In his article “Dropped,” which appeared on the online magazine Grantland in March of 2014, Jason Fagone pens a biopic about the renowned juggler known as Anthony Gatto. (The subject is fascinating, and the writing is terrific. I highly recommend it.) Towards the end of the piece, after discovering that Gatto had left the Cirque du Soleil company, with which Gatto had traveled and performed, Fagone reached out to Gatto for an interview. Gatto declined, which sent Fagone speculating as to why Gatto seemed content to leave his record-setting career as a juggler behind in favor of running a small concrete business. (I’m leaving out a lot of information.)
Fagone surmises that Gatto had decided to rest in his skills and talent, confident and content in having secured his place at the top of his field. He no longer felt the need to please the crowd, a crowd that probably didn’t fully appreciate his abilities.
Fagone writes: “Pure technical jugglers peak in their twenties… As they get older, they survive by developing personality… Jugglers don’t have to perform difficult tricks to entertain people, because audiences generally don’t know what’s difficult. Juggling five objects is 10 times harder than juggling four, and six objects is 10 times harder than five, but to most people, five objects in the air looks like six, and six looks like five. A truly difficult juggling trick doesn’t necessarily register intuitively as difficult. It just looks like a bunch of weird shit crossing in the air.”
Gatto performed on stages in front of live audiences, without the luxury of do-overs. He was a true artist, who didn’t need to rely on illusions or the convenience of retakes to impress unknowing viewers on YouTube. According to Fagone’s article, many jugglers will attempt a difficult maneuver dozens of times in front of a video camera until they get one clean take to post to YouTube, passing themselves off as being able to perform at that level on a consistent basis. Fagone writes, “Then [Gatto] got older and watched a new wave of jugglers abandon the stage for the flicker of computer screens, sneering at the bright-light mastery he’d worked so hard to gain.”
As I was reading Fagone’s article, I was struck by how much of what Fagone describes about the juggling world applies to the current state of the restaurant industry and its food writing and eating audience. As I read the following paragraph, I replaced the words “juggling” and “jugglers” with the words “restaurant” and “chefs” almost naturally.
“The fact that [restaurant] audiences can’t tell the difference between hard tricks and easy tricks means they also can’t make any meaningful judgments about [chefs]. It would be as if basketball fans couldn’t recognize the difference between LeBron James and, say, Trevor Ariza. Imagine living in a world in which Angel Cabrera’s golf swing is exactly as elegant as Adam Scott’s, and Ryan Harrison’s tennis forehand is as devastating as Juan Martin del Potro’s, and LeSean McCoy is just another guy running in staggered patterns on a grass field. The whole multibillion-dollar machinery of sports enjoyment depends on the audience’s ability to make fine distinctions between similar-seeming athletes. That’s where the fun and the money are. A sport minus an educated audience is just a story. Maybe a bullshit story. It’s competitive eating. It’s the mortgage-backed securities market circa 2008 — people trying to convince you that they’ve spent a lot of time mastering a certain set of arcane rules and are therefore worthy of your cash and your trust. And [chefs are taking] advantage of audiences’ ignorance. Instead of performing hard tricks, they perform easy tricks that look hard. They lie to delight.”
I just returned from a two-week trip to Japan. There, the vast majority of the chefs I met, like Gatto, had devoted their entire lives to perfecting a craft. The glory of lights and comfort of money means nothing to them if they don’t have the quiet contentment of having mastered their craft and cuisine. And so, day in and day out, they are in their kitchens honing their skills, improving their technique, and in many cases, preserving and building upon centuries of knowledge and wisdom.
I’ve said this countless times, and I’ll say it here again: I know that a restaurant is a business. And a business needs to make money. So, I don’t begrudge any chef or restaurateur for doing what they believe they need to do to fill their tables and chairs. I’m a capitalist (believe me, I’m a capitalist). And I expect no martyrs from the restaurant industry.
But what does offend me is the rise of a food culture in which we ooh and ahh like kids at the circus when chefs caravan from continent to continent in a delusional state of grandeur, petting logs under a big tent inflated by uneducated groupies who have been duped into seeing imaginary pins in the air.
They lie to delight because we let them.