I have a distinct memory from my childhood of being scolded by my aunt for being a know-it-all. She didn’t use that term exactly, but that’s what she meant. I was around six years old, watching MTV with my cousins, when the younger of the two began singing along to the music incorrectly. Being somewhat obsessed with pop music at that time, I knew what the actual lyrics were and I felt it was my duty to educate my cousin as to her mistake. Thus, I began lecturing her about the correct wording, simultaneously scratching that itch of self-superiority that was tickling the back of my brain. Her older brother, tired of me taking the fun out of everything, immediately jumped on top of me and we began fighting on the living room floor.
That’s when my aunt came in to break things up. Jack was sent to his room for instigating a brawl, but—much to my surprise—I was the one who ultimately got the stern talking-to. “But I was right!” I protested on my behalf. My aunt, sick of listening to additional self-assurance, gave me a line straight out of the Big Lebowski: “You’re not wrong, David; you’re just an asshole.”
OK, she didn’t actually say that, but it was something close. In this situation, it wasn’t a matter of right and wrong, but rather one of social etiquette. Simply put: no one likes a know-it-all and this was my aunt attempting to show me the light early on. Now that I’m an adult (sort of), working in the food and drinks industry, I greatly appreciate my aunt for that lesson. I can’t think of another culture with more know-it-alls in dire need of a stern talking-to than this one. This giant chip-on-the-shoulder club, obsessed with authenticity for the sake of sheer pedantry, often gives our business a bad name. Being lumped in with that crowd by default makes it difficult for the rest of us to expand an industry often pigeonholed as haughty and elitist. And rightly so.
It’s one thing to celebrate the virtues of good food and drink. It becomes something else entirely when the goal of understanding those virtues is to one-up the person next to you. When I read articles in major publications about how Chicken Parm isn’t really Italian food, or how the Aperol Spritz really isn’t a good drink, I have to wonder what the goal is: does the author actually want to help the everyday consumer better enjoy their experience, or simply highlight how much he or she knows about another culture? Are we here to inspire people, or shame them?
The problem with our industry is that it’s becoming more and more the latter when it should be the former. And that’s where the bad rap comes from. We’re supposed to be focused on the needs and the experience of the customer, yet we’re attracting more and more professionals who view food and alcohol as the medium to live out their professorial fantasies. Rather than aid and assist the inquisitive client, we’re talking down to them, highlighting their faux pas, and lecturing them about their choices. So much so that people are now writing counter articles like this in the Washington Post.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Again, it’s not a matter of right and wrong, but rather one of social etiquette. You don’t make friends on the playground by critiquing someone’s tether ball technique, just like you don’t win over a client by insulting their choice of cocktail or cuisine like Sheldon Cooper. It’s hard to think about the needs of a customer when you’re constantly trying to prove how much you know, so we need to check our ego at the door when we step into a dining room or head out to the retail floor. The enjoyment of food and drink doesn’t have a definitive rule book, and even if it did no one would want to listen to some know-it-all spout off about it.
You get more bees with honey than vinegar. You can help more people appreciate food and drink with passion rather than pretense.