Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Just Shut Up: My Case Against NYC

It all started last Sunday by the pool. It was a picture perfect day; only a handful of clouds in the sky, the pool was douchebag free and Apples and I were enjoying watching a mother teaching her child how to swim. It was paradise.

I didn't bother to bring a book with me, so I grabbed for the travel section of Apple's copy of the Sunday New York Times - her latest venture into full-blown yuppiehood. Flipping frantically for something food related, I was relieved to find Matt Gross' article, "The Weird, Wild, and Ultimately Sublime", a piece about food in Seoul, South Korea.

Sitting quietly in my chair, attempting not to disturb Apples or block any of her Sun, I sprung up in a fit of rage. Ok, so it wasn't a fit of rage, more of a bout of annoyance. But I was upset. Why? Because of this line:

Where were the kalbi hash and the kimchi huevos rancheros? (Note to David Chang: Seoul needs Momofuku.)

No! No, I shouted. That's bullshit! Apples didn't bother to react to my outburst, she's heard it before. But I went on anyway. "Who does this guy think he is?", I asked, as if someone would appear from the bottom of the pool and validate my angry question.

If anyone would have bothered to ask, I would have told them that my anger isn't directed towards one NYT writer, but towards what seems to be the prevailing attitudes of those in the New York City food community, that somehow, without them there would be no fine cuisine, hell - food itself would simply be reduced to large vats of gruel, and us rural yokels will be left asking for more.

The idea that Seoul, the capital city of a country with a rich food heritage that far predates the existence of New York City herself, "needs Momofuku", one of the top restaurants in NYC, is absurd. Seoul needs Momofuku like Paris needs Citronelle, or Dublin needs Restaurant Eve. They don't; those cities do just fine on their own.

But this statement captures a lot of what I've seen and heard from people from "the city". "Oh I miss real pizza", "Why don't you guys have Pinkberry here?", and "Man, I can't wait to head back to the city to get a cupcake at Magnolia", are all thoughts in the same vein - we have it all in New York City, and by definition, you're just playing for second place.

It's a sentiment I detest. They're statements that get my blood boiling. Yes, NYC is a great food city. The best in the world? Possibly. Though I believe Tokyo has more Michelin stars than any other city right now, America's best restaurant is located not in NYC, but in Northern California, some of the best pizza in the country is being made in Phoenix, frozen yogurt is a global trend (started in South Korea - probably by someone who said, "NYC needs this"), and even the New York Times own food critic Frank Bruni said in a recent blog post that Georgetown Cupcake's product, "beat[s] Magnolia Bakery’s by miles and miles".

I know that not all NY foodies (for a lack of a better term) feel and act this way. Perhaps I'm just not as plugged into the NYC food culture as I should be. Perhaps I have a bias against NYC because growing up, my father, who grew up in the city, wasn't shy about sharing his disdain for it, and perhaps I'm just taking one writer's comment out of context. But this is what I hear, and this is what I take away when a food writer tells a city that they "need" a NYC restaurant.

You've got a lot to offer, New York, but it's time you recognized that you aren't the whole picture. You're a piece (albeit a big one) in a much larger global culinary puzzle. My advice would be to shut up and just let your food speak - it'll do so louder and clearer than you ever will.


worldmatt said...

Hi Anthony,

Matt Gross here. I totally get what you're saying and wanted to clarify a little:

I wouldn't say it's my New Yorkeriness that prompted me to call for kalbi hash and Momofuku in Seoul—it's my experience traveling all over Asia. Taipei, Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City—all have rich culinary heritages, but they're also reaching into other food traditions to create new dishes.

Seoul isn't quite there yet, which is strange since it considers itself such a sophisticated, modern city. Kimchi jigae is a great dish (I make it at home on a regular basis), but in the week I spent eating it there, it was served much the same way everywhere I went. For such an otherwise innovative country, this tight adherence to tradition was surprising.

Anyway, glad I provoked a reaction from you! Hope you'll keep reading my work. (Look for a similar piece on Taipei in the coming months.)


Lizard said...

So. I agree with you, my friend Anthony. My father just sent this article:

And while I appreciate the lady going around Scotland and eating delicious food -- haggis is tasty, and I've had some gourmet haggis.

I've also had other gourmet food in Scotland, a really good venison, for example.

But don't talk down to the deliciousness that is the country's local food until you've EATEN it. And don't act like they can't dress it up -- she should maybe eat at Cawdor Tavern outside Inverness where they have delicious Haggis Balls (haggis rolled in oats).

Sorry. I get defensive about my haggis.

elle kasey said...

Amen, totally agree. Word. I have been known to throw magazines across the room when they feature spas, restaurants, etc. in a bunch of prominent US cities and D.C. is nowhere to be found, but you know Topeka is. And the NYC food critic elitism has gone off the charts these past few years. I read a critic who came down to DC recently and stayed with a friend and was astounded to find a good cupcake here.