The Tasting Panel magazine

December 2014

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Page 85 of 136

december 2014  /  the tasting panel  /  85 The stage was set for the develop- ment of the restaurant, but the first restaurants didn't appear until the Renaissance—the 15th century. Until then, eating remained a private affair, done in the presence of one's family. People did begin to travel in the Middle Ages, but they packed enough food to last them throughout their voyage. The invention of sausages and other ways of preserving meats can be credited to this period. Travel was dangerous. While stopped by the side of the road, resting and munching a modest repast, travel- ers were often set upon by bandits. To avoid such unpleasantness, exhausted travelers would knock on the door of the nearest farmhouse and ask for food, water and a safe, protected place to sleep. Enterprising farmers realized they could turn this into a decent business. Many burgers whose homes were near the most traveled routes began to take in weary travelers on a regular basis. They did this not for admirable, altruistic reasons, but for profit. Travelers could rest their horses, get some food and have a soft and secure place to sleep—usually in the barn with a friendly Guernsey as a nighttime companion. For this they paid—in goods or in coins. These places, where weary travel- ers restored themselves, were called "restaurants," from the French verb restaurer—to restore. And the people who ran them were called—as they still are—restaurateurs, "people who restore others"—not "restauranteurs," an all-too-common mispronunciation and misspelling. At first, the rudimentary restaurants catered only to travelers—they were mainly roadside inns. But pretty soon—with the addition of alcoholic beverages—the wayfarers' inn evolved into the neighborhood tavern or public house. It was the social club, the nightly entertainment and a place to eat and drink that was a whole lot better than home. Eventually, enter- tainment became part of the package. The full-service restaurant, as we know it today, didn't appear until the end of the 18th century. Up until the French Revolution, trained and skilled chefs worked in the private kitchens of the nobles. When many of those who employed those cooks lost their appetites and, literally, their heads, the cooking specialists, by necessity, had to seek other avenues to utilize their culinary skills. When the Revolution forced the changeover from private to public, French chefs opened restaurants all over France and in other countries. It wasn't long before the cooking techniques of Carême, Brillat-Savarin and Escoffier were the standard throughout the Western world. The modern restaurant had been born. Restaurants, however, were not for everyone, nor were they for every night. The few restaurants were for the well-to-do and only for special occa- sions. They were elegant and formal, specializing in grand cuisine and precise service. The food was haute cuisine, the wines were French and the food was the type of fare the late nobles would serve to honored guests. It was elaborate, artful and expensive. In the early part of the 20th century, the U.S. government tried its hand at social legislation. For more than 13 years, Prohibition was the law of the land and, instead of stamping out alcoholic beverages, it ushered in a period of wild, uninhibited drinking. The "speakeasy" was the center of the 1920s social scene. In order to keep their customers relatively sober, many of these establishments offered "finger foods"—easily portable canapés and hors d'oeuvres. This practice lead directly to the home cocktail party and, even more significantly to the "casual" restaurant. But after Prohibition ended, the restaurant scene was still dominated by the formal, stuffy special occasion places—grand eateries that catered to the wealthy. Most of the public never saw the inside of these places. They were relegated to eating at home or in coffee shops and neighborhood taverns. Then, in the mid-20th cen- tury a new phenomenon appeared. President Eisenhower set the wheels turning, literally, by signing into law the Interstate Highway system. When the highways crisscross- ing the country were constructed, enterprising companies realized that travelers would need a place to stop to eat. Fast food was born. At virtually every exit, chain restaurants bloomed like weeds. They offered quick, rudimentary corporate food at a low price. From the highway exits these establishments spread to the suburbs and the inner cities. It was just a matter of time before the casual "people's restaurant" evolved, a direct inheritor of the speakeasy culture. Since there was no longer any fear of a police raid interrupting the evening's festivities, food more elabo- rate than finger food was served. There was a menu and, of course, thanks to the speakeasy influence, alcohol was a key ingredient of the experience. Prohibition had turned Americans into consumers of whiskey, gin and other spirits. Wine had virtually disap- peared during the period; consumers needed to be re-introduced to this sophisticated beverage. Enter the wine list and the wine steward, the person charged with the task of providing the gentle guidance to people the extent of whose wine knowledge was limited to "Chablis" and "Burgundy." In the 1960s and 1970s, the celebrity chef appeared. No longer a mere "cook" relegated to a cramped, unseen kitchen, the chef was a star, on display in his or her open kitchen—a visual entertainment that was part of the dining experience. In many of these modern restaurants, wine became part of the décor, as well as wine storage came up from the cellar and architec- tural, refrigerated wine racks became a design element in the dining room. Also, at about the same time, the explosion of ethnic cuisines took hold and completely changed restaurant culture, led by Italian and closely followed by Japanese, Mexican and Spanish. The American restaurant became international. I could go on, but I'm running out of room. Lately the cocktail revolu- tion has arrived as the bartender has also been elevated to stardom as a mixologist. The restaurant scene is expanding exponentially as everything from fast food to casual places to the temples of haute cuisine are thriving. Restaurants—and with them, wine, cocktails, spirits and even beer—are in a golden age. It's an exciting time; I can't wait to see what comes next.

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