This moving foray into the world of restaurateuring in modern America proves that cuisine is as crucial to 20th-century history as technology, rock music, and television.
Chef and food-writer Kuh (An Available Man, 1990) describes the post-WWII evolution of American cuisine from its domestic European roots to its cosmopolitan, mass-marketed present. The story of the decline of luxury dining and the emergence of California cuisine is not a new one, of course, but the author brings a unique depth to it, offering insights into how cuisine reflected the changing times—describing, for example, how the advent of the credit card influenced restaurant culture: “the increased availability of credit would bring the gastronomic experience within reach for a social class of Americans for whom it had never been available before: the middle class.” In addition, Kuh’s appreciation for the chefs, personalities, writers, and businessmen of the restaurant world infuses his account with a compelling emotional element. The main course of the story, however, may be found in the juxtaposed arcs of the careers of Henri Soule (the elitist owner of Le Pavillon) and Restaurant Associates (the trend-setting firm behind the Four Seasons). This takes up more than half of the story. The effect is an early climax, with the second half (a portrait of such latter-day food icons as Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters, Le Cirque’s Sirio Maccioni, and Julia Child) appearing almost in the guise of a footnote. The author is also prone to dicing private memories into this history stew and, while these help to bring home the point that cuisine is personal as well as historical, they come and go abruptly, leading the reader on a somewhat erratic course.
Despite an early arc to the narrative, this renders an engaging portrayal through its author’s detailed, sensitive writing and apparent affection for his subject.