INTO YOUR HANDS, I GIVE MYSELF
Semiotics of the militarised kitchen.
- Dec 29 2022
- Ralph Tharayilis a writer based in Berlin.
When the sky turns its back on me, grandmother places a plate on the table. I see it clearly, how she carefully removes the stone of the fruit and carves the soft, yellowish flesh with a blunt kitchen knife. I can see them, the carvings where she intends me to eat, the pieces made for my mouth. Whether I like mango or not is of no consequence. My grandmother could have bought the fruit from the market, stepped up the ladder and plucked it from one of the mango trees surrounding her low-lit house, or asked a neighbor for such fruit because I, her grandson, was visiting.
The grand mother uses her hands in the lineage of nurture, equal to the actual mother herself, who for the first years of her life fed nothing but her own body to the infant child. What the body has served belongs to the body as much as what the cook has served belongs to the cook, her hands and her notions of nurture. The cook’s hands feel the emptiness of the room, a carcass surrounding the guest’s body, and do nothing but fill that void: By preparing a meal, by plating and serving it in whatever shape, size, or taste it may take, thus letting the guest be part of a relational bond measured in the amount of attention that went into the meal. “Eat, incorporate my nurture and care about my care for you,” says the cook, “and you will belong to me and my family.” The union of guests arises from the knowledge of oneness and original integrity of this one loaf, shared and eaten by all at the table. The celebration of the gathering is the silent agreement that different people are eating from this one loaf, contained in all guests at once. The labor that went into making the food creates commonality, not through the exchange of economic currency, but by the guests investing their bodies and hands to share the meal instead of merely consuming it.
But what if the hands placing the food in front of someone are not the hands that cooked the meal in the first place? Without a union or the knowledge of oneness, we wonder about biting the scattered hands that feed us. While cooking a meal for communion strengthens commonality and the silent agreement of eating from one singular loaf, labor in industrialized kitchens is based on a different premise of preparing and serving food: multiple cooks and their hands preparing one individual plate for a paying guest. Ray Kroc, the founder of the McDonald's corporation, noticed when visiting other restaurants as a salesman that “there was inefficiency, waste and temperamental cooks, sloppy service, and food whose quality was never consistent. What was needed was a simple product that moved from start to completion in a streamlined path.” Maximizing efficiency and thus profit were the main goals of labor division in industrial kitchens. It began in the aughts of the last century, hidden under bleached toques, perpetrating European superiority in its seemingly unassuming and innocuous way. In 1903, the same year Ford’s first Model A rolled off the line, the restaurateur Auguste Escoffier, who had served in the French army as a chef de cuisine during the Franco-Prussian war, published Le Guide Culinaire: the mother-text of what was to become modern French cuisine, which popularized and updated traditional dishes mostly created and made by women, and by doing so, initiated the teleology of not only food production, but also nurture itself.
In order to discipline the disorderly kitchen staff in his restaurant, Escoffier, drawing from his military experience, introduced the brigade system. Much like in an actual military brigade, a strictly organized, self-sustaining formation within the army, Escoffier’s brigade, too, aimed at dividing kitchen labor in such a way that each cook was assigned a specific task within a strict hierarchy. Escoffier demanded cleanliness, discipline and silence from his workers. Their newly assigned roles ranged from commis chefs at the bottom, to the chefs de parties who oversaw the different stations of meat, fish and cold starters, and finally the sous chef and the chef de cuisine at the top of the ladder. The brigade is applied in the majority of industrialized kitchens to this day and climbing the ladder is still part of the brigade system that originated from concepts of warfare –– battlefields with a powerful general at the top; the root cause for the division of labor and the masculinization of modern kitchens." Keeping this in mind, the current idolatry of “Master Chefs” and the popularity of “kitchen battles”, as well as the myth of the male culinary genius, come as no surprise. Equally unsurprising is that many of the techniques Escoffier used for his 1903 Guide don’t stem from him, but from chef Marie-Antoine Carême: One of the main contributors of what France has successfully exported as Haute Cuisine. Escoffier, acting as the dominant male proxy to Carême’s culinary visions, made sure that Carême’s recipes would be followed with militarized care, allowing the colonialist traveler to taste the same boeuf bourguignon anywhere the French had set foot in the world. The same principle of standardized quality was applied 50 years later by fast-food chains throughout the world, making sure that every Big Mac advertised by Ray Kroc taste the same, anywhere, anytime. Popular media distributes the pornographic visualization of food preparation. It has romanticized and reinforced the idea of cooking as an ingenious and inspirational calling of the one and only chef. This depiction of labor is contingent to Escoffier’s system, enabling only one to prevail at the top; eat or be eaten. The reason for romanticizing the depiction of hard labor in shows like Chef’s Table can again be found in the concept of purity propagated by French cuisine, distilled into a serene, yet uniquely distorted picture: Orderly men dressed in white linen, serenely plucking away cilantro to the backdrop of Max Richter’s take on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Being employed within the kitchen brigade and assigned to repetitive tasks makes cooks, and their hands, nothing but commodifiers of food. Alienating them from the meaning of preparing food as an act of care and nurture, industrialized kitchens render their hands and bodies a mere means of production, the restaurant’s productive property.
While some shows romanticize kitchen labor, others like Gordon Ramsey’s Hell’s Kitchen, feed on the inherent potential of warfare being entertaining for the sole reason of letting the viewer be the sadistic voyeur to the agony and pain that the aspiring chefs go through by exploiting the competitive nature fostered by division of labor. However, The Bear, a recently released show, is a good example for a different take on staging kitchen labor. Not only do we see the staff (including the chef) on their knees, cleaning the kitchen in exhaustion, and all the other work that goes into making a meatball sandwich perfect in a working class eatery, but the challenge of introducing Escoffier’s system of labor division in the kitchen entangled with all the questions of class, tradition and emotional resilience that comes with it. The show makes tangible the intricate interplay between taste, concepts of labor, and the pressures of profitability under which restaurants find themselves. Nonetheless, the most powerful scenes in the show are the ones in which the kitchen staff unites, sitting together for breaks to share a meal. The consideration and tenderness inherent in this agreement to eat doesn’t just come from the food being tasty, but from the communion itself. The staff congregating before or after kitchen service are a communion of workers who are dependent on the food that they serve as much as they are on the hands that feed their own empty spaces within.
Jonathas de Andrade, Faca nos dentes / Knife in the teeth, 2022