$1,000 Gold Chicken Wings In Plato’s Cave
I’ll admit it: I was wrong about Jonathan Cheban. Like many others, I initially wrote him off as a schlemiel just looking for his time in the spotlight. My come-to-Jesus moment, however, arrived after encountering his Instagram: @foodgod. Cheban recently reinvented himself as a food-loving deity/influencer under this moniker—a bold choice for someone who made made his debut in the food world through a 2016 tweet by Martha Stewart, where she questioned his claim to be “well known”—where he now embraces and amplifies many of the food trends that have taken over social media under the general, catch-all term food porn: gooey cheese, oversized portions, and unbelievably vivid and colorful desserts. This extravagance has paid off brilliantly, leading to over two million followers and healthy engagement metrics, but at the same time, it also establishes him up as an exemplum for the criticism that this approach to food invites. It is, in short, all style and no substance.
Since Instagram is completely visual, the platform encourages the creation and enjoyment of food that exists primarily to appears enticing, and any consideration actual taste is secondary. After all, as Claudia McNeilly notes in her essay “Image Feed” by the time a dish is photographed, filtered, and posted, it is rarely still palatable. Foodgod adheres entirely to this logic, stating in a 2016 interview with GQ, that he doesn’t even eat many of the items he features on his social media, since he “wouldn’t be the Foodgod if [he] was fat.” As a result, he traffics not so much in food, which is made to be consumed, as he does in the image of food, which takes circulation as its telos. Untethered from the burden of being in the world, they deny their own provenance and process to forsake being in favor of appearing.
By foregrounding the photogenic, Foodgod’s philosophy brings to mind Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which images of things are privileged over the things themselves. Perhaps the most famous part of the Republic, the allegory of the cave appears at the beginning of Book VII, when Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a group of humans living deep underground at the bottom of a cave. These prisoners are restricted in chains and shackles, so that they sit staring at a wall, unable to move or act. Behind and above the prisoners is a large fire that illuminates an elevated walkway, on which a more privileged sort of people travel, carry objects, and talk, talking and projects these silhouettes onto the wall in front of the prisoners. These shadow are all the prisoners are able to see, and as a result, they mistake the images for the things themselves, coming to “in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts.” Even if they were to be freed, Plato and Glaucon agree, the prisoners would likely believe the light of the outside world to be false, and return to the comfort of the shadows.
Is Cheban, then, like the prisoners, fettered in gold-plated chains of his own making? Plato likely would have thought so. Though Plato rarely engages directly with diet and cooking, food nevertheless plays a central role in the Republic, even coming to symbolize the importance of philosophy, as Ileana F. Szymanski argues. In fact, when the topic of the ideal polis is first raised in Book II, it is agreed that the “first and greatest need is to provide food to sustain life.” This is meant not only in a literal sense—without sustenance one would starve and die—but also metaphorically, for Plato connects diet with ethics and morality. A polis can only thrive and foster justice, he has Socrates go on to argue, if the people eat modestly and dine in a manner that brings to mind Michael Pollan’s contemporary plea to “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” When Socrates’ companions Adeimantus and Glaucon protest the lack of delicacies, he relents somewhat, but remains true to the hard line of modesty guided by necessity, arguing that too much luxurious food will eventually lead to downfall and war.
Though it is renounced by Plato, luxury is, of course, one of Cheban’s favorite things. The ingredient that features perhaps the most heavily on his instagram is Gold, which is also placed at the centerpiece of his collaboration with the Ainsworth: chicken wings covered in 24k gold, accompanied by a blue cheese dipping sauce. Monetary decadence, however, is not at all connected with deliciousness. Gold appears in his diet not for taste—”it really tastes like nothing,” he admits—but because it provides the appearance of opulence. By symbolizing and projecting wealth, it transforms a consumable good into an image to spread and circulate online.
Here, as actually delicious food is substituted for the image of food, Plato’s views again diverge from those of Cheban. In the ideal city of the Republic, imitation in art—whether painting or poetry—is banned, since mimesis, or the “imitation of appearance,” is seen as a corrupting force that is “far removed from the truth,” contradicts rational elements of the mind, and degrades the soul. The clear separation that Plato draws between appearance and substance, however, is complicated by cooking. A representational painting, for example, may be said to be at the core dishonest, since its form (the material backing of the work) and content (the painted picture) are at odds. When it comes to food though, this distinction cannot be cleanly made, as the appearance of a dish has a direct effect on its taste. A 2014 study published in the journal Flavour, for example, found that the color of a coffee mug had a direct impact on the way the drinker tasted the coffee. The appearance of the mug was able to influence flavor and completely change an experience, even though the coffee was the same throughout. These findings indicate, then, justify the extensive attention paid to plating and presentation, while simultaneously detracting from contemporary movements against pretty dishes for those that are seen to be, in the words of chef David Chang, “ugly delicious.”
Of course, a strict Platonist might balk at this argument, since cooking was not considered an art (poesis) when Plato was alive and writing, and was instead a sort of craft (techne). There is no doubt, however, that food’s place in culture has changed over the past two millennia. Cooking has shifted away from being just an act of subsistence, or the rote recreation of recipes, and has instead come to occupy the same creative space as literature or the visual arts. The equivalence between artists and cooks can be seen, for example, in the 2013 exhibition Cookbook, curated by Nicolas Bourriaud at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where star chefs like Ferran Adrià and René Redzepi were placed side by side with contemporary and historical artists.
Somewhat predictably, the growing importance of the visual in cuisine accompanied the elevation of cooking to an art. The recent molecular gastronomy movement, for example, centered around technically-involved, innovative dishes that enticed both the eye and the palate, often seeming not to be food at all, and shocking the eater by creating a disconnect between a dish’s appearance and taste. Wylie Dufresne’s Carrot-Coconut “Sunny-Side Up” exemplifies this ethos, by having the consistency and appearance of a sunny-side up egg, while in fact being made of coconut milk, carrot juice, cardamom, smoked maple syrup, salt, sugar, and several thickening agents. Though it might sound like a light-hearted gimmick, Dufresne describes it as having very serious effects, leading to outrage and walk-outs by diners who tried it.
While the importance of visual play in food has increased, it is not by any means a novel development. It has always been an essential element of cooking, with a rich history across a variety of cultures. Cheban’s chosen cuisine stems directly from this tradition, although it veers into the simulacral and places image over experience. Illusion in food does not need to function in this manner, however, and it has typically been used towards more substantive ends.
Consider the traditional Sichuan banquet dish Jidouhua (鸡豆花). Though it at first seems to be a simple bowl of silken tofu, it is in fact, chicken breast that has been completely transformed through meticulous technique. What distinguishes this dish from the thousands posted on Cheban’s instagram, is the telos of the imitation. On the Foodgod instagram, the visual is privileged at the expense of all other elements of the dining experience, with the ultimate aim of creating a dish that is circulated, not consumed. With Jidouhua, however, substance hides behind a surface illusion only to ultimately reappear, in an amplified form, once eaten. Whereas the function of illusion for Foodgod is to conceal the fundamental inadequacy of the food—which is to say, its taste leaves something to be desired—to only see Jidouhua is to be let down. Since it appears more humble than it really is, the surprise that accompanies the first bite heightens the actual experience. Though its image may not circulate through social media, it ties into a larger culinary tradition, and most importantly, centers the act of eating itself.