[Jeong Jae-hoon’s Column on Food & Drug]

There are several facts about the origin of restaurants that are little known. One of them is that, in the old days, a restaurant was a “food name,” not a place. In Paris in the 18th century, a restaurant referred to bouillon or a clear broth. The broth was called a restaurant meaning “food that restores the energy of the body.”

A restaurant had been a place for small meals. Restaurants attracted customers by saying people with a lost appetite could eat a small amount of food and regain their energy. Over time, however, the meaning of the word changed. A restaurant became “a place” to eat such food, not broth. Indiana University historian and professor Rebecca Spang explained that restaurants started to increase the number of dishes, encouraging people with a recovered palate to try oysters, a glass of champagne, and a piece of steak.

There had been restaurants before. But they were more like food banks rather than restaurants. People had to sit next to strangers at a long table and ate what was given. However, in restaurants, people can choose when and what to eat on a menu. Chefs at restaurants were those who had been responsible for the tables of the nobility. There was no better place than a restaurant for an emerging elite to savor lavish food and brag about themselves as being small eaters.

From the beginning, a restaurant has been a place to go for socializing and dining even if you had plenty to eat at home. There, your attention is limited to your acquaintances or family members. Customers of early-stage restaurants were rarely interested in the welfare of a chef working in the invisible kitchen. Chefs had to work 14-16 hours a day in a space with no windows and poor ventilation, and many of them died early due to overwork and chronic diseases. Many suffered from respiratory diseases due to inhaling smoke from cooking, or varicose veins because of standing for too long. The situation got a little better in the early 20th century when the French culinary master Auguste Escoffier divided labor in the kitchen and paid more attention to ventilation and hygiene.

However, we still have a long way to go. Korean chef and food columnist Park Chan-il pointed out that although the interior design and equipment of restaurants have improved remarkably, the kitchen exhaust system is still poor in many restaurants. In February, Korea Workers’ Compensation & Welfare Service recognized lung cancer that killed a food service worker as “an occupational disease.” This indicates that there were so many problems with the kitchen exhaust system in the country. Whether it is a spoonful of rice or a slice of bread, there is always a person who made it. Unfortunately, we realize this only after a tragic event, such as the recent death of a bread factory worker. It feels like there is an invisible wall between the kitchen and the dining hall in a restaurant. Now is the time to break down the wall and communicate with the people who make the food.


Jeong Jae-hoon is a food writer and pharmacist. He covers a variety of subjects, including trends in food, wellness, and medications. This column was originally published in Korean in Joongang Ilbo on Oct. 26. – Ed.

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