As we walked through the front door, we were greeted by the sight of a uniformed Japanese man slipping his knife through a crescent of raw tuna. Pots bubbled on the stovetop, and assistants scurried between the cramped kitchen and the dining room, putting up posters and setting down place cards. Another man in the same chef’s whites appeared before us, greeting us with strong hugs and a smiling beard. “Hey! I’m Abdel! Welcome to Stickershop.” We formed a circle around the enormous hand-carved wooden table that engulfed the dining room, unsure of ourselves but excited by what was to come. We had passed the threshold. We were in Abdel’s world now.
Abdel Morsy, ES ’17, lives in the world of Stickershop, an “art dinner series” that celebrated its one-year anniversary on Fri., Oct. 21, with an eight-course feast. Morsy’s dinner hosted people from all walks of life; the 12 guests present included people of all backgrounds, from a School of Management professor to a farmer to a 17-year-old rapper based in New York City.
These guests came together over more than a meal: during the evening, they admired custom-designed posters, played musical chairs, and listened to Myles Cameron, ES ’19, perform original songs composed to pair with the sensory experience of each course. For Morsy, simply seating guests and leaving them to themselves is not enough. A meal is an intimate experience, meant to be shared between guests and chefs alike. “People come to be entertained,” Morsy said. “They come to be spoken to.”
According to Jacqueline Munno, Programs Manager for Professional Experience at the Yale Sustainable Food Program, “food is about relationships. Some of those relationships are invisible, and some are not, but all are important and worth understanding.”
Morsy and Shinichiro Takagi met in July. As a Global Food Fellow, Morsy traveled to Japan over the summer looking for a life-changing opportunity, but he found none in Tokyo. In desperation, he decided to contact Shin Takagi, owner of the Kanazawa-based, two-Michelin-star restaurant Zeniya, out of the blue. After a series of text-messaged directions from Takagi and a panicked sprint across Tokyo during rush hour, he sat across from Takagi on a train and conducted an interview.
Morsy apprenticed in Takagi’s kitchen for the rest of the summer, learning to appreciate Takagi’s philosophy that “the cuisine that we prepare is always for the guest, not for us.” When asked about the ethos of his restaurant, Takagi said that in addition to food, Zeniya prepares “good memories with warm hospitality.” Morsy seconds this, noting how absurd it is to check diners’ plates for leftovers without making sure that they are enjoying each other’s company.
On Friday, there were no leftovers. Not any sesame tofu crafted from the Yale Farm’s seeds, or fresh wasabi, or Kanazawa citrus, or ice-packed seafood brought from Japan. “My favorite by far was the nodoguro with Kanazawa citrus,” said Tomaso Mukai, SY ’19. “I can’t imagine lugging fish in a suitcase from Japan to America, but I am also not surprised—as expected of a world-class chef doing something for someone he cares about.” Even when I asked guests different questions, their responses were rooted in the same core: “It was a great honor for me to eat a meal prepared by Abdel and Chef Takagi. Not because Chef Takagi is famous, or because Abdel is a terrific cook, but because eating their food allowed me to experience the intimacy of their relationship as mentor and mentee,” said Munno.
The morning after our dinner, I pulled out the Yale Dining app and scrolled through my options for brunch. It was Fall Break, and I sat by myself in a dimly lit back corner of the empty space and tried to eat as fast as I could. Unfortunately, even when we are able to eat in our own dining halls, surrounded by a random sampling of friends and classmates, we rarely choose to linger. To-go cups, tupperware, 10-minute breaks between classes, the Durfee’s lunch swipe—all of these signify a shift in perception, as food is no longer automatically intertwined with companionship or community. “Sometimes I find that I’ll go weeks without sitting down and eating in a dining hall,” said Jackie Du, BK ’19. “If I have a lot of work, it’s no breakfast, Durfee’s swipe for lunch, and then for dinner I’ll make a sandwich and take some rice in a cup to eat in my room,” she added.
According to a recent study cited in The New York Times, almost half of American adults eat lunch alone. Even in the Capitol, the senators-only dining room once known for bipartisan bread-breaking stopped serving lunch in 2012, giving way to daily partisan caucus luncheons. According to Tagan Engel, a chef and food-systems advocate in New Haven, “this state of living means that most Americans’ experience of food has to do with what is fast, cheap, and easy to get.”
Perhaps a solution can come from more men like Morsy, when asked which dish means the most of him, replied “everything my mom makes.” The kind of man who took three-and-a-half hours to answer the question “Why food?” because food is so intertwined with who he is that he can’t explain his food without explaining himself, zinging from a stroopwafel cart in the Netherlands to winter in Montreal to fried chicken sandwiches in Alexandria.
When asked to explain his own background in food, Morsy said that although fine dining is on the cutting edge of invention, “food ideas that are being presented in fine dining settings rarely influence or inspire people of low-income, colored backgrounds. These ideas are going to these secret elite clubs that use them to stigmatize the people they actually come from.” After pausing for a moment, he added, “as a man of color coming from the hood of Alexandria, Egypt, I’m not the kind of person usually making fine dining cuisine in America or in Japan. My identity as a cook is noteworthy in a way because fine dining is historically western-dominated, western-occupied, only accessible to the privileged. It’s snooty, it’s dismissive, and it’s also appropriative of a lot of ethnic culinary tradition.” Morsy has received comments from both diners and other chefs about how people like him “don’t usually make it into this world of cuisine.”
In a New York Times op-ed, Michael Pollan wrote that American consumers must learn to understand food dollars as “votes” for different versions of the food industry. Because, as Pollan notes, “food is the place in daily life where corporatization can be most vividly felt,” a vote for localism and for the communitarian promotion of local food economies is a vote of dissent, combating the idea that national, capitalistic networks are fixed. As it turns out, almost nothing is more political than the way in which we choose to feed ourselves.
Morsy sees this reality less as something daunting and more as an opportunity for progress. He said, “the idea of feeding someone is unbelievably inspiring. Cooking for someone is an act of giving. At many times in my life, food was the only thing I could give. I truly feel that you can’t host people without feeding them, and you can’t feed people without hosting them.” This, after all, is what his project Stickershop is all about: “Making someone feel at home. Making someone feel cared about. People come to be loved.” And in the end, I believed Morsy when he noted, “food is so much more than just eating.”