Christ Cella and the Sophisticated Shifts of Fine Dining

Christ Cella and the Sophisticated Shifts of Fine Dining

When I was young, my mother made pesto.  She served it over pasta, sometimes with marble-sized baby potatoes, shredded chicken, green beans and tomatoes.  I loved it.  My friends did not.  “Your family eats green spaghetti!” was the horror-filled refrain I often heard.  It is hard to remember that just 40 years ago in America, pesto was considered exotic.  What changed?  I’m no social scientist, but I am guessing the cumulative effects of immigration, cable television, internet access and the transition of certain “health food” stores into gourmet markets (Whole Foods, Bread and Circus) have created a wholesale blossoming of America’s food culture.  We exist now at an extreme level of culinary sophistication, especially in a big city like New York which has one of the highest concentrations of Michelin Stars in the world.  In small American towns, young people, hardened by binge views of Top Chef, debate the merits of sous vide cooking and dream of parmesan foams.

My father has been writing a food blog called Hungry Gerald for the past number of years.  In it, he reminisces about his adventures (and misadventures) in eating since his birth nearly a century ago. On one occasion he wrote a post about his favorite steakhouse from years past called Christ Cella that closed around 1990 (and opened in 1923).  Christ Cella did not serve sophisticated food.  There were no menus.  They had steaks, some chops, liver, a Roquefort salad, some seafood including shad roe wrapped in bacon (when in season), broccoli in hollandaise sauce and whole lobsters.  For desert, cheese cake or a Napoleon.  One of the owners was known as “The General”.  There was a long oak table in the middle of the kitchen known as the “salesman table” where you could eat if the dining room was too packed (of course some people specifically requested it). Christ Cella was located in midtown — it was clubby, celebrity-filled, hyper-masculine and expensive — the owner once appeared in a print ad for American Express stating “If you need to ask the price of a meal at Cella, you better bring your American Express card.”

In the time since my father made this post, the article has garnered almost 200 comments.  Cella family members have shared their memories while reuniting with long-lost relatives.  Children of old waiters and chefs describe the loyalty and affection their parents had for the restaurant.  Old ad men wax nostalgic about the thickness and quality of the steaks and perfection of the martinis.  Kids who ate there alongside their parents have pitch perfect memories of the filet mignon, the tiled floors, of being taken in hand by a waiter to get an autograph from Joe Dimaggio. Commentators recall the names of waiters, bartenders and Maitre D’s. I can taste on my tongue the sweet-tartness of the whiskey sour my father would drink at the bar — “an entire, high-quality lemon freshly squeezed for each drink.”  What these comments mean is that at least 200 people sat down and ran a search for a restaurant that has not existed in almost thirty years and were inspired to recall their experiences.  Maybe I am wrong (after all I never had the money to dine out night-after-night in fine restaurants when I lived in NY) but it is hard to imagine a single new, upscale restaurant in New York inspiring such nostalgic devotion thirty, forty years down the line.  I dined once at the top-rated Per Se, spent enough to fly to Japan, and the experience evaporated as quick as a drop of water on a sizzling pan.

What is the issue then?  Why, in this time of such sophistication, are the finest New York restaurants in some ways forgettable? To start with, the stakes are so much higher.  New York real estate prices exert so much pressure that it is lucky for even the best restaurants to keep their doors open after ten years.  Secondly, those same real estate pressures mean a constant turn-over in staff from waiters to managers to chefs.  In the 1960s, you could raise a family on the wages you made as a waiter — it was a job; now it is primarily a holding position for another career — actor, model, musician.  Finally, I think a lot of it has to do with the rise of the celebrity chef.  Where once a restaurant was fully the expression of an owner, the chef now demands top billing, like a star point guard in the NBA. The result is a lack of personal connection, a feeling that you are but one visitor in a million — those beautiful plates and rare varieties of micro-greens will continue to go out whether or not you are there to enjoy them.  The demands of sophistication may, very well, have the adverse effect of making a customer feel secondary.  I can instantly recall the Steak Frites at Lucky Strike, the satisfying feeling of cracking the caramelized crust of the Creme Brule at Raul’s, the smooth, deep flavors of the yellow gazpacho at Five Points.  For the life of me I cannot remember one dish I ate at Wylie Dufrene’s WD 50.

I do not want to shit on innovation or culinary sophistication.  That is not my point. I don’t want to return to the past — Christ Cella was, for all its glories, unpleasantly sexist and treated single women (including my own mother) like prostitutes. America is in a better place with expanded palettes, horizons, ingredients and knowledge about food: where it comes from and what it takes to cook it.  But, balance is everything and sometimes seating a customer in the kitchen and bullshitting about baseball can create a lifetime of devotion.

 

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