Considering restaurants as the “third space”

From our April 2018 newsletter:

There was an interesting piece published recently which aimed to make the case for seeing restaurants as “third spaces” (Wikipedia defines a third space as a slightly complicated “postcolonial sociolinguistic theory of identity”, but we’ll go with the simpler definition given in the article about restaurants operating as “cultural hubs” that recognise the uniqueness of everyone who works at and visits them, rather than “just” formulaic watering and feeding holes).

The author of the piece cites one of her most “troubling” moments working in restaurants as being told by her manager at the time that “Dining is theatre” (echoing the words of the iconic American cookbook author and television personality James Beard, who came to food after a career in acting, and did indeed proclaim that “food is very much theatre”, as detailed in his biography, Epicurean Delight: The Life and Times of James Beard ) – in other words, that whatever you do as front-of-house staff is simply a matter of performance, rather than an opportunity to express your individual identity.

The argument for restaurants being – or ideally being – spaces that allow for the expression of individual personalities is well represented in the Oscar-nominated documentary Knife Skills, which details the process of building a fine-dining restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio, which is entirely staffed by ex-convicts with little to no experience of cooking, let alone in a professional restaurant kitchen. Its success (the restaurant now has a campus, complete with a butcher shop and an employment programme for “graduates” of the programme) makes a compelling case for restaurants as spaces where staff can find their “place” and contribute something meaningful both to others’ and their own lives, notwithstanding a CV that may not be so attractive to potential employers thanks to a history of incarceration.

t’s a story that’s reminiscent of an early interview with original “bad boy” celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who in response to the question “Why do people [suddenly] give a shit about chefs?”, answered “It’s a good question! Traditionally, we were the losers in the family. It has been a profession that is welcoming to misfits throughout history…. The people who couldn’t, or didn’t want to make it in the straight world ended up finding a welcoming place in restaurants”.

Presumably the call for acknowledging restaurants as “third places” is exactly to dispel the idea of anyone who works there being a “misfit”, and for all the pleasure that we receive from such establishments, we can wholeheartedly endorse that idea.