American Cuisine and Hospitality Symposium Shined Light on Progress—and Tensions—in the Industry
Hosted by New Orleans' iconic Commander's Palace, the symposium brought together the biggest names in food and drink to discuss the future of American dining.
On Monday, September 18, several of the most influential figures in American dining descended upon New Orleans for the American Cuisine and Hospitality Symposium, a day-long event organized by the iconic Garden District restaurant Commander's Palace. The day was historic for several reasons. Commander's Palace, which this year celebrates its 125th anniversary, held the event over thirty years after its first iteration in 1983, when Commander's matriarch Ella Brennan gathered culinary heavyweights like Jeremiah Tower, Jonathan Waxman, and Ruth Reichl, then a young reporter, to pose the question: "Is there such a thing as an 'American cuisine?'" Now, that question would be unthinkable—it's widely agreed that there are several American cuisines—but at the time, the one-off symposium sparked brilliantly novel discussons, surrounding the farm-to-table movement, food journalism, and sustainable sourcing, that now seem commonplace.
The Monday symposium, organized by Ti Adelaide Martin, the Brennan family, and the whole Commander's Team, coincided with 300th anniversary of New Orleans, too. The day was packed with panels featuring many people who attended the '83 symposium, including Tower, Waxman, and Reichl, as well as chefs and restaurateurs like Danny Meyer, Will Guidara, Ashley Christensen, Nina Compton, Emeril Lagasse, Leach Chase, Barbara Lynch, Dominique Crenn, and more. There were also excellent snacks.
The first event of the day—"The Food Revolution: A Front Row Seat"—was moderated by Reichl, picking up where the '83 symposium left off and asking where American dining might go next. At the following panel, "The New Hospitality: An Honor to Serve," Martin asked Meyer, Guidara, Christensen, and Drew Nieporent why restaurant hospitality hasn't progressed nearly as far as cooking has, in her view. "Isn’t it time for the hospitality revolution?" she asked. Guidara agreed that hospitality still has a long way to go in terms of being considered "cool" in the way that cooking is; we need heroes in hospitality, too.
"We can make the world a nicer place simply by being really nice to everybody who walks through our doors," said the Eleven Madison Park restaurateur. "If you don’t make that cool and fun, if you don’t talk about it, it's impossible to create a movement. People want to go and become chefs because they’re all over television, and that’s cool. We need heroes in hospitality just as there are heroes in cooking. We need to give people something to reach for—and idolize and want to emulate."
Unlike Martin, Meyer is stunned by the progress of hospitality in American fine-dining restaurants. The Shake Shack mogul recalled that in the '80s, "the restaurants that treated you the worst were the busiest."
"That’s what we thought was the best," said Meyer. "[Now], it's not extraordinary to me when a restaurant treats me really well. Our industry is doing a much better job of focusing on why we exist, which is for hospitality." As Meyer sees it, one of the biggest obstacles facing restaurants now is hiring.
"A lot of us are compromising too often, hiring any beating heart rather than a hospitality heart," he said. "If I have one concern against my optimism, it's when we just fill slots with someone who doesn’t come to work [to] make people happy, but who comes [to make] a living; that’s the biggest threat. We have to be pickier than its ever been, which doesn’t make it easier to grow your organization."
Perhaps the most anticipated panel of the day was "Backwards in High Heels: Retracing the Past and Moving to the Future with Women in the Restaurant Industry," deftly moderated by the New York Times' Kim Severson. Joined by Lynch, Crenn, Chase, Jessica Harris, Sheila Johnson, and Camilla Marcus, Severson explored the #MeToo movement's impact on the hospitality industry and what the process of moving forward might look like, interrogating the generational differences that make conversations about sexual harassment so difficult to have. Predictably, the panel was tense.
"We knew how to take care of those things back in those days—especially black women," said Chase, the 95-year-old icon behind Dooky Chase. "We had to be the leaders. Our men couldn’t do that because they would get beat up ... If you came on to us, I guess we wouldn’t tell anybody. We knew how to take care of ourselves. Give you a good kick in the groin."
In an emotional moment, Lynch acknowledged she's experienced harassment throughout her career. Later in the panel, she said, "Women chefs and restaurateurs, it's time to think financially how we can help the next generation."
At points, Crenn seemed exacerbated by the very topic of the #MeToo movement. "A movement needs to move. Let's move," said the Atelier Crenn chef. "First of all, it's about inclusivity ... Let's stop the talk and walk the walk. I'm getting tired [of] panels about the #MeToo movement. What are we doing to move forward?"
Crenn outlined the problem as one of education. "I have three restaurants, and I have zero tolerance," she said. "It's about education. Do we teach kids at schools this? Do we, as parents, teach our kids? I'm not sure ... I'm not sure there are any books at school where we can read about it ... Let's not feel sorry anymore. Let's not apologize anymore. A woman should never apologize to a man, period. We need to move forward and be able to exchange ideas."
After a very long day, cocktails were had, and then some more cocktails at SoBou in the French Quarter. Throughout the symposium, the memory of Ella Brennan, who died in May at age 92, loomed large. Martin said repeatedly that her mother was thrilled that this follow-up symposium was in the works, decades after the one Brennan held in '83.
Emeril Lagasse, who was discovered by Brennan and earned national recognition for his work at Commander's Palace, said, "My friend Ella, she was my teacher. She would say, 'Learn about the culture; learn about the history; learn about the people.'"
Lagasse has now been part of the New Orleans community for 37 years, but when he first came to the city (from Fall River, Massachusetts) to work at Commander's, he was an outsider, and Brennan helped develop his talent and teach him about the city.
"I don’t think she owned a pan, I really don't, but she had the most incredible palate that I've ever known," said Lagasse. "She always embraced every day, not only hospitality, but what I call 'deliciousness.' If not, there was no smile. We all need a smile."