Unsettling the Table

Over a meal of Haitian food at a trendy Montreal restaurant, a friend and I discussed her experience working at the city’s Mile End Community Mission’s food program. A monthly community dinner provided by a local restaurateur, got us questioning: Do restaurants have a role in shaping the palates of the community they serve?

While most meals served at the Mission are standard meat and potatoes fare, Marc Cohen, chef and owner of Lawrence – a fashionable and well-respected restaurant – provides a monthly community dinner.

When I visited Lawrence, Cohen offered a menu of simple, refined and challenging dishes that balanced ingredients like faggots (offal meatballs), smoked rabbit and octopus legs. Though exquisite, the compositions required open-mindedness and resolve in order to stomach.

But, the typical Lawrence diner lives a different lifestyle than many who access the Mission’s services, and whom often face food insecurity. My friend mentioned that many community members fed by the program would take issue with the strangeness and the refinement of Cohen’s meals. While encounters with the unfamiliar and exquisite excite the Epicurean palate, adventurousness at the table cannot be discussed without a reflection on privilege.

Novelty operates differently in the context of an upscale dining establishment than it does in a soup kitchen: the former is a place of business, where creativity and newness are ways of economic survival; the latter is primarily concerned with feeding the hungry. In a food economy where most ingredients are universally available, culinary artistry becomes a skill of increasing worth. As a result, novelty and privilege often dine together.

These privileged novel experiences provide increased social status. We can impress others with our worldliness, inciting the imagination of others to consider tastes that only we have tasted. Our dining experiences identify us with particular social milieux.

Is the restaurant capable of dismantling these social differences, or is it solely a means of reproducing desires that hinge on privilege? However sincere their artistry, trendy restaurants perpetuate the distance between the common and the elite by showing their communities what flavours, décor, and atmosphere are aesthetically “good.”  

This raises an ethical problem for creatives like Cohen. Is the restaurateur responsible for making the exquisite and trendy accessible through community giving? Or, does the restaurant treat class as an essential aspect of taste, feeding social groups differently while reinforcing lines of social difference?

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