Whose Opinion Counts? (It’s Good to be a Professional)

August 18, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Chefs in ambitious restaurants hate the word “fusion,” says Gillian Gualtieri, who interviewed chefs in Michelin-starred US restaurants. “It’s the other f-word.”

As she was saying this in her talk at the ASA meetings last week, I was dimly remembering that in restaurant reviews in the Times and elsewhere,  fusion was a big compliment. It suggested a chef who was creatively blending and balancing different traditions to come up with something new and wonderful.

After her talk, I asked Gillian, “Don’t restaurant critics still use ‘fusion’ as a term of high praise?” Yep.  “But these elite chefs pay more attention what other chefs say than to what Pete Wells says.”  (I’d forgotten that chefs on their night off might well eat at another restaurant. Pete Wells is the restaurant critic for the New York Times.)

Of course, the opinions of other chefs don’t carry much weight outside of chefworld. But a rave review in the Times will book a restaurant solid for months to come; a bad review can leave tables empty.

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At another session, I listened to Rachel Skaggs (Vanderbilt) talk about the dilemma faced by Nashville songwriters. In the old days, songwriters wrote the songs, and  country performers sang them.  But in the last 10-15 years, with decline in the business, songwriters have had to co-operate and collaborate with the singers. And they don’t like it. Maybe that’s one reason Nashville songwriters were so willing to talk to Rachel and give her such great quotes. Or maybe Rachel’s just a great interviewer.

Sometimes songwriters choose the strategy of actually working with the singers — giving the singer what he or she wants. The other strategy is to write the song first and then con the singer into collaborating in the way the songwriter wants — basically convincing the singer that the song was mostly the singer’s idea. It’s what Rachel calls “the manipulation dance.”

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These papers were both in panels on culture, but they were also about work. They reminded me of an observation — probably commonplace in the sociology of work — that I first heard long ago when I took a course with Everett Hughes. One of the things that distinguishes a “profession,” he said, is that the work of its practitioners can be judged only by others in the profession. Or more accurately, theirs are the only judgments that matter and that can have real consequences

Over the last fifty years, maybe more, this aspect “professional” has become diluted as more and more white-collar workers styled themselves professionals. The “yuppies” of the 1970s and beyond were spun out of the acronym for Young Urban Professional. But most of them were not doctors or lawyers. Their work in finance, real estate, fashion, advertising, etc. may have left them with a lot of money to spend, especially if they had no kids, but the important judgments of their work came from people outside the occupation — clients, customers, and critics.

Even lower-level professionals who make far less money — teachers, social workers — answer not to the students or clients who are the recipients of their services but only to others in the profession (though some of these may have become administrators). Of course, student evaluations, outcomes assessment, and Yelp reviews may be changing all this, but still to a great extent being a professional means never having to say you’re sorry. It’s something elite chefs and top songwriters can only dream of.

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