I’ve been reading Buttermilk Grafitti, a food memoir by Edward Lee. Lee explores melting-pot cuisine across America. His writing deftly examines cities and communities and how immigrants and cultural forces shape a cuisine or local specialty. Lee shares anecdotes and conversations with chefs, cooks, restaurant owners, food enthusiasts, and passersby on his travels. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter, “The Palace of Pastami.”
Brian Shapiro, Shapiro’s Delicatessen, Indianapolis: “All the chefs these days are artists, and that’s fine, but then you have a restaurant linked to an individual, not a tradition. There will never be a restaurant that lasts one hundred years anymore. Chefs change their food depending on the trends. We don’t.”
Chef-author Edward Lee: “So there is no chef here?
Shapiro: “We don’t call them chefs. It is family recipes that are made by everyone. It speaks to the culture of the group, not an individual. If we persist in making food that is an individual expression, our restaurants will only last as long as the artist’s whim or the public’s attention span. This…” He gestures to the room. “This can go on forever.”
This passage sparked a lively conversation when I posted it on Facebook. For me, Shapiro doesn’t entirely discount the impact of chefs as artists who may adapt to trends. His primary point is that adhering to traditional recipes and preparation methods have been the key to his family’s kosher delicatessen over four generations.
Operating since 1905, Shapiro’s focuses on a specific culture and its foods. It makes sense to emphasize the consistency of preparation and quality over time. The pastrami sandwich, stuffed cabbage, matzo ball soup, and other dishes are standbys. They are tried-and-true touchstones for regular customers that have been patronizing Shapiro’s for years. These prepared foods upholding Jewish traditions are also a draw for tourists and food lovers seeking genuine tastes.
There’s something comforting in eating food like this. Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken, whether it’s classic Italian-American cuisine based on family recipes brought from the old country or fried chicken that stands the test of time. Clearly, Shapiro’s has found a successful approach that pleases customers and generates profits. Otherwise, change would certainly happen if the business weren’t making money.
Underscoring Shapiro’s point, the focus centers on the food preparation more than the cook or chef making it. The culture of the group, the tradition of the family, whether tied to ethnicity or regional style, supersedes the influence of any one person.
Sign up for a weekly dose of inspiration.
Get links to new stories and photos on food, craft beer and adventures delivered to your inbox every week.