Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Alison Pearlman

Alison Pearlman is a Los Angeles–based art historian and cultural critic who blogs under the name the Eye in Dining. She teaches modern and contemporary art and design history at Cal Poly Pomona.

Pearlman is the author of Unpackaging Art of the 1980s and numerous articles on contemporary art and consumer culture. Her new book is Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America.

Last month I asked the author about what she was reading. Pearlman's reply:
It’s typical for me to keep several disciplinary tracks of readings going simultaneously, and for the sum of these commitments to get out of control. I might be on page 108 in a book about restaurants and page 9 in an anthology on art or design while ten other books and numerous articles on various Zeitgeist-defining concerns from The New Yorker or from Food, Culture & Society or from Design and Culture or Art Journal are forming a pile. I regularly move stacks of books and articles that have recently accumulated to larger ones made in previous weeks standing farther away. When the far heap reaches a height that frightens me or threatens to topple onto one of my dogs, I create a clearing in my schedule and get to work on the ones I deem crucial.

It’s also not unusual for a book to so appeal to me that I read it in full immediately, losing myself to it for a full, hermit-like day. That’s how I recently read Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant by Scott Haas. Haas spent eighteen months as a fly on the wall and sometimes kitchen worker at chef Tony Maws’s award-winning Craigie on Main in Boston. The book’s brilliant mix of engrossing story, behind-the-scenes viewpoint, and insight into the restaurant business likens it to the now-classic Kitchen Confidential (2000) by former chef Anthony Bourdain. But Haas brings an unusual perspective to the behind-the-kitchen-door genre that Bourdain popularized. Haas is not only a longtime food writer and journalist. He’s also a clinical psychologist. Don’t worry. There’s no jargon in the book. Haas uses the best device of nonfiction—an engaging combination of storytelling and reflection—to convey what drives the restaurant’s restlessly creative and often angry chef/owner and what about the chef drives the restaurant. In the process, Haas leads us to reflect on the power of individual personality traits, interpersonal dynamics, family dynamics, stressors and comforts of particular occupations, workplace operational systems (or lack thereof), and class structures to shape our everyday social institutions.
Visit Alison Pearlman's website and blog.

The Page 99 Test: Smart Casual.

--Marshal Zeringue