Assistant Professor, Nutrition and Food Studies
"New York City brings together two of my interests -- ethnicity and restaurants. It's a place like nowhere else in the world, with such an abundance of interesting natural material for someone in my field."
Where did Krishnendu Ray's interest in food begin? "In nostalgia. I came to the United States from India to study political science. But once here, I was assaulted by nostalgia for home - which expressed itself through an intense craving for the food I grew up with." Ray became so passionate about his native cuisine, he thought, "Why don't I turn the study of food into my work?" He changed courses entirely, taught at the famed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and then joined NYU Steinhardt.
"Just being in New York City is incomparable if you are going to talk about public food culture," says Ray. "And the City brings together two of my interests - ethnicity and restaurants. It's a place like nowhere else in the world, with such an abundance of interesting natural material for someone in my field." He chose The Steinhardt School because it afforded him the opportunity to combine teaching with research. "I looked at NYU's stellar reputation as a research institution and the resources associated with it - its library, its location - and decided this is where I wanted to be." Only at NYU a short time, he has already received Steinhardt's Excellence in Teaching Award.
Ray is currently working on his second book, entitled Men in White. The title refers to the chef's uniform. "The wearing of white has been an important sartorial strategy of emerging professions - such as health care. In a sense, to show a profession has merit, those who practice it must - literally - wear it on their sleeves. Chefs learned that wearing white legitimized their trade." Women are not included in the title, says Ray, because "the process of professionalization also overlaps with processes of masculinization."
The book is Ray's attempt to understand the public discussion of food in the United States. "One of the places this discussion happens is in the media, so my book looks at Julia Child's TV show in the early Sixties, the legendary New York Times food coverage that dates to the Seventies - which in turn spawned food and restaurant reviews in every major newspaper beginning in the Eighties - and the cable food channel that emerged in the early Nineties."
The book also looks at the three ages of restaurants in the U.S. "The Gilded Age is the first, from the 1880s to the 1920s, with restaurants like Delmonico's serving what was known as "Continental" cuisine. The second age is from the World War II through the Vietnam War, when restaurants like Le Cirque and Le Cote Basque served fine French cooking. The third age - which we are in the midst of - has existed since the 1980s. It's the age of the chef as artist and public figure."
The book also examines the academic study of food. "From the study of home economics in the 1880s, through NYU becoming the first university to offer a PhD in food studies, to the evolution of the Culinary Institute from a cooking school into a liberal arts college - the book considers all these to be part of the same process."
Ray finds that his students are absolutely excited to look at food and its historical context. "I learn so much from them because they all have extensive experience with food - many are international students who grew up eating in restaurants around the world, and many are New York City students with solid New York City restaurant backgrounds."
Ray hopes next to involve them in a research project about the City's entire food system - from how food is delivered to the City, to how garbage is taken out. "My colleagues and I are developing curriculum along those lines, and my students are already responding to the idea. The whole department is constantly engaged in a lively discussion about the culture of food. We're having a ball."