Even if you should eat with your brain first. Why gastronomy is a whole system of thought, and why we should add philosophy, semiotic and sociology to it.
I am positive that even ChatGPT wouldn’t be able to answer the usual question: “Where do we go”? when thinking about food.
The options are, indeed, limitless.
Basking in sunny Lisbon, peeping at the river through my new, heart-shaped sunglasses, laying down on a beautiful design albeit slightly uncomfortable hotel lounge chair, I wonder.
In Lisbon and everywhere else, we witness an incessant parade of brand new openings of “projects”: they are not called restaurants or eateries anymore.
They are called projects. Projects, like a thing with a GANTT chart and some Excel sheets attached.
We get it, it’s a business.
Lack of poetry much?
Anyways, we were saying.
New “projects” pop up left and right, and even solopreneurs have based their entire business around this relentless seeking of news (hello, Lisbon Insiders and all the others). Needless to say, I haven’t touched a new place in many, many months.
The culprit is the plethora of very loud, persistent, ever-present communication outlets that spend their days touting, tweeting and chirping on the web, all with overly enthusiastic tones announcing The Best Next Thing.
Only to discover that in the majority of cases said “project” sold so enthusiastically online is just a bad idea pieced together with an even worse budget implementation, lack of business awareness, utter idiocy, mediocrity, gastronomic incompetence and a total misunderstanding of the concept of food cost.
So the highly touted new project causes the restaurant to fade after a couple of months of media storm into nothing and gets forgotten into oblivion, leaving no trace in culture, gastronomy, or memories.
Who is responsible here?
The case is quite complex.
On the one hand, there are ingenuous amateurs who, out of the blue, one day wake up and decide to make the production of food and hospitality their thing.
Usually equipped with zero practical experience, ignorance of accounting and absolutely no idea of what food cost means, they embark on a perilous journey that at best crushes their dream and, at worst drags them into debt.
On the other hand, there are greedy communication companies made up of college dropouts of any sort, with zero clue of what they are doing in gastronomy and an even less understanding of economics, social sciences, and law.
Together, they join forces to communicate -usually with a prevalence of social media - about “the best next thing”, ignoring that just round the corner someone with a business plan and a sound investment strategy, topped by a whole business strategy that also includes communication but does not focus on it specifically, is opening its door to success.
There are laudable initiatives here and there.
In Spain, I discovered that an entrepreneur has invented a way to make a business out of the issue of a lack of business mindset in the hospitality sector. Mom-and-pop shops, friends’ ventures and young dreamers’ places can find an expert guide that will make them use Excel, at least, and learn about turning tables, provisioning, and thinking strategically.
I am talking of course of Paco Cruz, the Foodmanager, who simplifies managing a restaurant by educating its staff and owner about money, finance, taxes and all the unsexy bits of the business.
It is a laudable initiative, as in many cases there are more dreams than reality checks in this industry, which is very much skewed to favour big investment groups that have enough power to sustain rainy days.
An accurate picture of an accounting-marketing-management meeting.
Cappella Palatina, Palermo, Sicily.
And as a consumer, what can I do to eat with my brain?
First of all, education. Second, empathy. I find that a combination of both works best. Let’s break it down.
Your first task as a customer is to debunk social media. Have a look at the restaurant’s page, of course: we do not live under a rock, after all. But while doing so, do not let your primal brain be distracted by all the fancy colours: dig deeper, and try to understand what you see behind the editing.
Ask yourself simple questions: Are the employees paid well? Are they enjoying time off? Where is the product sourced? Is it really market-fresh food? Where is the bread on the table coming from?
And these are just some of the questions, that just scratch the surface. You can dig deeper, and look into olive oils (are they of this vintage? Are they local?) and bottled water.
All questions are valid.
Keep your brain engaged and do not let the noise coming from any social media area take up space in your head.
Human-machine interaction, fuelled by salads and smoothies mainly. Our brain works better with moisture and, differently from a laptop, we require hydration. How long before we all get replaced into oblivion by thinking machines?
