So, I happened to read this article this week, Turning 17 at Chili’s, and it touched something in me. For a tl;dr version of the essay, it’s about growing up middle class in the United States and what it meant to celebrate a birthday at a chain restaurant. The author reminisces about special occasions, which reminded me of my own beloved chain restaurant of choice, the Olive Garden. Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta in the 80’s and 90’s, there was not much in the way of farm to table, or really, even the concept of a ‘local’ restaurant. (That’s okay, because I wouldn’t have known the difference anyway).
For special treats, the Olive Garden was a place (to me, ages 7-12) nothing short of an amazing culinary experience. Buttery, garlicky breadsticks. Yummy Italian dressing in a never ending salad bowl. The choice of six different kinds of pasta, and, of course, the amazing desserts. I remember when the waitress would bring over the heavy tray of treats and carefully deliberating which one to choose. (Usually, it was the Oreo cheesecake).
Aside from our regular Friday pizza delivery, going out for birthdays or events like a good report card or the start of the school year were marked with visits to the Olive Garden. However, when we vacationed (which, I thank my parents for starting my love of travel from an early age), my sister and I went along with my parents to nicer venues. We knew how to behave. We were polite. Looking back on this, I think it was a calculated risk by my parents (as in, if I were in a similar situation, I’m not sure I would take two girls under the age of 10 to some of the places we went). When I started earning my own money, Chili’s became the ‘usual’ for Thursday nights with girlfriends, and Friday nights were usually spent at Waffle House with the drumline.
The cost of going out to eat didn’t really hit me until Prom of my senior year. I can remember seeing entrees for over $30 and being absolutely shocked. Who would spend a small fortune on food? Similarly, in college, dining out for anything much more than $10 would’ve been an exceedingly rare occasion. In the end, I worked out a somewhat complicated deal of trading and bartering smoothies for meals throughout Athens, GA. Or, I made Rice-A-Roni (the San Francisco treat™) by the truckload and ate Tostino’s pizzas (all bought at SuperWalmart). I had no idea what a Farmers Market was, or where to find one.
It’s funny then, that on one of my first real ‘dates’ with my now husband, was at the Last Resort Grill, an upscale Southern restaurant that’s still got a line out the door nearly fifteen years later. I not only had money to burn from a busy shift, but also had developed a friendship with the handsome (and completely out of my league) bartender. Peaches decided it would be best if we had a comped meal (including top shelf drinks), then offered Hubs a barback job, which turned into a bartender job, which was ultimately the venue for our wedding in 2003.
Was this where my appreciation of a nice meal started?
The reset on spending money on food hit as soon as we moved from Athens to Los Angeles. In a one bedroom apartment, I cut coupons, and we did our best. It wasn’t until I started working at a production company that we got the chance (a few times a year) to attend a wrap party at some chic and luxurious venue (the Mastro’s Golden Globes party stands out, for some reason). A few years into our Angeleno experience, we had our regular locations (Art’s Deli for bagels for early morning movies, Chipotle to eat and have a margarita, also before movies). An ‘upscale’ event might mean California Pizza Kitchen. When we traveled, it was much the same. I wasn’t checking out Yelp (or whatever the equivalent was in 2005) to see an interesting place we might go to dine. I tried my first sushi from a grocery store – !!
Alcohol fell in the same category — we bought Two Buck Chuck. I didn’t know how lovely a drink gin and tonic was (or that Hendrick’s was my gin of choice). Hubby didn’t know he had a gluten intolerance and got puffy when he drank beer. I hadn’t tried Veuve Cliquot. I didn’t know how to saber champagne.
And then we talked about moving abroad.
And then we moved overseas.
And Dubai was something completely different.
In Dubai, we were invited to a variety of places. In Dubai, we had more discretionary income. In Dubai, nearly every food imaginable was available. We had a ‘usual’ at India Palace and tried Friday brunch for the first time, shocked at the sheer volume of food on offer. We moved above Za’atar v Zeit on SZR (and ordered it more times than we could count). I went to ladies nights and drank my weight in wine and free champagne (hello, Dubai stone). Now and then, I would need some taste of home (which was, ironically, either Chilis or a breakfast sandwich from McDonald’s).
We moved to Doha. There was nothing to do and nowhere to eat. So, we left. We traveled. And we went to house parties. In those many nights at home, we made amazing friends who liked to travel and didn’t mind spending money on food. We watched shows about food. We watched documentaries about culinary travel. We planned a completely last minute trip to Copenhagen. ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if we went to Noma?’ we asked. And then I somehow got us reservations three days later for Friday night at 7:30. At Noma (then the #2 restaurant in the world), as we ate our way through 20+ courses, I thought about how accessible fine dining was. Certainly, it was expensive, but eating dishes from men and women at the very top of the craft should carry a corresponding price tag. I wasn’t intimidated by the experience, but rather completely engaged.
We moved to Abu Dhabi. We got our first taste of ala carte brunches. We found a great sushi delivery. I started doing meal prep and making my lunches for the week (something I’m still known for, and I haven’t worked a traditional job since February). We dined well. And for the first time during our travels, I made specific plans around restaurants overseas. We chose Michelin stars and venues with luxurious tasting menus. There were amuse bouches, petit fours, and artisanal bread selections. There were wine pairings and glasses of champagne.
And you know what?
We liked most of it, but not all of it. (A shaved duck breast with a particularly disturbing texture springs to mind). But also? That’s okay.
We talked about moving back to Dubai. In the discussion, I knew I wanted to start writing about food. I wanted to focus on sharing my experiences with others. I wanted people to know that fine dining could be taken seriously, but that it should be available to everyone. I made a few missteps getting started, but then I met others whose appreciation of food matched my own.
More than anything, I began to trust my tastes. I’m still learning and understanding when salt, heat, texture, citrus, and any number of other elements are needed in a dish, but having dined as frequently as I have, I am confident in my suggestions. I can better appreciate when a tasting menu comes together and has clearly been thought through. I feel optimistic in recommending the best brunch or spot for breakfast. I genuinely look forward to new restaurants opening or trying something I’ve never eaten before.
I’m lucky to have a partner in all of this — someone who supports and appreciates this crazy hobby and lifestyle. I’m also lucky to have friends that understand I can be a bit of a snob. I also know myself enough to understand that not everyone feels the same way I do about their food. Furthermore, as much as I enjoy fine dining, I still love pizza. There is always a time and place for a chicken biscuit from Chik-Fil-a when I’m home in the States. Coca-Cola tastes better in Atlanta. My mom still makes the best hors d’oeuvres. I would eat an entire bag of Sour Patch Kids if you gave me a chance.
Where then, does this foodie self of mine meet and reconcile with the kid who lived for the Olive Garden?
Given where I started, I wonder what the next step is. Will I want to start cooking? Will I want to create recipes? Or, will I simply enjoy more amazing meals? Will I get to share my love of food on an even larger platform? I certainly hope so.
Looking back at the journey, I see it was a gradual appreciation and one that is still evolving. There are those of you who read this blog and interact with me. I would be fascinated to hear about your foodie journey. I hope you’ll share it with me.