Excess Ingredients

REVIEW: 'The Dish: The Lives and Labor Beneath One Plate of Food' by Andrew Friedman

(Sutthichai Supapornpasupad/Grabien)
January 14, 2024

For those who appreciate bespoke food as more than fodder, a steady diet of restaurant secrets has sustained us since Anthony Bourdain warned, via the New Yorker in 1999, not to order the fish on Mondays.

A goodly portion of such writerly efforts tends to focus on fine dining. Understandably so—the craft and care it takes to execute a consistently worthy gastronomic experience deserve attention. It is told not only by chefs, but through servers, somms, and survivors of various excesses.

Andrew Friedman relays such stories, in the culinary heights of Bocuse d'Or competition (Knives at Dawn) and in culinary defeats (Don't Try This at Home). In doing so, he has bumped his way through many a swing door, collaborating with chefs along the way, featuring them on his podcast (Andrew Talks to Chefs), and signing on as adjunct professor at the CIA's Food Business School. He even guest-judges on Food Network's Beat Bobby Flay.

That makes him more than qualified to produce The Dish: The Lives and Labor Beneath One Plate of Food. But it also raises questions of objectivity. Does his regard for the rigors of the restaurant universe—or, for that matter, does the book's restaurant of choice—amount to cherry-picking here?

He chose Wherewithall, a 50-seat Chicago establishment offering a four-course tasting menu that changed each week, with occasional modifications. The night of service chronicled: July 24, 2021, which in industry terms puts it in COVID-recovery mode. The name of the evening's profiled plate, "Dry-Aged Strip Loin, Tomato, Sorrel," underscores a meal of aspirational intent ($85; with wine pairings and cheese, $145). Its creators, the married chef team of Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark, are committed, earnest, frank. They are well regarded by their peers. They offer health insurance to their staff.

Wherewithall sources ingredients from purveyors such as Slagel Family Farm, which raises, processes, and delivers its meats, poultry, and eggs. Thanks to the author's penchant for detail, we learn more than we bargained for about the plate's slice of Strip Loin, including the life and times of LouisJohn Slagel, the business's youngish proprietor.

Suffice to say, Friedman digs deep into the histories of each person who has contributed to this night of restaurant service. I applaud his journalistic eye for description—something that seems to be disappearing from food writing edited with space or read-time limitations. Of his Slagel slaughterhouse tour, he writes: "I had never considered the brilliant job flesh does to contain the sickening niff of organs, blood, and feces. … The biological bouquet of that room haunted my olfactory senses for weeks."

But the overall effect is too, too much, even for this reviewer. Sous chef Thomas got a diagnosis of ADHD at age five. In college, server Noosha was awarded a creative writing scholarship. As a teen, Tayler was a good softball player. Not everyone who lands work at a restaurant as lovely as Wherewithall dreams of sushi right from the start. Got it.

At this point, I will truncate the backstories of the plate's remaining components. The meat rests atop a red-wine reduction begotten by the efforts of vintner James Lester of Wyncroft Wine Estate east of Lake Michigan, who once thought he'd be a pastor; the sauce's herbs from Carl Smits of Smits Farms in Chicago Heights, whose interest in soil science led him to start a farm with no experience in the field. Friedman fleshes out the semi-dehydrated Tomato's provenance with the conservationist philosophy and career turns behind Nichols Farm & Orchard in Marengo, Ill. The Sorrel was grown on a sustainable 12-acre farm that had harvested kohlrabi a week before the author's visit…

Furthermore, Friedman can be docked style points for simultaneously celebrating and mischaracterizing the role of dishwasher. Wherewithall's Bianca is truly an unseen hero, with a hard life and a steaming-hot job even more demanding than it looks. But the author's statement that "dishwashing must be the one least pondered or understood by the dining public" is easily refuted. For years, the public has been treated to accounts such as that of dishwasher-turned-business partner Ali Sonko of the now-closed world-class Copenhagen restaurant Noma, and of American chef-restaurateur Thomas Keller, who attributes his success to time spent in a "dish pit."

In the book's introduction, Friedman asks: What do average restaurant patrons know about what it takes to produce their meals? I'd answer: Average has little to do with The Dish's exhaustive take. It was not surprising to discover that a restaurant is a micro nation dependent on many moving parts, and that even a noble one can be subject to forces that cause it to close, as Wherewithall did in May 2023.

If, as he said while being interviewed by a pal during Friedman's own recent podcast, The Dish is "for people who are pondering a career in professional kitchens," I'm not sure he has done them any favors.

FYI, that 1999 fish caveat is N/A.

The Dish: The Lives and Labor Beneath One Plate of Food
by Andrew Friedman
Mariner Books, 288 pp., $30

Bonnie S. Benwick, formerly of the Washington Post food section, is a freelance editor and recipe tester. You can find her on Instagram and Threads: @bbenwick.

Published under: Book reviews , Food