In Defense of Retooled Comfort Food

Josh Ozersky's latest rant misses the mark.

Photo: Flickr

Photo: Flickr

Esquire‘s Josh Ozersky wants chefs to leave the grilled cheese alone. In a short, somewhat all-over-the-place blog postBrooklyn’s most prominent culinary hater turned his sights on the phenomenon of highbrow chefs “re-inventing” comfort food standbys. Prompted by Eater’s Greasy Spoons Week, which he otherwise considers “much-needed and beautifully curated,” Ozersky slams specialty dishes from the likes of Owen Clark and Richard Kuo as “predictably terrible.”

The reasoning behind Ozersky’s reflexive hatred of non-traditional BLTs and root beer floats supposedly isn’t “professional curmudgeonism,” but the writer’s logic never quite shines through from behind the vitriol. At first, Ozersky seems frustrated that chefs are “expecting to get credit” for innovation when they’re really creating derivative throwbacks to the American canon, citing Eater’s use of the term “re-imagine” to describe its collaborators’ efforts. But what else are chefs like Bryce Shuman supposed to call their takes on greasy spoon stock dishes? Shuman’s upscale tomato sandwich with grilled cheese tea obviously isn’t a grilled cheese with tomato soup, but it’s equally clear that the sandwich is influenced by the comfort food classic. “Re-imagine” seems like a fair descriptor to us, one that doesn’t imply the bravado Ozersky seems to think it does.

As much as Ozersky would like us to believe that he’s not being contrarian, there’s not much in his latest post to convince us that either diner food or the progress of American cuisine is in any real danger.

Then Ozersky pivots, claiming he’s also angry that said chefs dared to invoke the names of unimpeachable dishes their creations are “completely unworthy” of citing as influences. Today’s chefs are apparently innovating both not enough and far too much, all at the same time: spins on comfort food either add meaningless “grand flourishes” where the basic DNA remains the same, or they’re passing off “something new and weird” under a “designer label” to appeal to diners who, like Ozersky, aren’t huge fans of change.

Ozersky’s sweet spot is apparently the approach taken by Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, who approach their inspirations “honestly and with rigor.” This sounds great, but it’s not a clear explanation of what their restaurants do that, say, Clark’s BLT doesn’t. There’s also the damning charge that revamping comfort food sabotages “the actual work of pushing American food forward,” as if the entire menu of Gwynnett St is about to be thrown out in favor of fancy mac ‘n’ cheese.

As much as Ozersky would like us to believe that he’s not being contrarian, there’s not much in his latest post to convince us that either diner food or the progress of American cuisine is in any real danger. If anything, the Greasy Spoon Week specials and even the thousands of grilled cheese food trucks, updated burger joints, and contemporary ice cream parlors that do booming business across the country are proof of American comfort food’s enduring vitality. Chefs aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here, or even claiming to; they’re just putting their own personal stamp on something they grew up loving. That’s far from disrespectful—in fact, it’s anything but.

[via Esquire]

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