Globalism, Localism, Romanticism and the Future of Hospitality
Much has been written in the past two months about the future of the hospitality industry, the future of the wine industry, the end of hospitality as we know it, and the plight of local and small businesses. For all the sensationalism, there are good think-pieces as well, the best of which (at least in my opinion) I have linked in the previous sentence. But I am not here to add another voice to that chorus.
It is a natural reaction to trauma to turn inward and to tighten the most immediate community bonds as a bulwark against the storm. We see the positive and negative of this on a daily basis. Commentary on threats to the food supply chain has led to buy local movements, despite the fact that it is impossible to feed ourselves with local sources alone. But buy local movements have also arisen from a desire to keep the bonds of community alive – the local restaurant, small and curated retail shop, and artisanal wine producer. This second instinct is incompatible with the reactive localism arising around the world.
My thesis is this: what we lose with the decline of modern hospitality, local retail, and local manufacturing is our intimate connection with our global society. What we lose is an ethos that has gone from inkling to mature in the past twenty years: our local lives are strengthened by and through our global connections.
By this I do not rally around a challenged globalism with its ugly warts. But we are often too quick to conflate all globalizing systems and tendencies into one lump sum. This loses the nuance of a multi-faceted process with tremendous potential and beauty as well as ugliness.
Hospitality as Cosmopolitanism
The rise of hospitality in the past two decades is a manifestation of global multiculturalism. There is no “authentic” food or “original” culture from which hospitality has been built. Instead, hospitality today is our silk road, our Achaemenid Babylon. For some reason, fusion and intermixing of cultures appears most seamless and pervasive through food. Food (including wine) has become the most potent globalizing cultural force of the 21st century. Sometimes this is commodified and co-opted. I am not sure how many new food travel shows our streaming services can sustain. At its best, however, food is cultural exchange and, thus, a universalizing force for humanity. A restauranteur’s passion for Spain translates into a tapas restaurant in the pacific northwest where memories of past travels, anticipation for future travel, and discussion of ideas derived from a multitude of cultures fill the dining room. Eating al pastor tacos in Mexico City is not just delicious, but also is a way of participating in the confluence of the (often violent) global forces and clashing cultures that led to modern Mexico. This insatiable appetite fuels a shrinking and, ideally, more open world.
The closure or diminution of these experiences stings much more than simply losing a place to spend time with friends or make new ones. Rather, what we face is the (temporary) loss of our most immediate means to global cultural exchange. Because we do not yet know with what to replace this, we react with buy local and support local mantras – but these mantras belie this deeper crisis.
Against Romantic Consumerism
It cannot be said that all hospitality and tourism has been a legitimate or positive globalizing force. The strains under which the hospitality industry has suffered recently – increasing rents, declining margins, low wages, undignified work experiences, and poor access to capital – are microcosms of the strains under which our global world has laboured since 2008. Some answers to these strains have been corporatization of “experience” and the exploitation of our selfish romantic notions of personal growth and achievement. It simply is not sustainable to ship millions of people around the world in sardine-can pollution machines just for that opportunity to instagram Starry Night. It would also be naive to suggest a night at 11 Madison Park, Noma, or Mugaritz represents some meaningful democratizing force. Nor can we legitimately defend DRC as dogma, or bottle shots as transformative cultural moments.
We must delve deeper into our fictions to separate wheat from chaff. We can no longer promote a world where romantic self-fulfilment and the accumulation of “experiences” drives hospitality and tourism. That will wreck us. It is also not the true potential that has been unlocked by the modern hospitality world.
Romanticism is a recent phenomenon (at least in the scale of world history). It was not until the 18th century that humanity (starting with Western Europe) was taught to valorize the individual. It was not until liberalism and free trade metamorphosized into modern capitalism that the economic system became tied to this new concept of individual experience. In the last two months, the apparent inevitability of this fiction has been shattered. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
From Fear and Retrenchment to Reform and Rebirth: A New Globalism for Hospitality
Why is it different to eat at a well-run local, but internationally inspired, restaurant compared to a gimmicky chain with great views? We cannot experience global culture in the abstract. We also do not experience the meaningful distinctions and similarities of global cultures through an experience that signals only with form but not with content. The best local dining is a form of cultural risk-taking mediated through your local environment. When risk-taking becomes impossible, or at least implausible, there is little meaning left to “hospitality” other than comfort and, perhaps, hedonism. The pandemic is not the only force discouraging this risk-taking. Rather, it is the catalyst that brought the house down on its rickety foundations. We cannot rebuild on this rot. Instead, we need a completely new architecture – one more elegant, but sturdier, more engaging and transparent, but also more grounded.
I do not know what the future will bring. I do think there will be hard times. We will almost certainly face major challenges to cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, and global humanity. However, the answer is not to return to the failings of the past, or to a reactive form of local tribalism. The answer is to remember why we cared about hospitality and tourism to begin with, why it mattered to us as a human society, and where we went wrong. If we acknowledge that, and hold fast against the tide of fear and loathing of others, then we have an opportunity to improve the project of bringing all of humanity together, one meal, and one bottle at a time.