In the Restaurant, by Christoph Ribbat and translated by Jamie Searle Romanelli, is one of the strangest nonfiction books I’ve ever read. Most nonfiction books are set up chronologically. It’s the most logical way to tell a lot of stories. In the Restaurant, however, is served up to readers like tapas. It jumps from topic to topic, telling the story of restaurants with side dishes of sociology, literature, crime, and commentary about what the institutions show us about society.
While the short segments that comprise In the Restaurant seem disjoined, I noticed that they slowly develop a theme of high versus low. For every scene or short discussion of restaurants becoming the realm of ultra-high class eating and service, there is a look at the rough, dirty conditions in lower restaurants (or sometimes the same ones) that dish up barely acceptable fare for the punters. Back and forth, Ribbat uses this tension to explore the dichotomies that the food industry reveals under close scrutiny.
A history of restaurants, one would thinks, would be all about food. There is a lot of food in this book—discussions of molecular gastronomy at El Bullí, the development of nouvelle cuisine—but Ribbat is equally interested in the way that food service is also about more than plates of food. When a customer arrives at a restaurant, they have certain expectations. They expect that they will, for lack of a better word, be catered to. The waiter is expected to make any substitutions the customer wants, to deliver the food at the right temperature, and so on. By referencing sociologists who studied restaurant workers, Ribbat also covers the discovery of emotional labor.
I was completely hooked by In the Restaurant. I loved the way it was told, most likely because it is organized a bit like my brain is. One fact is connected to another in a seemingly tangential way, except, the more to read, the more one realizes that looking at disparate things can create a larger picture. Stepping back to think about why, for example, front of house staff in restaurants are almost all white or how long it took to solve a series of doner kebab vendor murders show us how segregation is still alive and well in food service.
In the Restaurant was an incredible read, entertaining and enlightening.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration