Telling Their Own Story

I will start with the obvious: chefs and restaurants are trendy.  Above all, chefs in fancy white tablecloth restaurants have become important players in the making of the symbolic economy (that is the one in which you buy things—a sports car, a zucchini, a house, shoes—because it means something to you, not just because you need it).  Eating in their restaurants, reading and watching their interviews and TV shows and buying their cookbooks and other products are all part of the process by which we consumers make ourselves into the kind of people we think we want to be.  Through all of the media they create, these restaurateurs tell their own stories and make themselves into who we think they are…and help give meaning to our own dining and cooking experiences.

The process through which some of the more savvy chefs define themselves is fascinating to watch.  One of the difficulties faced by social scientists who want to study restaurateurs is precisely that they are great at telling their own stories.  They are good at connecting with the desires and ideas that permeate our societies.  The stories of chefs’ lives, of the highs and lows of kitchen life, of the creative process in the restaurant, of difficult customers or unusual settings to prepare a meal all help create a kind of template that the rest of us can use to frame our lives, culinary or otherwise.

There are no famous chefs or media stars in our Mid-City restaurant cluster.  But there are stories to tell, as we have already documented here.  Perhaps more importantly, the restaurateurs are, in many cases, already telling their own stories.  They use web pages and social media, along with more traditional media, to create this narrative.  Restaurants like Mandina’s and Brocato‘s have quite elaborate web sites, outlining their histories, including pre and post Katrina events, details about rebuilding and links to outside writing or video about them.  Of course, they also include menus, addresses and hours as well as contact information.  Not all the neighborhood restaurants have web sites (we list those that do on the right side of the blog) and not all of them have extensive information.  Some of the restaurants also have Facebook pages and some may also use other social media as well.  I am linked to several of them in this way and mostly get regular—and mouthwatering—reports of daily specials.

Still, the media are there and the restaurants are beginning to employ them to do more than simply announce specials.  They are using them to tell their stories and thus shape the way we think about them.  This is rapidly becoming an important part of how we can think about forces shaping the neighborhood and city.  The manner in which the restaurant owners represent themselves through their web sites and social media shapes our knowledge about them and will eventually help contour our understanding of the neighborhood beyond their doors.  All of this raises a lot of questions: why do some restaurants pursue this while others do not?  (In our study, restaurants catering to recent immigrant populations seem less likely to have extensive web sites, for example.)  Who reads the sites and what do they take away from that?  As restaurants reach out in this way, are they fundamentally changing the dining experience?

The fact that the people we are studying are telling their own stories through these public representations raises another set of issues as well.  What kinds of insights do anthropologists (or other social scientists) have that might be different from or complementary to information presented by the restaurants themselves?  If we are going to make our work useful, we have to be able to put the restaurant stories into a broader context.  We have to show how the restaurants in our cluster fit into and shape the contours of the city’s broader culture and history.  As the summer winds down and we start to look closely at our data, we will be concentrating on this.  The restaurateurs continue to tell us their stories, both directly and through their public representations.  Our job is to put this together and see if something emerges that gives us new ideas about restaurant clusters, neighborhoods, Mid-City and New Orleans.  Stay tuned!

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