August 5, 2010

Jewish foodies but no Jewish chefs

Via A&LD, I came upon this article / review about the apparent declining status of French cooking. The problem, as the various critics seem to agree, is that it has remained too French. Unlike other cuisines, it has not engaged in a dialogue with South or East Asian trends. And it has not embraced the free market as much as the Anglo-Saxon world has. They have failed to keep up the pace of innovation and revolution as true artists must, and as a result, the new "it" places are in Britain, Spain, blue state America, and Japan.

This all shows how lame a lot of the foodie world is. It's more about fashion and experimentation for its own sake ("expand your sense of the culinary possible"). That sure worked out well for modern painting, sculpture, and architecture, so why not work it out all over our cooking, too? All that experimentation over the past tens of thousands of years? -- yeah, they may have stumbled upon a tasty dish or two, but it was just baby stuff and further experimentation will take us so much farther than all of that ever managed to reach. Just like economists, food critics do not believe in diminishing marginal returns in the real world.

The idea about free markets making better food is a real joke. Japan has always seen its government leaning heavily on economic choices, most famously in its industrial policy. France, Italy, and Spain are hotbeds for radical socialist activism, not free-marketeering, and have been so forever. Britain may be hot now, but it could be a fluke, and the Netherlands and neoliberal Scandinavia have never been near the top of the culinary world. I can't see that neoliberalism has the opposite effect and makes food taste worse; it just seems that how free-market-oriented a country is has little or nothing to do with how good the food is.

Before I became more exposed to foodies, I thought they were the gustatory equivalents of bookworms and garden-lovers -- people for whom food was primarily about the beautiful and even the sublime. Nope, instead they're just a bunch of wannabe art critic dorks, aping the highbrow affectations of their painting-focused superiors. Y'know, I find them to be even more annoying because at least the painting and architecture groupies don't pretend to be gurus always trying to impress you by offering their harebrained advice. In this sense they're more like "interior design" or clothing groupies. Here's an excellent example from a comment to a Tyler Cowen post (which itself abounds in masturbatory signaling that glazes everyone's eyes over except for those of fellow doe-eyed foodies):

The meat selection anywhere in Germany puts the United States to shame. The secret is to get your cold cuts sliced thin (very thin!) and eat them with dark brotchen. The flavor of the meat will come through, and without as many calories. Focus on flavor, not quantity.

If I wanted advice on how to focus on flavor, I'd ask for someone who knows that meat tastes more flavorful than bread, and therefore to have a decent serving of meat rather than a big block of bread with a tissue of meat draped on top. How clueless can you get? I like the use of the exclamation point -- really assures you that he knows the score. And any moron knows that you cannot reconcile eating a small amount of calories with eating delicious food. Protein by itself tastes like garbage, and so does fiber. What tastes good are fats and sugars, both high in calories.

How did such an Apollonian group of status-grubbing geeks take over what is supposed to be a thoroughly Dionysian and communal experience?

Which brings me to the title of the post. We saw this same phenomenon in modern painting -- a bunch of well trained artists putting out boring and confusing work that the critics fawned all over. Clearly the critics didn't have a good eye for art. There can be plenty of variation in what's considered good, sure, but these guys were just out to lunch. As Steve Sailer, riffing off of Tom Wolfe, noted about the art world of the '40s through the '70s:

Not surprisingly, the famous painters tended to be gentile, while the famous critics tended to be Jewish, as the different distributions of visual and verbal intelligence would predict.

That's because Ashkenazi Jews tend to do incredibly well at verbal intelligence, but do slightly worse than other Europeans on visual-spatial intelligence.

I haven't studied the foodie world so much, but the three critics in the article on where French cooking is headed -- or where it is staying put -- all appear to be Jewish: Adam Gopnik, Michael Steinberger, and Steven Shapin. I'm sure there are lots of gentile foodie critics, too, but Jews seem over-represented here as in many other fields (such as math, physics, philosophy, and economics).

And yet where are the top-ranking chefs who are Jewish? I googled around with variations on "michelin jew(ish) chef(s)," but couldn't find hardly any. Gary Danko has an Ashkenazi grandmother and cooks at a restaurant with one Michelin star, but other than that nothing turned up. There could be a couple of others, but clearly this is a different world from math olympiad winners, elite computer programmers, Hollywood executives, and so on. There it would take you two seconds of googling to find a long list of Jewish Nobel Prize winners. But among masters of the kitchen? Not really. Judging by popular demand, you rarely see non-Jews in love with Ashkenazi Jewish cooking, whereas plenty of people outside the creator's ethnic group love Italian, French, Thai, Japanese, Lebanese, and Brazilian food. (I would kill to try some good schmaltz, though.)

I don't see a connection between lack of representation among top chefs and a more verbal than visual-spatial cognitive style. Sure the food needs to look pretty if you want fame, but it's mostly about how it tastes. (Isn't it?) The sense of taste is tightly connected to the sense of smell, but not to vision. Perhaps due to their seclusion in white-collar professional jobs for the better part of a millennium, Ashkenazi Jews are more adapted to mercantile life, and this leaves them out of touch with the more earthy sensibilities needed to become a master chef. Greater skill at sniffing and taste-testing was probably worth more in Darwinian terms to peasants and herders than to tax farmers and money-lenders.

