Dinner Is Served, Sort of: Meet Fashion Food

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Thanksgiving is upon us in the US, which always makes for a slow news week in the fashion world. Just kidding. You might remember that last year, Raf Simons announced he was shuttering his namesake label at the top of the week, and on the eve of Turkey Day, Kering dropped the bombshell announcement Alessandro Michele was departing Gucci. This year will be calm, right? Who can say. I’m keeping my Wednesday wide open in case Michele left his old gig with a one-year non-compete. If and when it expires, the speculation is that he will go to Fendi. Stay tuned.

While we wait to see if Michele sets off a round of designer musical chairs to rival the great menswear reordering of early 2018, what passes for fashion gossip is a bit more prosaic. Remember Condé Elevator? Here’s something I overheard in the content tower, whispered (you’ll understand why soon enough) with an arched eyebrow and a conspiratorial tone: “I heard there was a chicken pot pie… situation at the CFDA.”

I of course had no choice but to pursue this juicy, rosemary-scented scoop. The CFDA Awards, which I covered in last week’s Show Notes column, is one of the biggest fashion dinners of the year, a huge gala stocked with designers and celebrities who fill seats that cost thousands of dollars. It is, in other words, not a place where you’re likely to encounter a humble crock of chicken pot pie. Topped with a flaky, buttery phyllo whale, in a nod to the venue, the American Museum of Natural History, the pie was one of the most Instagrammed things of the night (besides Gwyneth Paltrow). “Can’t stop thinking about the chicken pot pie they served at the CFDA awards,” said social media consultant Rachel Karten on X.

As it turns out, the entrée was not as random as it seemed. In the past, pot pie has played a starring role at other CFDA-hosted dinners, though never the organization’s marquee event. And it was ordered by a perhaps unlikely diner. “Anna [Wintour] was the originator of the idea years ago,” CFDA CEO Steven Kolb told me. “She likes a one plate fast serve, and [CFDA president] Thom [Browne] was going for that” this year. In that respect, it was very successful. “We did get the pot pie quickly,” one attendee told me. It also illustrated the competing priorities at the heart of any fashion dinner. “Half of my table ate the whole thing,” they added, “and the other half didn’t touch it.” (I’m assured it was delicious by those who did eat it.)

As much as I hate to revive the meal discourse—GQ’s Gabriella Paiella had the last word—fashion food is a real thing. You know it’s what’s for dinner when you’re at a table set with place cards for editors, fashion PRs, and influencers in borrowed clothes. It’s always served after a pre-dinner cocktail hour that lasts too long and guests are plied with passed bites that are universally ignored. The fashion food menu is predictable. You’ll start with a salad, and there is always a choice between a white fish, a meat, and a vegetable entrée. The dishes are always smaller than you expect. “I don’t think I’ve ever left a fashion dinner being like, Wow, I just had a great meal,” the CFDA source told me, echoing a deeply relatable experience among the industry crowd. “There’s never enough food, because it’s small, tiny, chic, glamorous.” Still, everybody leaves before dessert. Post-fashion dinner pizza is a rich tradition.

Of course, the stereotype is basically true: Fashion people often don’t want to eat at these events. Fashion dinner regulars cited to me several reasons for their reticence to pig out at dinners hosted by clothing, watch, or beauty brands. (Others are organized by retail stores, PR firms, photographers, publishers, or restaurants themselves looking to engineer a scene.) There are the photographers who circle the tables—who wants to pose for a photo with a mouth full of asparagus canapés? There’s the fact that you’re expected to socialize the entire time. There’s the mortal fear of spilling even a morsel of food on sample clothing. Then there’s that persistent stereotype: “You don’t want to appear starved” by demolishing an entrée, said one colleague, only sort of kidding.

It depends, of course, who you are. Influencers—paid to be there—usually don’t eat a lot, but the press does, especially during fashion weeks, when dinner is often the first meal of the day for reporters and editors negotiating a packed show schedule.

But the pot pie situation might just herald a broadening of fashion food. In recent months I’ve had lots of unsatisfying morsels at events, but I’ve also gazed upon glistening shrimp towers and massive butter sculptures. I’ve been served an exquisite plate of paccheri by a chef with three Michelin stars—and been offered seconds. I’ve tucked into a pile of delicious short ribs. In other words, I’ve seen fashion food go from being ignored to being enjoyed.

