Inside the Foodie Matrix, Or: Why Food PR People Are Worthless

This is how restaurant people spend their days....
This is how restaurant people spend their days....
David C. Mau

Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops by Stick A Fork In It to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!

Winter here in the OC may lack the simple charms of a New England one but it does have its advantages. We don't get many snowball fights, sleigh rides or other such trappings but we are granted a great time to surf. When the water warms up just a tad and that wind turns around with just the right swell, truth be told, I'll trade all the mittens and hot cocoa in the world for that. Awhile back one of those perfect days materialized and suddenly it was like mid-July at The Cliffs in HB and I found myself in the company of a couple other chefs along with one pal from outside the industry getting ready for a weekday paddle out. It was a rare, random gathering with a couple buddies who cut fish, a long-time server, one who works the line at a high-end steak joint and another that owns his own hipster restaurant in central OC. My non-industry friend was stoked to tag along. He's a desk jockey but considers himself a bit of a "foodie" and was excited to hang with us and pick our brains.

After said session we adjourned to Zubie's Dry Dock (where all sensible people in The Biz go after surfing) and spent a couple hours drinking pitchers of cheap beer, eating oysters Rockefeller and talking shop. We were tossing around what chefs and shops were hot, those that were not. The ones that have their shit together, the ones that are flat-out overrated. What food trends were already played out and what may be next. Mixed in with all this was the usual banter about customer/back of house nightmares. My non-industry pal was a silent witness as we all opined about this stuff--we're a pretty vocal group and I think he was intrigued by what he considered an "insider's" view. We all left a bit tipsy and quite full. My buddy and I headed back to Orange with a quick pitstop at The Fling for a last pop. During the drive my friend was kind of quiet until we got closer to home, then he opened up.

"So, all those shops you guys talked about, the ones everyone said were overrated and charged too much?"

"Yes?"

"Well, those are the one the wife, I and all of our foodie friends got to. What's up with that?"

I was a little taken aback and not just because he really didn't know what was behind the whole foodie phenomena, how PR plays into perception, and how it drives people to specific shops. I was also struck by how accepting of the foodie status quo people have become. It's beyond formulaic. Invisible, pervasive and insidious as The Matrix, if you want to see it for what it is, well, then I am your Morpheus.

As far as I'm concerned, a really good restaurant doesn't need a PR person. If it does, it's minimal: just enough to navigate the nuts and bolts of that world, writing a boilerplate press release or basic social media stuff. Also, it's not a hard and fast rule but it's generally true that a PR person's primary function is to steer you in the direction of some shop that may or not be quite all that and make you pay a premium for their "inspired mediocrity" as a fellow industry person once put it. That being said, blaming a food PR person for doing their job is like blaming a compass for pointing north. Their chosen vocation is gonna cover their mortgage, put food on the table and maybe put their kids through college. The one thing you won't hear about these machinations is they're usually a charade of Mad Men-esque proportions. I get this isn't a fun thought! When I tell my friends outside The Biz they look at me like I just told them their puppy died or there is no Santa Claus. But like all childhood fantasies, this must come to an end.  

The Lugar Burger.......
The Lugar Burger.......
David C. Mau

You know who food PR people are? They're the ones that convinced the dining public there is this mythical creature called a "gastropub" (there isn't) and that it's cool to queue up for an overpriced short pour of Pliny The What The Fuck Ever (it's not). Just because someone reaches into their grab bag of random "gourmet" ingredients and throws them on a plate, with the obligatory overly-worded description, doesn't mean anything at all. A joint like that recently tried to ding me 22 bucks for a burger. Hell, Peter Lugar in Brooklyn makes possibly the best one in the world and theirs is 12. Oh, and their doors have been open since 1877.

Some people say I'm being negative but I'm not, quite the opposite. You already have much of what you need food wise. You have basted eggs on a cold morning at home with your significant other, a random drunken Taco Bell run, that local shithole bar that just so happens to make the best burger ever, your long dead great Aunt's wacky pasta recipe that you ate every year when you visited, never really liked but you still make anyway. I have an ebelskiver pan that's been in the family for generations and, believe me, I get weepy every time I use it.

It's heart; it's soul. That's what food is, that's what love is. It's not getting gouged somewhere because a random hashtag says it's worth it. That doesn't mean you shouldn't be expanding your culinary scope but it does mean don't believe the hype. Get out there, find that tiny spot that nobody knows about and make it your own. Buy tamales off that abuelita in the parking lot at Northgate. Eat that perfect pastrami sandwich at Fantastic Cafe in SanTana, even if the joint is filled with screaming kids. Savor that probably less-than-ideal grilled bratwurst at Orange International Street Fair while some drunkass spills beer on your shoes. Drive down to Little Saigon and crap shoot it into some random pho joint. Find the closest Argentinian market and get some real chimichurri. Find a legit deli like De Simone in HB (that place is great and NOBODY knows about it). Hit that sushi joint that only has menus in Japanese. Get the best damn taco ever at Taqueria Tapatia #1 and just ignore the floor. None of those places has a PR person and their food is fine. Most of all, realize that just because you pay a premium price for a meal doesn't necessarily mean the experience is worthwhile; it does mean you're being told it is.

It's like that scene from Ratatouille when the super uptight and impossible to please food critic wells up with tears. It's not because he read it was good, some loudmouth foodie was popping off about it or because a PR person wrote a nice press release. It's because a dish touched his soul, made him transcend the table and tap into something much, much more than what's on the end of his fork.

In the end it depends on how you measure success in The Biz: dollar signs or karma. If you want to keep the doors open for 5-10 years it's dollars. If you want to stay open for 30, it's karma. Everyone needs to pay the bills but the profiteers that slam you 12 bucks for a deconstructed 'street taco' or the equally offensive vampires that charge 50 bucks for a plate that cost them $8.73 to make don't deserve your business. Find someone that does. (Don't even get me started on caterers at wedding venues. Most should be classified as war criminals).

If you are in The Biz ask yourself this: When you draw your last shallow breath, will you think you did right by people and managed to pay your bills while being fair? Or will you go out like the circus ringmaster who gleefully held the giant foam finger pointing the way towards the cliff where the foodie lemmings stepped off, wallets in hand?

Pick one. The Universe will too.

Want more of Dave's rantings/ravings/ramblings? Check outwww.dinnerwithdave.com for the latest!

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miles
Zubies Dry Dock

9059 Adams Ave.
Huntington Beach, CA 92646

714-963-6362

www.zubiesdrydock.com


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