Professor Paul Freedman specializes in medieval social history, the history of Catalonia, comparative studies of the peasantry, trade in luxury products, and the history of cuisine at Yale University. His latest book is Ten Restaurants That Changed America. In the book he discusses which 10 restaurants have been the most influential –not necessarily the best — in terms of influencing not only what Americans eat, but how we eat – -who we share tables with, how our eating habits reflect changes in the country, such as the end of slavery and the African diaspora, the rise of the middle class, the changing role of women in society, and much more.
This isn’t your first book about food, but how did a professor of medieval history come to write about restaurants in America?
I had a fellowship at the New York Public library. I was fascinated by the menu collection. There was one menu from Ladies Ordinary in Astor House in 1843, and it seemed so un-female. The menu had kidneys, calf brains, wild ducks. So that was my original interest. Coincidently I was asked to review books on food.
Why are New York and the San Francisco Bay Area so prominent in your list of the 10 restaurants that changed America?
If I were writing a history of American cuisines, they wouldn’t be so prominent. I would include the South and New England. But trends, including trends on dining, tend to start on the coasts. Both cities are influenced by ports and by France. Some of it is simply fashion.
Any restaurants that almost but didn’t quite make the cut?
Yes, the French Laundry and Alinea. The French Laundry combines farm-to-table and molecular trends. When it comes to runner-up categories it would be hard to ignore Mexican, steakhouses, and barbecue. I would choose sushi for its culinary influence. Sushi was regarded with virtual horror at first, and now it’s become ubiquitous.
Only a few of the 10 restaurants are still open. If you had to choose restaurants open today, which restaurants do you think are changing America?
In categories like fast casual — Shake Shack, or Chipotle, for Asian influences, Benu. With captive audiences (museum attendees)—In Situ or Danny Meyer’s Untitled at the Whitney. Sean Brock of Husk in Charleston and Nashville and Frank Sitt of Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham are rediscovering Southern Cuisine.
Your book begins with dining in the mid-1800’s and ends in the 1970’s with Chez Panisse. Which restaurateurs are the standard bearers of the trends of today?
David Chang might incorporate a number of them—Asian influence, informality, celebrity chef. Danny Meyer restaurants are meant to be non-intimidating, eclectic, farm-to-table with high quality ingredients.
What do you make of the trend of restaurants being loud either with music or ambient noise?
If you ask chefs why they do it, they say most of their clients under 40 like it. A too-quiet restaurant doesn’t have buzz. The celebrity chefs—they impose what they want. A genius chef can be slightly obnoxious.
Where are you dining on your book tour? What have been some of the standouts?Continue Reading