Christoph Ribbat in Athens 2018 World Book Capital!

The German author Christoph Ribbat is having a conversation with the public on Saturday, 16th of March at IANOS (24, Stadiou str., Athens) invited by Athens World Book Capital 2018 – City of Athens. Ribbat is a Professor of American Studies at the University of Paderborn (Germany). His research combines cultural history, literary studies and explorations of visual culture. His book “In the Restaurant” (2016) is just translated and published in Greece by Estia publications. It is a study on the history of restaurants since the 18th century with anecdote stories, stories behind the scenes and well kept secrets, reflecting socio political and financial status each time. Stories and experiences of kitchen staff and famous chefs, waitresses, gastronomists, journalists and foodies, while in the background we hear from writers, philosophers, sociologists, artists, such as James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ferran Adrià, Simone de Beauvoir, Paul Bocuse, George Orwell, Elvis Presley, Marcel Proust, Wolfram Siebeck, Eckart Witzigmann. Before arriving to Athens, Christoph Ribbat had a conversation with Athens 2018 World Book Capital and Anna Routsi about gastronomy, literature, history and Injustice!


You have written on various themes, such as neonlight, restaurants or basketball. How comes your interest in these subjects?

I guess what links them is the assumption that people don’t just think with their heads, but with their bodies as well. So, I’m curious about how that happens: in neon-lit cities, on basketball courts, in restaurants. And actually, I see some connections between basketball and restaurants. On the court and in the kitchen, talented individuals work together. They don’t have a lot of space. They don’t have a lot of time. But if they collaborate, as a creative team, they may manage to produce something aesthetically pleasing and memorable. More than just points, more than just calories. Just don’t ask me about the gastronomic equivalent of a dunk or a three-pointer. I haven’t thought this all the way through.

At your opinion, what is the relation between history and literature?

I was trained as a historian, so I’m allergic to making things up. History should be non-fiction. At the same time, I don’t see why historians should always write in a dry, objective tone. Why not use literary techniques to explore the facts of history? Like comedy, stream of consciousness, collage? I always loved to read authors experimenting with these techniques so I also started some experimenting on my own.

Which were your research tools for writing ‘The restaurant’, which were your intentions and what did you, yourself find out through this work?

The answer to the first question is awfully conventional. I read books. A lot of them. Restaurant fashions come and go fairly quickly, so I was able to order all these chef’s autobiographies for about 2 Euros a piece online. I didn’t do any participant observation. Didn’t spend six months in the kitchen or as a waiter. Maybe I should have, but this started out as an academic book on the restaurant’s intellectual history. And then it changed. I discovered that the history of the restaurant is filled with all these incredible stories, legends, and myths. To do justice to these powerful stories, I felt I had to make this book more readable, more accessible. What I found out? I realized that in the restaurant you find the best and the worst aspects of modern life: pleasure, community, freedom, refinement – but also all possible forms of exploitation. So, by writing this book I think I didn’t just learn about eating out, but about some of the key issues of our time.  

These inequalities, this controversy from the external “show” picture to the internal “backstage” experience, sometimes described almost as slavery, do you find them particularly tense in the case of gastronomy? Would you compare it with other similar situations?

It’s kind of the same in fashion. Or consumer electronics. You’re putting on a nice new T-Shirt or you’re loving your sleek new phone – and who knows what sort of pain, what sort of modes of exploitation were involved in producing that piece of clothing or that gadget. It’s just that, in the restaurant, the hard work making your enjoyment possible was carried out not far away from you, the European consumer. Not in some African mine or in a textile factory in Cambodia, but just a few steps away: on the other side of the door leading to the kitchen. So yes, I do think there’s a tense relationship here between joy and hard work. I’m not saying that all restaurants exploit their staff. That would be foolish. But this relationship between the front and the back of the house really tells you something about the way capitalist societies work.

-Do you as a person like restaurants and gastronomy?

I get that question sometimes, because my book talks a bit about the uglier aspects of restaurants. People ask: What about the nicer aspects of eating out? Don’t you enjoy that? To answer that question. I love eating out. Totally. I could do it every day, every night, if that was possible. I totally trust restaurants and I never ever complain. And I do hope that some of the stories in my book express my love for food, waiters, waitresses, chefs. I really wanted them to. Nonetheless, I still think that eating out is such an important part of our lives these days that it’s not enough to just praise restaurants. That would be advertising, not history.

What are the actual trends now in gastronomy, if we can talk about trends? How did they develop through the years And how they reflect the socio-political and economic conditions each time?

That’s a tough one. I guess these days everyone’s still in love with the regional and the local. Herbs harvested not more than five kilometers away from the restaurant. Fish that speak the local dialect. Soups made of leaves from trees the chef’s great-grandfather planted. In many ways that’s a wonderful, necessary response to globalization and standardization, maybe in the same way that nouvelle cuisine, in the 1970s, reacted to the senseless consumption of the postwar decades in Western Europe. Me, personally, I’m hoping for the next trend to work as a counter-reaction to the contemporary obsession with local cuisine. I love Mexican food, for instance, so I’d like to see that take off. I’m not going to rest until all restaurants in Berlin, where I live, are either Mexican or Greek.

Have you ever been in Greece before and how do you feel coming to Athens at the occasion of Athens World Book Capital 2018?

I’ve never been to Greece. I’m very excited.

What is your Greek gastronomy experience, either in Greece or in Germany?

Here’s a story about that. My family and I lived in Switzerland for a couple of years. We had two noisy little kids and not a lot of money, so the elegant Swiss restaurants were off-limits to us. That we couldn’t bear. So sometimes we got in the car, crossed the border to Germany and went to a Greek restaurant in the center of the closest German town. And it was so good to spend the evening there. None of us are Greek, but it still felt like coming home. There’s this vibe in German Greek restaurants that just feels like a warm embrace (free Ouzo may play a role in that as well). And it’s not just me. I’m sure a lot of Germans would agree that Greek restaurants in Germany embody one’s fuzzy idea of home. The Greek-German journalist Alexandros Stefanidis, whose parents ran a Greek restaurant in Germany, wrote a wonderful book about Greek gastronomy (“Beim Griechen”) which I highly recommend.