For well over a month, I've been looking forward to an opulent birthday dinner reservation. But the day before the celebration, I canceled it over a single tweet.
Rick Bayless is a remarkable chef. If you're a foodie, you've heard his name, but even if not, his Chicago-based Mexican restaurants are lauded as some of the best in the world. You can also buy his jarred salsas and cookbooks, or see him on his PBS show or Top Chef: Masters. Even if you've never heard of Bayless, you've probably experienced his food one way or another.
Having eaten at his restaurants, I can tell you: It's not just hype. The man engineers delicious food, and it only takes a thumbing through his publications to recognize that his knowledge of Mexican cuisine is tremendous.
A few months back when I found him on Twitter, I couldn't have been more excited. He dutifully responded to every question on cuisine thrown his way. Sure, he was promoting his books occasionally in the process, but given all the young chefs out there who would probably kill for face time with Bayless, his commitment to random strangers was near saintly.
I couldn't get into his premiere restaurant "Topolobampo" on my birthday—I'd only booked 6 weeks out—so I gladly settled for a 5:30 seating two days after. In the meantime, I drooled over his blurry cellphone pictures of savory pork cheeks, colorful pepper purees and wild desserts I'd never have room to finish.
And then, he made one tweet. Eight words that completely changed my view.
"Now we just have to convince our customers of this"
He was linking a NYT article called Food Allergies Less Common Than Believed, Study Says. And while the article is really a scientific piece explaining that the term "allergy" is being used too often where "intolerance" might be more accurate, I knew, or thought I knew, the subtext: that Bayless distrusts, and is annoyed by customers who come to his restaurants thinking that some foods make them sick.
Now, my stomach is made of solid steel. I'm pretty sure that my bloodline were raised on a diet of rocks and dirt. Babies who couldn't turn coal into diamonds in their GI tract were not allowed to breed.
Meanwhile, my wife cannot eat gluten—that's the miracle protein you find in grains like wheat that makes bread chewy—without a chain reaction beginning that balloons her stomach and makes every meal she eats for the next week a horrendous experience.
No doubt, it's a total pain in the ass to randomly go out to eat, but authentic Mexican food is generally a safe haven for us given that where a French chef might use wheat flour, a Mexican chef might more frequently use corn flour. And corn is gluten-free.
Bayless's tweet, which he probably barely considered, simmered in my head for days—fulminating whenever I remembered the reservation. I thought about sitting in the Topolobampo dining room, explaining to the wait staff that, no, my wife can't eat gluten while being silently judged in the kitchen because of it. Maybe my table had a food allergy. Maybe not. If only the chef could show her this NYT article!
I was sickened by the arrogance, the smug response of someone shrugging off the fact that he was feeding people worldly ingredients that their ancestors may have never even imagined in their secluded region of the globe, let alone stomached for generations in anticipation of a single rich meal.
Did Bayless mean to insult people who cannot eat certain foods, to imply that they could be making it all up? Probably not, though my mother, who gets ill when she eats garlic, was treated rudely at Topolobampo just months before. (Until his tweet, I'd traitorously sided with Bayless rather than my own mother—blaming a shoddy wait staff rather than the chef who made a solid mole. Yes, I trust Twitter more than my own mom.) He was informally sharing his opinion, most probably with too few words to explain it without looking like such a douchebag. (Gotta love that 140 character limit!)
But that's the thing about celebrities—even celebrity chefs. We're meant to ingest their output in very controlled batches. Their images are edited and airbrushed while their words are filtered through PR agencies, diluting their personality to something with all the factory-farmed mundanity of a McDonald's cheeseburger.
Still, there's a reason people eat cheeseburgers. Twitter offered Bayless the chance to be Bayless rather than some grinning industrial construct on a salsa jar. I can respect such honest rapport, actually, but there's no guarantee that I'll like it.
So I cancelled my dinner reservation in personal protest. Someone would probably take my table, pay for the $300-or-so meal in my place. That was fine—there was no way I could enjoy the opulence anyway.
[Topolobampo vegetable enchilada from Rachellb]