We all spend at least a few thoughts on our place in the world. We worry whether we are being perceived as we intend by our friends, co-workers, maybe even our families. Are we how we present ourselves? How we think we are? I meet so many new people through the many-tentacled connections of the restaurant I own. Like most, when it’s a first chat I am displaying some version of my “best self”—dialing back the swears a touch and trying not to say anything too offensive, assuming I’m only half-tilted into a bottle of Jura chard. But my favourite thing is meeting new, ideally interesting people who don’t require any sort of veiled, toned-down version of me, people around whom I feel instantly comfortable, enough to over-share and over-swear, both natural inclinations.
We are all self-aware enough to understand that even though people love to think they are always “just being themselves,” it’s very rarely true in the early stages of any relationship. Sex helps to quickly break down the real and metaphorical walls we put up; it’s pretty easy to relax around someone once you’ve plucked a pube from the back of your throat (and perhaps, if you’re fun, scrubbed the lingering poop smell from under your nail) but in platonic relationships, it takes more time to really know someone (if you even subscribe to the idea that it’s possible).
But this is assuming we are all on equal footing. Throw a power imbalance into the mix and WHO FUCKING KNOWS how close what you’re seeing is to the reality of the person in front of you, laughing at all your jokes, flipping their hair for effect. Maybe you’re really funny. Maybe it’s a nervous tick. Or maybe you have something they want.
We are capable of scooping from an unending chasm of selfishness trying to toast our marshmallow over someone else’s flame. I used to get a real kick out of watching past associates treat lessers with contempt while turning on a faucet of charm for those deemed “important.” But despite my judgy abhorrence of such unflattering behavior, I cannot deny my own inclinations toward power’s siren song.
Almost all of us are turned on by power. So few of us actually have any, it’s intoxicating to be around those who do. Celebrity culture’s royalty-based structure crowns new kings and queens, princes and princesses with the change of seasons, and the food business isn’t immune to such frivolity. There is King Bourdain, Queen Martha, Prince Chang or Redzepi or just, like, pick someone. Princess Bloomfield, an honorific she would no doubt find horrifying.
What is it about power that so attracts us? Is it basking in the glow of celebrity we adore? Or is it about self-worth? Is proximity to the “beautiful people” enough to blur our image of ourselves into something slightly more sparkly and glamorous? Does being physically near money make us feel richer? Do casual chats with Pulitzer Prize winners make us feel smarter? The answer is probably yes, but there’s more to it—it’s deeply self-motivated. We think if we get close to power, some of it might rub off on us, we may get to advance rungs by proxy. Deserved or not.
It’s so important not to meet your heroes until you’ve made your bones. Or maybe don’t bother having any—healthy admiration is good, hero worship isn’t. But if you do happen to find yourself in front of someone who has more power, more clout than you, the subtle tension to the whole conversation is palpable. You’re couching all your words, over-praising and trying very hard to say all the right things while they’re either only vaguely interested—constantly scanning the room for another level five-er, someone who really “gets” them, and visibly perking up when an eight strolls by—or pretending to be (I’ve used my “phone voice” on enough people to instantly pick up on its insincerity when directed at me). And even if they turn out to be down-to-earth and awesome, subconsciously protecting you from their awareness of the power imbalance that exists, they can’t help but wonder if you actually like them, find them that charming, or are just sucking up to raise your level by association. It’s a hurdle for both parties, which is why celebrities tend to hang out with celebrities and normals with normals. Most of the time, the chosen ones—those at the highest peaks of their fields—aren’t sure how much to reveal, an understandable and reasonable paranoia. They say something in a joking way and all of a sudden it’s in the paper, missing tone and context. I’m sure after that happens enough times it would make even the boldest among us start to tame our words, massaging them to a soft, bland, innocuous hum. We are all worried about protecting that most bankable of assets: image.
It’s so weird meeting people at the top level. I’ve met a handful of them, and it always feels like they have their guard way, way up, like they’re packed into an Iron Man suit, completely impenetrable. Exceptions: Jonathan Gold, whose open and easy conversation put me immediately at ease, and he has a fucking Pulitzer. In fact, it was meeting him that inspired this essay. And a recent “beginning of a beautiful friendship” with the incredibly smart, articulate and hilarious Stephen Metcalf which has either made me question everything about this or perhaps has proved its theory. Or maybe we are both just awesome, although I doubt we ever would have connected without the help of the middling fame I’ve managed to collect and parlay into a book deal simply because of the restaurant. A writer sneaking in through the back door kitchen entrance.
We eat power up, craving connections with those who’ve successfully marketed themselves to the highest level of “image” via talent, beauty, brains, moxie or all of the above. We circle our wagons around the popular kids, at the expense of meaningful conversations with our equals. Which is a shame because nothing beats meeting someone who’s on the same rung. It’s so much more important to look sideways and develop and nurture relationships laterally (Hi Jessica Koslow of Sqirl! Pals for life, although technically you’re a few rungs up because AMERICA). You can see yourself in their image and if they’re cool and smart and funny, you can while away the hours tipping back rosé. Why bother trying to sneak into a pic with Beyoncé? What the fuck does Beyoncé care about you? She will “phone voice” you SO HARD. This is an especially important thing to acknowledge for women. When you’re lucky enough to find other women in positions of a power equal or close to your own, who are doing cool shit, HOLD ON TO THEM, make a little community, and maybe you make a bigger impact, by virtue of a continued, united assault on the patriarchy. And every once in a while, you can look down the ladder and remember that you too were once grasping at the sides, holding on for dear life with stars in your eyes.