Anticipating another history of the city’s eating habits, I was pleasantly surprised to find the chefs doing the talking, not the critics. Food & the City gives the chefs, vendors, waiters, and restauranteurs a chance to tell their stories of New York City. Ina Yolof does for the food service professionals what Chorus Line did for dancers, just without the music.
The first story in this book is about Dominic Ansel, who began his baking career as a teenage dishwasher. He invented something called the “cronut” by accident, while experimenting with pastry, and after giving one to a writer for Grub Street, it went viral. Now I have to wonder if this story is really about how blogs and social media have replaced newspapers. The baker casually gives someone a sample, then it gets reviewed with a short blurb on a blog, then by the next morning everyone who reads the blog is coming to get one. Does this mean that food blog readers will eat whatever the writer suggests? If only she could do the same in getting kids to eat spinach.
Noel Baltazar, a tortilla maker, grew up doing just that – making tortillas! He got a job in a Brooklyn tortilla factory, then it closed, and he struck out on his own. He leased an old factory in Flushing, bought second hand equipment, and there you go. He says that tortillas are basically corn flour and water, not much else, so the ingredients are few. The way Chinese eat rice, the Mexicans eat tortillas, and wherever they go, they can’t eat without them.
Sam Solasz, the Hunts Point butcher, has a less pleasant story. He came here as a Holocaust survivor at age 16 in 1945, but he was already a skilled butcher, which he’d learned from his father back home. He tells how he worked 18 hour days, impressed everyone with his skills, spent decades in the Meatpacking District, then moved to Hunts Point when the rents went up. His children later joined him in the business, including a former physician who got fed up and wanted a career change. At the age of 80, Sam is still chopping meat.
There’s a common theme throughout the book; everyone here learned their skills on the job, and had someone, usually a relative or family friend, willing to give them a chance. It’s difficult for a lot of young people, especially minorities, to get a start on food service, and unless you know someone in there, you’re not getting in. Sammy Anastasiou, who came here for the higher wages, easily got a job in a Greek-owned diner. He admits that it’s easy to get work in the USA, if people from your own ethnic group are already in the business. As for Americans, he says they’re too well educated and they’ll quit after one day. Even the children of Greek restauranteurs, they don’t want to go into the business, and why would they? Why would they want 12 hour days and no time off? Almost all the people profiled in this book are immigrants, and they’re not distracted because they’re not aware of “what else could I have been?” Perhaps college education isn’t what today’s young Americans need.
All of the food service professionals in this book started from scratch. None of them went to cooling school, none of them had trust funds, rich parents, or rich benefactors. Noel Baltazar, originally from Puebla, sums it up by saying “when I got here, someone like me, with nothing, could go into a hospital and they’d take care of you, then after that they’d ask how much you can pay, but in Mexico you have to pay first, and if you can’t pay you go outside, they don’t care if you live or die.”