There’s certainly precedent for the trendiness of comfort food. Back in 2011, The New York Times declared that chicken pot was having a “high-flying moment,” thanks (then as now) to Wintour. But I think the industry dinner itself has evolved, due to the fact that there are a near infinite number of them these days. During fashion weeks I can get invited to around three per night. Willa Bennett, the editor-in-chief of Highsnobiety, told me she could go to a fashion dinner “not every single night per week, but definitely most nights.” With so much competition for our time and appetites, hosts need to raise the bar. “There’s dinner party inflation,” Bennett said, “so you have to make them actually good now.”

Elaborate food installations have become increasingly common. Laila Gohar popularized the form years ago, with artful assemblages of things like bread, radicchio, and potatoes that turned the act of grazing at fashion dinners into a sort of performance art. But with Gohar’s spreads, food isn’t the point. “With the food installation route, it looks pretty, you get to take photos of it, but it’s not very satiating, it’s not a meal, and is not necessarily yummy,” said Jason Stewart, the How Long Gone podcast co-host and foodie who attends his fair share of brand soirees.

According to Stewart, the food installation is the new way to “signify how cool and hip you are.” Some chefs bring more than just culinary flair. When former food prodigy and current proprietor of Gem Wine Flynn McGarry sets up a banquet table at fashion events, attendees unselfconsciously chow down on the beautiful bowls of olives and plates of cured meats. “Flynn probably does the best job of it, because he comes from a background of feeding people who like to eat, so he’ll put effort into making it taste good and look good,” said Stewart. Food installations used to be built around huge hunks of parm, and now a bowl of radishes and butter are de rigueur. “But we’re on the cusp of butter sculptures becoming passé,” said Stewart. I asked him what he thinks the next chic food will be. “Maybe it’s all about a duck press,” he replied. “It’s a medieval silver device where you put an entire duck carcass inside of it, it kind of does a pneumatic squish to the duck carcass, and a sauce comes out of a spout. They make a pasta with it at The Grill. It’s a must-order.” Ok, then!

According to Bennett, pasta is indeed the chicest food to serve at fashion dinners. “Please no more salty steak,” she said. “Gala food doesn’t add to the experience or have a point of view.” At Highsnobiety, she works with buzzy restaurants like Ella Funt and sought-after chefs like Pierce Abernathy to make menus that feel new and expansive, rather than distilled and bland. “We as an industry need to keep mixing it up, finding new places, new parts of Manhattan, new chefs in the mix,” she said. “Nobody wants to go to the same place three nights in a row for three different brands,” which she noted happened to her one week at a hot downtown hotel.

According to my very informal survey, the best fashion food is not a specific type of cuisine at all. Instead, the most important thing is that it lends itself to the ideal dinner party experience. “To me the best fashion menus are where the food that’s being served looks good, it's rich and delicious, but there’s not a ton of it,” said Stewart. “And then at the end of the night when everyone’s fucked up and dancing then you have the thing that everybody actually wants, the slices of pizza, the tray-passed truffle fries, the burgers. That’s when people pig out.”

This hedonistic approach has helped turn NoHo restaurant Jean’s into a new go-to spot (it’s where Gisele Bündchen hosted a dinner for Frame during NYFW and Gigi Hadid toasted the opening of her Friends In Residence pop-up). Owner Ashwin Deshmukh told me that since opening the restaurant for private events in September, he’s had to say no to “500, conservatively” requests for buy-outs. “It just never stops,” he said. Brands love Jean’s clubby upstairs dining room and downstairs dancefloor, but Deshmukh passes on the vast majority of asks because he insists on entertaining the right way. “We really care about what happens at the dinner and how much fun people have,” he said. “It’s a big red flag when someone comes in and says the food is not important. If the food is the afterthought, we won’t do the party. You know, if you went to a friend’s dinner party and the food was bad, you’d be bummed.”

The Jean’s take on fashion food is refreshingly straightforward—and comforting. “It’s all about big, fun American food, stuff that used to be called comfort food but now is ‘new American bistro,’” says Deshmukh. The kitchen turns out burgers, bolognese, french fries, and enormous chocolate chip cookies. Martinis—the fashion drink of choice—flow freely, and a food truck parked on Lafayette St takes care of the late-night crowd. Like the chicken pot pie, it’s stuff that makes total sense—but only if you ignore the usual fashion food logic. “Look,” said Deshmukh, “If you go too chef-y, there’s a chance for misses. But everyone’s always going to love a delicious pasta or burger. Going indulgent is the move.” As for how the diners have been responding? “Fashion people,” he told me, “love it more than anyone else.”

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Originally Appeared on GQ