Also, the tendency to over-analyze instead of just go with the flow / not force it must be an impediment to culinary success, and indeed to artistic achievement in general. Certainly they fall more into the category of thinkers and intellectuals than psychologically abandoned artists. That would also account for their relative absence among painters (though the verbal vs. visual-spatial thing could amplify the more basic effect).

This also makes a prediction that Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews would do pretty well as chefs, as they were not confined to white-collar niches. And Mediterranean food in general seems pretty popular, so why wouldn't theirs? I once had a cookbook of Early Modern Spanish Jewish recipes (A Drizzle of Honey), and the stuff in there all sounded pretty tasty in the way you'd expect Mediterranean food to taste before the low-cal, fat-fearing panic swept the globe. Other than that, though, I couldn't say.


  1. Thomas Keller? From the name, though on the other hand I'm sure wikipedia would have been all over it with the "This one? He's one of ours!" if he were (and it isn't)...


    Culturally I think Britain's position (in that ranking) is due to the fact that we're reasonably rich, have a service sector that caters to finance and foreign bankers (so yes, Neoliberalism and the multicult - an all encompassing explanation based around markets is indeed ridiculous though.) and are in a position to care about the rest of the world dissing our food (rather than just singing the Roast Beef of Old England at them).

    What this mostly means boutiquey restaurants rather than a modernising transformation of our food though (it's easy to diss a modernising transformation of food, but that is ultimately why modern French food is modern French rather than like Medieval French - a brief period of intense modernising is the orthodox opinion).

  2. Harmonious Jim8/5/10, 2:59 PM

    Isn't Heston Blumenthal Jewish?

  3. Harmonious Jim8/5/10, 5:49 PM

    Yes, a lot of foodie talk is just forgettable fashion chatter, and no doubt status signaling too. But some food experimentation is actually scientific and worthwhile, such as sous vide cooking. Case in point: Nathan Myhrvold, ex-Microsoft technology chief, trained French chef, and food experimenter (amongst other things). See his talk:

  4. Isn't Heston Blumenthal Jewish?

    Yep. I was surprised given his enormous "Alpine" German-looking head and the fact that it doesn't come up much, but there you go.

  5. To find some validation for your overall thesis, just compare Pierre Franey's 60-Minute Gourmet recipes from the late 70's early 80's NYT to the recipes you find in the food section of the Times today. Today's recipes are interesting and challenging, but completely impractical to feed a family.

    The Nouvelle Cuisine revolution in France was in large part centered on the innovation of using "reduction" to thicken sauces rather than thickeners like flour and cornstarch. This meant the regal though impractical Demi-Glace - essentially beef stock reduced to a gelatin, or cooked down cream.

    The typical sauce featured in Franey's recipes was as follows: after sauteeing the meat/fish/seafood in a couple tablesoons of butter, add a tablespoon of shallots, then add 1/2 cup of wine (red for meat, white for fish) and reduce until almost evaporated, then add a cup of heavy cream and reduce by half. The sauce would be thick and satiny, nicely coating the meat.

    Now what mother would dare serve such a sauce to her family now? - she'd be investigated for child abuse. But her family would gobble the food down, for sure. She'd much rather send out for take-out - a far more unhealthy food choice.

  6. I have to disagree with your statement about foodies. To me a foodie is someone to explores all sides of food, artistic as well as scientific. Regardless of current hype a foodie does it all for them selfs. It's not really any different from any other interest and comparing a foodie to a wannabe food critic is just way out there.

    Another reason why good Jewish chefs are rare is that there are quite a few rules in kosher food. This making it less fun, for at least me to experiment and play with.

    Oh and I think I've must have missed the British food hype. to me it's not at all as fun as Asian foods.

  7. There are bery jews who actually follow the dietary jewish laws. if you ask them they still feel jews though. So that can't be the reason.

  8. I'm an ashkenazi Jew. I went to yeshiva my whole life and never thought cooking could be a viable career until recently. I'm not the executive chef but I now cook at a Michelin starred restaurant.

  9. "Not surprisingly, the famous painters tended to be gentile, while the famous critics tended to be Jewish, as the different distributions of visual and verbal intelligence would predict."

    Jews are not underrepresented amongst painters (though they are very overrepresented amongst critics and collectors). For example, Barron's "501 Great Artists" book includes around 45 Jews, while the "1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die" includes over 50 by Jewish artists. Given that both books have a huge amount of pre-modern art, when Jews were largely excluded (partly self-excluded) from the art world, the percentages (9% and 5%) are quite significant.

  10. Other Jewish chefs include Moshik Roth (Dutch-based 2 Michelin Star chef), Harry Sasson (one of South America's leading chefs), Yotam Ottolenghi (London-based chef and cookery writer). Thierry Marx (French 2 Michelin Star molecular gastronomy chef) is at least part Jewish. There are probably a few more...


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