can be as accessible and valuable as eating food from another culture. There is a basic, primal dialogue that exists between the cook who created your meal and the person eating it. The cook says, "look at this thing I made, I experience pleasure from it, I think it has value, I find it important." Then the guest responds one of two ways - "I agree" or "I disagree". It's this instantaneous affirmation, trust or disgust upon consumption. It is a form of consuming culture, history and human density in a way, that you can smell, taste, touch, hear & see. You do not require language to understand that something is delicious. In many cultures you don't need tables. In few rather, utensils or plates are unnecessary. It is the most important exchange in our United States and the greater rest of the world. It was something fundamental that was happening every day up until last week.
The experience between eating in a Chinese restaurant or an Indian restaurant, or any restaurant for that matter is invaluable. Interacting with a culture through an exchange of food creates understanding & empathy. Religion, politics, language; none of that matters. Did I show up to your restaurant and trust you with my time, my money, and my nourishment? Yes. Did I enjoy it? Whether the answer is yes or no, there is something undoubtedly human about contriving an opinion about the people who served you your meal. We yelp it, review it, some of us make a career out of our criticisms. Through food, the cultures, the countries, and the cuisines of others become something to be celebrated - or not. If a friend recommends you a restaurant that you don't enjoy, you will naturally speculate the decency behind their next recommendation. It is human. We live to make judgments. This is why it is so unbelievably important, that as citizen of the world, that we exercise our privilege to experience these different cultures. One good meal or experience at an Indian restaurant could be the difference between you standing up for a person of ethnicity against a bigot, or deflecting something racist because you have a sentiment to share with those being targeted. But if we cannot empathize with people, what then stops us from dehumanizing them? If there is no evidence, delicious food or other, what then is left to judge them on? I'd argue that some of the most racist & close-minded communities in the world have the least cultural diversity in food.
The American Dream can be defined by the belief that no matter where someone was born, and no matter to what class, an individual can attain success in their own definition by the upward mobility and opportunity that America as a nation presents to everyone. I watched my family grow a community of Iranians around them through our restaurant, one bowl of soup at a time. Over the span of 2 decades, we noticed the immersion of different cultures. We meet individuals who found themself curious about our food. Our greatest privilege was that our doors were open to everyone, and that community responded to us. They responded by trusting us, investing in us, and most importantly, empathizing with us. When the conflict between Iran & United States happened back in January, friends and families in my home town of Vancouver became casualties in the tragic plane crash of PS752. It was not just Iranians that morned them. It was not just our cultural community that spoke out. We stood united, with our bakery shop guests, our 6am Persian bread buyers, our devoted customers of all races and colors, who give us the privilege to work and cook everyday. As a son of immigrants, I know that many of our families came to this country with nothing. We built the communities that now divide city maps into cultural territories in the United States like "Chinatown"or "Little Armenia". And the passion that fuels our upward mobility, that inspires our "American Dream" - it has always been nourished through good food.
I moved to New York when I was 18 years old. It was a decision that still to this day gives me bone chill anxiety to think about. It was hard beyond refute. I was always broke. I nearly died, twice. I was more miserable there in certain moments than I have ever been in my life. It was only in the response to the blatantly racist dialogues that I experienced through the news, media, and people, where I dealt with my unrest by cooking and sharing the foods of my culture. I mustered the bravery necessary to share my life, my family and our stories with America through food. I was not content with being called a terrorist. I was not satisfied by how the media painted me and people like me. I was not going to be complacent in my position. So I cooked, and everything changed. I grew a community around me one dinner at a time. I built a network of projects and partners who all believed that food and community had the ability to make our country a more inclusive place for everyone. I woke up everyday feeling like the most privilege chef in the world because of who I got to stand beside, for the impact our community was making, and for the teachers who prepared me for every next opportunity. I'm now filled with nightmares. Long nights of panicked work - a sleepless haze of trying to support the people who I love and admire most. The fear stems from an uncertainty in that our industry is going to have to make a massive shift to regrow, and at what indelible cost to our culture?
The kitchen saved my life. This could likely be true for many chefs. If I did not have the option to cook for my livelihood, I'd find little in this life to live for. I worked my way through kitchens that would pay me next to nothing for work. Many cooks make minimum wage. Some make salaries that are barely liveable. The margins of any restaurant, from the most prodigious fine dining establishments to your neighborhood spot are thin. There are over 650,000 restaurants in the United States alone. It's estimated that over 14 million people in America worked in the food service industry. Cooking food and serving people is not some form of easy scheme to get rich and do it quick. Those who are purely in the business of food even still have people who are devoted to the service of it. The many of us are in this industry for our livelihood, one form or another. I cannot imagine the repercussions and unrest if this industry is not cared for, but most importantly, put back to work.
The most powerful form of change comes from the union and effort of one community working together for the greater good of everyone. Each and every person right now has the ability to make an impact in how we revive our culture through food, and how we grow out our industry into something worth celebrating. The question is not about whether restaurants come back or not, but about how. What do the compromises or sacrifices entail? How do we aspire to any form of livelihood again? I have my own business, I have to be realistic. There is an undoubtedly commercial shift our industry will have to take for some time, growing pains that every restaurant and food service establishment will have to go through. At least those who will be able to come back from this at a certain capacity. But the population we serve has the ability to carry our vision with us. They have to be brave enough to engage with our local restaurants when we find ourselves beyond this pandemic - more so than just to order take-out or delivery. Those with financial mobility need to champion a cause in the industry and recognize that it is a direct investment into their own community. It demands that we are present at our current dinner tables with our families, eating and sharing meals with our loved ones, and recognizing the value in that comradery. This is an opportunity for our industry and its supporting communities all across the world to become something so much closer. We are all waiting for the chance to welcome you again to our dinner tables, to cook for you, to connect with you, and we hope that when the time comes - you'll join us.