De gustibus, in principium

By Charles Henry posted

A recent article in The New York Times focused on the redesign of an iconic dining space: the Escoffier Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America (C.I.A.) in Hyde Park. The room will be completely renovated, with new lighting, seats, and table settings. It will also have a new name, the Bocuse Restaurant, after Paul Bocuse. Perhaps more interesting than the physical transformation of this venerable space are the changes that the diners won’t see: the complete reorganization of the kitchen and the attendant reassignment of the way food is purchased and prepared. When the Escoffier Restaurant opened, the kitchen was a rigid, hierarchical affair. Food preparers (usually C.I.A. students in training) were given highly specialized tasks, such as cutting vegetables or mixing sauces, or other ingredient-based functions. There were even placards denoting these different stations and the tasks to be performed.

The new kitchen, according to the Institute’s provost, will be much larger, non-hierarchical, and collaborative. This represents a complete rethinking of one of America’s dining landmarks. The provost summarized the changes as indicative of the very different approaches and methods of the eponymous chefs: “Escoffier was the codifier and organizer, but Bocuse was the innovator.”

A related and integral aspect of the new kitchen is the emphasis on regional foods, an increasingly popular manifestation across the country. The switch from a fixed, fairly rigid menu to one that is dependent on local seasons and farming habit itself forces a re-imagination of the staff and its responsibilities, intuitively requiring a more fluid and opportunistic approach to food preparation: less predictable, more subject to chance and serendipity, more satisfying to the senses.

For decades the Escoffier room epitomized the formality and specialization that the master chef embodied, reflecting a general trend in restaurants in the second half of the twentieth century. Elliott Shore describes the emergence of restaurants like the C.I.A as well as McDonalds, beginning in the late 1940s, as sharing “a military-like precision appropriate to the now segmented and regimented techniques of an increasingly standardized restaurant cooking.” The Bocuse Restaurant effectively reflects a new sensibility that entails a very different curriculum, set of skills to master, and perspective on taste.

The article brought to mind, not too tangentially, a recent ALA presentation by Jane Burke, vice president at ProQuest, who spoke about a new product under her development. The product, Intota,TM is designed to integrate library collections: not only content but also traditional management processes for acquiring, organizing, and sharing. Research and development supporting Intota targets two traditional tools of the academic library, the OPAC and more recently the integrated library system, to integrate collections and the layers of their processing across institutions. Intota takes aim at the inherited segregation of functions, hierarchies, and specialization that can characterize the labor that supports an ILS or OPAC, creating a more porous and interrelated suite of services and resources. The intent, conceptual design, and sweeping rethinking evident in Intota appears as thorough as the C.I.A.’s response to our evolving ideas about food.

In the context of these disparate narratives, one can better appreciate how our workplaces—the settings where we learn and define ourselves professionally—are often organized to reflect principles that were once deemed fundamentally important. These principles can dramatically change; wisdom is recognizing when an old regime of concepts is no longer relevant, and concomitantly recognizing that our procedures and methods in service to the old regime are stale and counterproductive. Refitting a venerable space, whether a physical reimagining for the delivery of locally grown fare or a new virtual architecture to make accessible an immense aggregation of information, isn’t nearly as intriguing as the profound redefinition in the back room.