The setting is a Los Angeles nightclub, where chef Wolfgang Puck is slow dancing with a woman he just met. The young Austrian immigrant tells her that cooking is what he does for a living, and the minute the tune is over, the woman is gone from his arms. The year is 1975 and chefs are not considered celebrities yet.
This and other top chefs’ revelations are the main courses of Andrew Friedman’s new book Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll: How Food Lovers, Free Spirits, Misfits and Wanderers Created a New American Profession, which he will be discussing during the Miami Book Fair this Sunday, Nov. 23. The books take readers behind the swinging doors of professional kitchens in the ’70s and ’80s, to reveal how chefs across the country revolutionized their restaurants and approach to food.
“What happened to restaurants then is absolutely reflective of the era of free love, of Watergate, and the Vietnam war,” says Friedman. “American society was transformed by people who wanted to be different from their parents, and what was served in restaurants changed along with it. There are periods of our history where food was done for attention-getting, had a shocking value, but was not that good. But in the ’70s food wasn’t show-offy and ingredients co-existing in the menu was groundbreaking. And what happened to chefs and their profession at that time was also profound.”
A full-time writer for the past 20 years, Friedman has collaborated on more than two dozen cookbooks and is the co-author of the New York Times-best-selling memoir Breaking Back with tennis star James Blake. He also has a blog, Toqueland, and a podcast, Andrew Talks to Chefs. For the five years he put into Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll, he traveled to California a dozen times, and visited Miami, Boston, and Chicago to interview the likes of Norman Van Aken, Charlie Trotter, Alice Waters, and Nancy Silverton, as well as non-household names like chefs Len Allison and Karen Hubert.
He also spent time with food writers like Ruth Reichl, to learn from their perspective, since he describes
himself as a chef writer. “When I was collaborating on cookbooks, what I really enjoyed writing were the autobiographies and the headlines, not the recipes. At some point, I realized I had become an expert in chefs; I wasn’t interested in the food, but in the people. So I declared that as my beat. Chefs can be very technical people, either through natural ability or years of hard work honing their technique. There are also innovative chefs, those who can sort of come up with new ideas that are good. All of that makes them important.”
Still, the Coral Gables-native, who now lives in New York, has a strong take on the local food scene. “I feel like Miami has a unique identity from a food standpoint,” he notes. “What I love about it that it has a definite character, it hasn’t become homogenized because there’s still at least a little of that Latin-American component in a lot of the food.”
His book’s last chapter, Friedman explained, is largely centered around the development of the Blue Ribbon restaurant in New York City, juxtaposed with the evolution of Food Network and “how it changed everything in good and bad ways, enabling chefs to become celebrities and make more money than they could ever do,” he says.
Where does he see the culinary profession going? “The industry is tamer than it used to be because society, in general, has calmed down. Chefs no longer have to be rebels, some of them are downright brainiacs, have completed college, and are sophisticated people who can write their own books and are involved in civic and public affairs. It’s whole new world now, with the Me Too movement and the cliche of the screaming chef that would throw a spoon at you now being now frowned upon.”
The downside, to the evolution he says, is that “it not as interesting to talk about. It’s not high drama like the way used to be.”
Andrew Friedman on Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll: How Food Lovers, Free Spirits, Misfits and Wanderers Created a New American Profession. Sunday, Nov. 18, 3 p.m. at Miami Book Fair, Wolfson Campus, Room 8203, (Building 8, 2nd Floor) 300 NE Second Avenue; Miami. Free with Book Fair admission.