Anyone who has worked in a restaurant, particularly one that is higher-end, has experienced a microcosm of war. Hatred simmers quietly between the kitchen and the front staff; for despite the occasional, alcohol-fuelled carnal sessions between the two sides, the kitchen is convinced that the waiters are vastly overpaid (via tips), while the servers believe the kitchen has it easy because they so rarely have to interact with the public.
Within the two sides, there are also conflicts. In the kitchen, the chef abuses his sous-chefs, who in turn curse the line-cooks, and the line-cooks offload foul language and as much prep as they can get away with on to the dishwashers. The front staff is a little more fluid, but the maitre’D and the Sommelier are usually the elite; the dinner staff are above the lunch shift, and the bussers are anyone’s game (including the kitchen staff’s). On the floor, the main conflict arises from quietly hissed discussions about NOT wanting to serve the Australian table (they rarely tip), or whose turn it is to take the boorish celebrity who NEVER tips.
Over the sizzle of sauté pans, the suspicion between the cooks is more vitriolic. The chef is convinced, often correctly, that any one of his sous-chefs is plotting to either supplant him or steal his best recipes and move on to a better paycheque at another establishment. As a result, he will bully and denigrate them in a hateful fashion. The closer the chef is to the European kitchen tradition, the more of abusive he is, the result of the equally foul treatment he received as an apprentice.
This army-like system was formalized by Auguste Escoffier, who, in 1914, was the world’s most famous chef--and the boss of Nguyen Tat Thanh, a twenty-four-year-old college-dropout from French Indochina who reached employment at London’s Carlton Hotel via passage on the Admiral Latouche Treville as a cook’s assistant. It would be thirty years before he returned to his homeland, by then modestly calling himself Ho, the Shedder of Light (Chi Minh). During those years he studied in Moscow, formed a communist alliance in France, reputedly lived in Harlem, fought the Japanese in China and Thailand, and marched with Mao Tse Tung’s Eighth Route Army.
What, one wonders, were the effects of his kitchen experiences on the rebellious young Nguyen? To travel thousands of miles to escape the bleak realities of French Colonialism, only to end up at the beck and call of the man called the “Emperor of Chefs” must have been galling. To take, in exchange for the shillings that saw him through London’s brutal winter, the casual racial epithets and snarling abuse that is still a common feature of the kitchen experience. Most kitchen underlings boil over with a job-ending swing of the fist at their tormentor. This one went on to drive the French out of Vietnam and hand out a whipping that American armed forces last experienced in the War Between the States (and, in that instance, the sting was mitigated because the side that won was American).
The Vietnam War cut a swathe across American society, polarizing many of the offspring of those who had fought in the Last Good War against the parents they deemed blindly patriotic. Was America justified in attacking a foreign nation without provocation, anti-war activists asked? The ends of defeating communism justify the means, replied those who supported the war. As the world watched the fall of Saigon, a militarily humiliated America withdrew from Vietnam. Many in the American Right felt that, rather than the logistical nightmare of running an unsupported war where every civilian was a possible foe, the defeat was caused by internal flag-burning traitors, a position that both Bush Senior and Junior agreed with.
In September of 2001, blind patriotism got another chance. With a nation in shock, the government was able to quietly remove many of the rights and freedoms that had been fought for in the Revolution. Journalists unprotestingly swallowed whatever they were fed by the Administration. An unprovoked war was initiated, without any of the awareness and accountability that the Vietnam experience should have fostered. Rather than independent critics, the media were now “embedded” cheerleaders. Military virility was reasserted as the US led coalition quickly marched through to Bagdad.
America was finally back in the kitchen. What did it matter if it was the wrong one, and if no one had any clear notion of how to get the meal from hearth to table?Bush and Co.’s illogical determination to invade Iraq (Pakistan or Saudi Arabia would have been more logical targets, if it really was about terrorism) came, in part, from the perceived humiliation of not “finishing” the first Gulf War, that war overshadowed in turn by the defeat of American military might delivered by a bunch of "gook" peasants lead by Uncle Ho. In light of all this, is it so inconceivable that one of the sparks that lit the current conflagration was a young Vietnamese baker’s resentment over his treatment at the hands of the man who gave the world Melba toast?