Let’s make it clear.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation will replace a lot of bad and mediocre writing.
They will make most work cheaper and faster.
AI will replace all of you who are paraphrasing a press release from a communication agency into a “newsworthy article”. It does it already - when trained- in a fraction of a second and spills out multiple, slightly different versions of the same content. Even adapted for the target media and its specific audience.
It will replace those lists of “10 best” and “50 best”: an algorithm is faster and taps into a continuous stream of data to continuously pull information and create ever new lists.
Can you imagine how many “best of” lists can it create in a day, just switching a parameter here and one there? No need really to send out badly paid journalists with wobbly skills to chase tables and stories.
It will replace all those dull pieces of writing that are chewing out trite information, like the umpteenth article about the same restaurant from a different angle.
Hell, I think it might replace me.
Or so I hope: at least I could delegate the boring parts of my job to a soulless algorithm, and use the saved time to go for a walk.
Like checking stupidly boring Excel sheets.
You may think this will happen only some years down the line, but no. It will be in the coming months.
Algorithms are expensive to build, and relatively cheap to run and adapt.
Humans on the contrary are quite cheap to make but quite expensive to train, to maintain and to adapt.
Curiously, in both cases, everyone is more interested in putting time, effort and interest into the initial phase.
All is lost, then?
As usual, every technology and innovation revolution will make victims. Laundry machines killed the launderette profession, but I’d say we all are collectively better now. Launderettes became telephone operators and now probably work for content supervision or are cashiers or something like that. Or who knows, are the protein-shake influencers selling discount coupons with their code on Instagram?
The same level of intellectual depth is needed.
Gastronomic writers are an endangered species, of course. As with every profession, AI will be challenging.
But this, partially, is a systemic fault.
Audiences have been fed garbage for decades.
People are unable to comprehend complex texts and draw personal reasoning.
Since school they have been used to memorize basic concepts and spit them out, focused on the final grade rather than acquiring knowledge and especially everyone has forgotten the need to develop a philosophy of thought.
The hyper-focus on STEM and the disregard for rhetorics, philosophy, and arts have created an army of mediocre obeying subculture-prone people who often lack intuition, and independence of thought and display atrophied reasoning abilities.
Philosophers in Magna Grecia. Agrigento.
Curiously, this subject was the first I had to compulsorily take in university.
Philosophy of thought.
While my peers in other faculties were studying microeconomics or comparative politics, we spent semesters deep into philosophy. As a nineteen years old I was pacing the rooms screaming inside thinking of this as a trap and a delay for my incoming future endeavors.
I should have been studying Tayllerand and Clausewitz, not losing time with Athens!
And instead, twenty years later, I am thankful for those teachings.
They taught us how to develop critical thinking. Where to turn when in doubt. Ultimately, they showed us what to do with our brains.
This is why I insist in this publication that gastronomic writers should step back and be thinkers first.
I encourage you, fellow barbarian gastronomers.
Systemic thinkers, sociological thinkers, economics thinkers, philosophers and much more.
Gastronomy is a complex and complicated science and art at the same time and it is built on societal changes and the permanence of the past, projected into the things that have yet to come.
I believe we can outrun an algorithm when we employ philosophical thinking. Going above and beyond theoretical and empirical hoops of thought.
This is only applicable to educated and cultivated people. HAL in Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001 A Space Odyssey was only outsmarted by a human when he started reasoning in a holistic, and philosophic way. The same way the primordial monkey used to interpret the monolith, perhaps.
And I say educated and cultivated on purpose: we are running against a machine that can read everything published in gastronomy. We can hope to have been able to read a fraction of it, but what about those who didn’t?
Of course, this is not for all of us.
I realize that everyone has different capacities, limitations and interests. A selected few of us (like the Barbarians I like to loop into my conversations here) have sharpened minds that will withstand the change.
Others will be swallowed by the artificial machine, able to produce faster, easier, and equally dumb articles for dumb audiences.
But that isn’t the path I’m walking.
Read more articles from Sara Marcolla in Gastroillogica