Bogus trend story of the week: The Times discovers pot use in restaurant kitchens, links it to cuisine creativity.

Media criticism.
May 19 2010 5:51 PM

Bogus Trend Story of the Week

The New York Times discovers pot use in restaurant kitchens, links it to cuisine creativity.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

As long as there have been restaurants—hell, probably as long as man has been cooking over fire—chefs and kitchen help have saturated themselves with ales, wine, and spirits before business hours, during business hours, after business hours, and sometimes via intravenous drip feeds while asleep.

People drink when they're around food for the same reason they breathe. It's that natural. Also, at restaurants that serve booze, half-drunk bottles of wine get carted back to the kitchen all night long, and there the help falls on the bottles like plunder. I'm not saying that all chefs and kitchens work hammered, but show me a few restaurants, and I'll show you a host of spiritually lubricated workers.

Although alcohol use is rampant at restaurants, we would never deduce from our observations that alcohol consumption by the staff inspires new heights of culinary creativity by chefs. Oh, we would surely note that chefs calibrate their recipes to the imbibables on hand, but never would we think that a drunk chef would necessarily be a better or more creative chef.

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So where does the New York Times get off this morning with its May 19, 2,100-word abomination, "Creating a Cuisine Out of Smoke: Marijuana, Some Chefs Say, Helps Them Craft 'Feel Good' Dishes and Restaurants"? (The online headline is "Marijuana Fuels a New Kitchen Culture.") The piece explains how marijuana is inspiring chefs and restaurants to create a new kind of cuisine, making its claim after interviewing "a handful of chefs [who] are unabashedly open about marijuana's role in their creative and recreational lives and its effect on their restaurants."

The Times asserts that pot does at least two things to the restaurant experience: It inspires creativity in the kitchen, and it stimulates the appetite for a certain kind of food. No less an authority than chef and author Anthony Bourdain gives examples of places serving such food for the "slightly stoned, slightly drunk chef after work," as he puts it. There's Au Pied de Cochon's poutine of foie gras, Crif Dogs' deep-fried cheese-steak hot dog, and "the entire genre of mutant-hot-dog stands."

Other chefs tell the Times about how new restaurants were "conceived with the creative help of marijuana," but then the story undermines its own thesis by reporting that:

1) The pastry chef behind "cereal milk soft-serve ice cream" says the dessert appeals to a stoner's appetite. But, she explains, she devised it while totally sober. A patron consuming the concoction agrees that it's the perfect dish for a "totally baked" diner, but she says, No, I'm not stoned.

2) Marijuana "has long been part of restaurant culture," which undercuts the notion that only now are its effects being felt on the food scene.

3) Even people who don't smoke pot love alleged stoner dishes, like the breakfast burrito pizza at Roberta's in Brooklyn. But unless breakfast burrito pizza was invented by a guy while seriously stoned, its existence says nothing about marijuana fueling a new kitchen culture.

4) The Big Mac's taste range—savory, sweet, tart, and crunchy—appeals to the stoner palate because it "hits" so many of the senses, as a source tells the Times. Is this meant to imply that Ray Kroc was a secret stoner? Sara Lee, too? Col. Sanders? Papa John? If a Big Mac qualifies as stoner cuisine, then can we agree that every entree that mixes taste and texture is stoner grub and that the category is meaningless?

5) An important San Francisco chef says stoner food is just another version of comfort food. In other words, there is no stoner cuisine. Pot isn't fueling anything much in American restaurant kitchens except a big marijuana buzz.

Nowhere does the Times piece convincingly connect marijuana use to anything new that's happening in kitchens or to any food innovations. I'm not surprised. Despite all the talk about how marijuana promotes creativity, I've never been able to confirm a relationship between pot and creativity in my four decades of anecdotal field research among the stoner people. My preliminary conclusions: Creative people are generally creative when buzzed on pot or tipsy; noncreative people are generally noncreative when buzzed on pot or tipsy; and marijuana use often fills users with the self-illusion of creativity.

The very best evidence the Times piece can provide to make its pot-equals-new-kitchen-culture thesis is a pointer to a Web site where a video series depicts chefs partying, eating, smoking, and making "doobie references." I suspect that chefs have been entertaining themselves in this manner for decades and that the only new trend here is that they—like rock stars, movie stars, buskers, college professors, and basically anybody who can get a doctor to write a script for them—are now reliably out about their usage.

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