Open-Source Food

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Why did a Chinese-American restaurant in a small town in Idaho end up resembling so closely a Chinese-American restaurant in rural Mississippi -- when there wasn't actually all that much "Chinese" about either of them? Answer: The spontaneous self organization and local specialization that Jennifer Lee compares to open-system software is the way the restaurant business works. Virtually all restaurants conform to the owner's idea of an ideal form -- not the owner's but the culture's. A new form can, of course, be invented -- as it was by Chinese Americans -- but the culture has to take it up. Then replication happens.

Whatever innovation and evolution led to the English pub, French bistro, Italian caffe and Afghan kebab house, today every pub, bistro, caffe or kebab house is effectively a node on a cultural franchise, and will hew to a pretty rigorous expression of "pub" or "kebab house." The customer wants to experience a taste of the uber-restaurant that he sees in his mind's eye. Important as the food is -- and sometimes it's not all that important -- a restaurant is always about packaging, too. Call it form over food.

Even restaurants regarded as avant garde, such as the molecular gastronomy temples now said to be in their waning phase, are highly conformist, and very demanding of customers. We who would eat there must understand what the whole deal is (part of the whole deal being the masonic ritual of securing a damned table); we must accept the possibility of being tested and exasperated by the food; and usually we must pay breathtaking amounts of money.

The fast-food giants thrive because consumers find comfort in a combination of form and food that aspires to the accuracy of a clone. In the closed model, periodic menu updates (the new Premium McWrap, for example) are rolled out only after beta testing, and only while a huge national ad campaign shows customers how the new food fits into the McSystem. Fast food is something like a fugue, tightly repeating and developing its elements. Is there a better example of this than Taco Bell, which thrives on exquisitely refined, loudly trumpeted iterations of crunch, cheese, beef, spice and onion?

What Jennifer Lee described at TED is the appearance at a specific time of a new food-culture franchise, the Chinese-American restaurant, with its roots in the post-railway-labor quests of Chinese immigrants and their need to figure out how cooking from back home could be denatured for a hostile host culture. Today, hostility is vanishing in place of countless ravenous pockets of appetite for the new, reinforced by obsessive tracking of restaurant memes on the Web. Today, a food-court outlet like L.A. Crawfish, in the big, immaculate 99 Ranch Market Asian food store in the Houston suburbs, points to the future of food in the global open system, where denaturing is not required.

L.A. Crawfish is a Cajun/Asian hybrid run by a Vietnamese family who moved to Houston from Louisiana. Crawfish are the lure but the soul of the place is its pho. The soup starts with a superb broth, proving the cook's bona fides (pho broth, like ramen broth, is a foundational issue). There is of course jalapeno, cilantro, noodles. But the hybrid version is the superstar: The kitchen adds a hint of Cajun spice, and throws in crawfish and andouille. It's very, very good. The menu also includes Thai tamarind chicken wings, yucca fries, and cheese curds if you have a poutine hankering. There is more going on then East-West mashup in this tiny place, though. The flat-screen wall menus, the exuberant graphics, the giddy multiethnic customer base, the BYOB policy, the smart marketing to NFL fans (they've installed a big TV) and the relaxed kitchen moxie (they'll boil any crustaceans you happen to have brought along) add up to something that feels fresh, optimistic, canny. This is a taste of a good place where we are heading: a very open open-source food system indeed.

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