In one of the most famous bits from the comedy sketch show “Portlandia,” a couple asks a restaurant server for more information about the chicken: Was it raised locally? What was it fed? How much room did it have to run around? The server then presents the couple with a dossier on a chicken named Colin, the bird who might be their dinner.
The joke is only in that extreme final beat. In 2011, when the scene aired, the answers to those first questions were common on restaurant menus. Farm-to-table dining was in, and with it, menu ink spilled over which farms and ranches supplied what. Details were currency, and celebrity chefs heaped praise on their celebrity butchers, bakers and cheesemakers.
Since then, food trends have come and gone at breakneck speeds. But through it all, another pattern has played out across the industry, one that has found chefs who had climbed to dizzying professional heights felled by harrowing accounts of workplace abuse. Things won’t really improve until we begin to interrogate the basic conditions of restaurant labor.
The good news is that chefs themselves may already have established a way to begin that conversation. Silly as they sometimes seem, ostentatious farm-to-table sourcing lists were always implicitly about acknowledging forms of labor that had grown increasingly invisible in the age of factory farming. Restaurateurs should start to apply the same logic internally, naming and identifying the many creative and collaborative players — from line cooks to rising star sous chefs — who engineer the dishes that make their dining rooms so popular.
Consider the recent case of Jessica Koslow of Los Angeles cafe Sqirl, an establishment that came under scrutiny when a photo of a moldy bucket of her famous jam surfaced. Koslow makes a point of working with local farms to get ingredients for these $14-a-jar jams and dishes like ricotta toast and a crispy rice salad. But according to allegations by members of her staff, her restaurant also has a windowless prep kitchen where workers say they were shut in during health inspections. It was arguably precisely because it is so easy to let restaurant workers toil uncredited that such problems are common.
Indeed, some of Koslow’s employees also allege that the very recipes that have been part of Sqirl since its beginning — the ones that made the restaurant famous and garnered Koslow recognition like a James Beard Award nomination — were developed by kitchen staff. (She has released a statement on Instagram disputing this claim.)
Such stories, along with questions of cultural appropriation such as those leveled at cookbook author and columnist Alison Roman, are common in part because it’s often hard to say who, exactly, “owns” a dish. Cultural influences and half-remembered past meals can always play a role in recipe development, which is, in any case, often a collaborative effort, especially in professional kitchens. And because recipes can’t be copyrighted, the very idea of authorship is murky.
Chef Joshua McFadden may have helped introduce the world to the now ubiquitous kale Caesar salad in the early 2000s, but others had, of course, employed the hearty greens in similar preparations before, and many more have iterated on it since. Arguing about who “created” this dish — which is itself inspired by a salad that may not even originate with the man who attached his name to it — is ultimately a fool’s errand.
Further, restaurants develop new recipes all the time. Corporate chains have whole teams devoted to coming up with the next cheeseburger egg roll. The names behind trendy restaurants have some pressure to keep innovating. But once a chef becomes famous, they may not be around to do this development themselves, so they trust their staff to come up with new dishes that fit within the culinary ethos they’ve established.
For example, Mashama Bailey, who’s executive chef and co-owner of The Grey in Savannah, Ga., says that when she was sous chef at Prune in New York City, the restaurant’s chef, Gabrielle Hamilton, encouraged her to cook what she wanted eat, leading her to develop more personal dishes. At Alinea in Chicago, chef Grant Achatz told the kitchen to “make food float,” so then-sous chef Mike Bagale invented a helium balloon made of sugar, one of the restaurants iconic dishes.
And that’s impressive, but I keep thinking of Colin the chicken.
Things seemed so much simpler a decade ago when that “Portlandia” sketch aired. Yes, the quality of the ingredients is crucial to making restaurant dishes taste good, and calling attention to that benefits everyone. Menu call-outs help diners feel involved and give them another point of connection to what they’re eating. They make the chefs look generous for sharing the spotlight. They provide free marketing and promotion for farms doing good work on thin margins. They even give food writers like me easy access to new story angles.
Given how readily chefs have shared the spotlight where ingredients are concerned, maybe it’s time they started more directly acknowledging the kitchen, too. I imagine this playing out on menus themselves, which might, for example, tell us not just which nearby farm provided the beef in a steak salad, but also which line cook dreamed up the dressing. Certainly, such an approach would boost morale of the workers themselves, who are often underpaid and putting in long hours. And being able to cite specific dishes for which they were credited could help cooks — who are often otherwise anonymous to journalists and potential financiers — advance in their careers.
Would diners be put out to see in writing that the meal they’re eating might not have come directly from the marquee-name chef? Would some of the glamour be lost?
Let’s give people a little credit. Surely, if nothing else, diners are aware that there are lots of workers in the kitchen. They likely also understand that if a chef owns a lot of restaurants and/or does a lot of TV appearances, they can’t be in more than one place at one time. For restaurant customers, this would have the same effect as crediting farms: Seeing the name of the sous chef or prep cook who invented the sandwich or exquisitely designed the ravioli or thought to add the fried shallots would help form a connection.
Such recognition would probably take different forms, much as farm-to-table call-outs do now. It could be as simple as adding some text like, “This dish was created by Bob the sous chef,” where applicable. It could be a page of credits on the back of the menu, or an employee-of-the-month-style spotlight on staff members that calls attention to some of their direct contributions. It doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all solution.
I think I speak for the inclinations of my colleagues when I say that if a few prominent restaurants adopted some version of this practice, good press would follow. That might inspire more restaurants to adopt the practice, and they could put their own spins on it.
The larger benefit as the practice spread would be that diners wouldn’t have look anywhere except the menu in front of them to learn something about the people who actually prepare their food. That, in turn, would bring the workers to the forefront, potentially amplifying conversations about restaurant labor. Systemic mistreatment would, one hopes, be harder to sustain in restaurants where the smaller names are also literally on the menu.
For some, including chefs who are reluctant to have real conversations about labor, all of this may seem like a step too far. After all, the coronavirus pandemic has brought up numerous questions and concerns about the very model of restaurant operations. For those people who have become famous and successful after working their way up that same chain of uncredited labor, this idea might seem like just another nit to pick at.
But chefs aren’t a monolith, and many of them are already happy to give credit where it’s due. I hope that they will lead the way, becoming even more transparent about what a collaborative effort it is to create a menu. If they do, it’s possible that, at long last, hard-working and talented people will get the same care and attention as Colin the chicken.