In the Restaurant by Christoph Ribbat (transl. by Jamie Searle Romanelli): Society in Four Courses

Cover image Eating out is one of my favourite things. It can be sociable or not, a treat in itself or a quick bite before the cinema, something to round off a day on holiday or a step off the interminable wheel of everyday cooking. Whatever the occasion, there’s always a feeling of pleasurable anticipation which is why Christoph Ribbat’s whirlwind tour of the history of the restaurant instantly appealed.

In the Restaurant begins novelistically with a woman rushing through the Chicago crowds hoping to find herself a job as a waitress. It’s 1917 and the woman is Frances Donovan who is embarking on a research project which will culminate in The Woman Who Waits, published in 1920, but we won’t know that for several more pages. Next we leap backwards to a restaurant in China serving all manner of sophisticated exotica in 1275. Then we’re in Paris in 1760 at the birth of the European restaurant, a term derived from its ‘restorative bouillons’. The etiquette, cuisine and conventions of the restaurant will remain firmly in French hands for quite some time. Organised into four sections, Ribbat’s book takes us from the origins and development of these Parisian palaces of restaurant luxury to the popularisation of eating out in the post-war period with the rise of the fast food chain then to the foodie fetishes of the present, mining a wide range of kitchen memoirs, biographies, sociological investigations, fiction and reviews as he does so. Heston Blumentahl, Nigel Slater, Bill Buford and Barbara Ehrenreich all make an appearance

If it’s not too early to mention Christmas shopping, you could do worse than think about this book for the keen diners among your friends and family. It’s wonderfully entertaining, stuffed full of anecdote and juicy bits of trivia, one of the most striking of which for me was American restaurant critic Gael Greene’s memory of the fried egg sandwich Elvis Presley ordered after they’d been to bed but not the sex. Written in short fragments, Ribbat’s narrative jumps around episodically, often doubling back to pick up a story or a point, which takes a little getting used to but eventually becomes quite addictive. He has his tongue firmly in his cheek for the more  extravagant exploits – eight (unpaid) cooks at the much revered El Bulli popping out 250 ‘lentils which aren’t lentils’ made from dough to be floated in a soup referencing lentils springs to mind – but it’s not just about luxury and obsession. Ribbat throws open the kitchen doors via Anthony Bourdain and George Orwell’s memoirs, shining a light on the inequality, exploitation and dubious hygiene of which we diners may be blissfully unaware out in the beautifully decorated front of house. Given that Ribbat is a professor the final brief but rather more serious section read to me a bit like an apology for a lack of academic rigour but who cares. It’s hugely enjoyable, and it has a meticulous bibliography which may well have you making your own foodie reading list.

24 thoughts on “In the Restaurant by Christoph Ribbat (transl. by Jamie Searle Romanelli): Society in Four Courses”

      1. Well, you only need to read/review one book from German in the month of November. So it could be argued that you already have joined us.

  1. I love cooking much more than I love eating out, but that doesn’t stop me being fascinated by the idea of a book entirely about restaurants. And this sounds like an absolutely fascinating read, entertaining and informative. Lovely review. I can think of a few friends who would find this book a lovely Christmas gift.

  2. My husband used to work in the food service industry, so we don’t go out much (he’s too good of a chef and knows too many “dirty secrets” to enjoy eating out), but that doesn’t stop me from being very intrigued by this book. It might become one of those Christmas presents that I quickly and carefully read before wrapping it. 🙂

    1. Ha! I’ve read some of those ‘dirty secrets’ in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential – I’m not surprised you don’t eat out much. This one’s a treat, a history rather than an expose.

  3. This sounds like a good foodie book for the person who hasn’t read many of them but wants to. I like that it includes a bibliography!
    I love to eat out. I’m the sole cook at our house and when I think about the number of meals I must have cooked by now… let’s just say it’s one of my favourite things to have someone (anyone!) cook for me instead. 🙂

    1. I thing we can thank Prof. Ribbat’s academic background for that.

      We share the cooking but I tend to do it in the week as my partner commutes. It all begins to get a little mundane after many years of doing it.

    1. Ha! It could land me in trouble. This was such a treat, a rare non-fiction review for me which some kind person on Twitter attached to #NonFictionNovember. Accidental participation, again…

    1. A bit of niche triva, useful for impressing people! It didn’t put me off eating out in the way that Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential did, only for a little while.

  4. Pingback: German Literature Month VII: Author Index | Lizzy's Literary Life

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