The Daily Pain

“Love is all a matter of timing,” says Chow Mo-Wan, played by Tony Leung in Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046. “It’s no good meeting the right person too soon or too late. If I’d lived in another time or place…. my story might have had a very different ending.” The same could be said of Le Pain Quotidien, the Belgian boulangerie chain which arrived too early and too late for the current fast casual dining boom.

Le Pain, unlike Sweetgreen or Chipotle, was never intended to be a chain. Dissatisfied with the city’s poor bread quality, founder Alain Coument opened the first Pain in Brussels in 1990. A large table—made from the wooden floors of retired Belgian trains—would become the first “communal table,” now one of the Pain’s signatures, which allows customers who don’t know each other to sit together “family style.” The cafe was so popular that, within a few months of its opening, ten Pain bakeries opened in Brussels, whose menus, in an optimistic mission creep, grew to incorporate salads, tartines, and a hazelnut praline spread called “Brunette.”

The 1991 opening of Wolfgang Puck Express, located in San Francisco’s Union Square Macy’s, is widely considered to be the first fast casual spot. “I patterned my business model on Giorgio Armani,” explained James Beard Award winner Wolfgang Puck in a Fortune profile. “[Armani] has haute couture, which is like fine dining in food, and a line below that, like our cafés in airports and Disneyland.” After the success of Puck’s 1982 Beverly Hills restaurant, Spago—whose signature item is Smoked Salmon Pizza—he regrettably “invented” “Asian Fusion” with his 1983 Santa Monica restaurant, Chinois on Main, before founding the Wolfgang Puck Companies. Puck’s conglomerate currently encompasses over 20 fine dining restaurants, catering (they did Kim Kardashian’s wedding to former NBA player Kris Humphries, who, Puck reported “LOVES figs”), merchandise, and over 80 Wolfgang Puck Express franchises, which are located, for instance, in JFK airport.

During the recession, Puck’s enterprise grew, as did fast casual dining in general: the industry saw increased sales across a millennial generation whose reserve of leisure spending money was decimated by the crash. Despite his $75 million dollar net worth, Puck, like many rich people, feels both rich and poor. He told Fortune that, after being fired from his first cooking apprenticeship at age 14, “I decided to kill myself in the river. But as I stood by the water, I thought, maybe I’ll go back tomorrow and see what happens. The owner of the hotel took pity on me and sent me to his other hotel to work.”

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I began visiting Pain on a regular basis while working as a full-time independent contractor at an arts e-commerce platform. My job was to write contemporary art related clickbait for an online audience that, despite the company’s tracking metrics, never congealed into a cohesive market. Our “target audience” contained Boomer collectors that might blow $300 on serving plates with a Robert Mapplethorpe nude printed on them, but also millennials in art-adjacent industries.

“I feel like I’m writing for two totally different groups,” I told my boss.

“One thing that helps me write,” she explained, “is that the more I hate a piece, the better it will probably traffic.” I pitched a listicle called “5 People With Dirty Art World Money,” hoping to capitalize on (a comparatively muted) Warren Kanders online outrage, but the piece got killed.

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One of the “5 People” was Leon Black, who—in addition to running a vulture firm called Apollo and recently purchasing Edvard Munch’s The Scream—also owned our company. Editorial content was supposed to boost product sales, or product sales were supposed to enable an online publication to run without subscriptions and ads, but either way, “we wouldn’t exist without Leon,” a co-worker explained.

The Bleecker Pain branch was so close to my office that I could speed-walk to it without being outside for more than fifteen seconds before I was sitting in a leather armchair, consuming lentil soup or tomato soup, and two free slices of bread. My co-workers tended to eat at the common table together but, narcissistically convinced of my own totalizing inferiority and superiority, I avoided these informal lunches. Besides, Pain was never packed: bread, the former key to its success, was now its downfall as New York had become anti-carb. Pain could add chia seed pudding to its menu, but the brand would always be bread.

Still, I appreciated the bathetic displays of cumulus cloud shaped 400 calorie meringues. Pain was professionally adrift and flailing, just like me. Le Pain Quotidien has so much pun potential, writer and artist Hannah Black pointed out over Twitter, “Everyday Pain,” pronounced, not like the French word for bread but like the English word for illness, discomfort, or agony: “pain.” I am eating in Pain. I will meet you in Pain. Let’s get turmeric lattes in the externalization of Lauren Berlant’s “crisis ordinary,” where trauma is no longer a plot twist, but the ambiance.

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A few months after getting fired, I visited La Botaniste, Pain’s new sister brand. While eating zucchini soup out of a navy-colored wabi sabi ceramic bowl, I realized that identifying with Pain’s banal professional abjection had been a mistake. If Pain was designed to evoke a “rustic” European estate, La Botaniste had a medical industrial complex theme. To quote a 2018 Eater piece, both the UES and SoHo La Botaniste locations resembled “19th century apothecaries, with dark wood, marble detailing, and white lab coat-esque employee uniforms, to drive home food-as-prescription concept” (the menu items are in fact listed as prescriptions). Pain had not failed to keep up, but was in fact as on trend as ever, hitting all of 2019’s fast casual forecasts: healthy, concept-driven, and Instagrammable; an expansion of “fast fine” dining establishments (La Botaniste, with its daytime eating options and full natural wine bar, was fast casual and fast fine).

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In a 2011 essay amazingly titled, “Austerity, Precarity, Awkwardness,” writer and theorist Lauren Berlant argued that the 2008 financial crash had forced the state into a crisis of legitimacy when “it became apparent that the state was in the same abject and contingent relation to private capital that ordinary people are.” The state is so random, the state is naked! What is it for? To hide its vulnerability and superfluousness, the state—Berlant argues—needed more than an obedient citizenry. Obedience in itself was not, and is never, enough. Instead (just like the spaceship meme!), the state needed people to believe. Or, in Berlantian terms, people needed to believe that the state could still offer them the “good life”––economic prosperity, romantic fulfilment, individual liberty––even as austerity economics were actively stripping away the material infrastructures (healthcare, affordable education) that had enabled the “good life” from post-WW2 through the end of the 60s.

“The authoritarian performance of the Austerity State is an attempt to reattach collective fantasy to the state’s aura as sovereign actor and to block recognition of the similarity of their debt pathos and the corrupting influences of capitalism.” On the one hand, this trend can be traced back to Reagonomics, or the official beginning of the US Austerity State, in which the “public life” of politics was increasingly defined by “private” issues: abortion, drugs, gay marriage. The aim here is not to discard one sphere (private) for the other (public––Berlant knows what feminism is!), but to examine “why intimacy and in particular sexuality has come to act as the agency through which public questions are solved,” to quote a 1998 review of The Queen of America Goes to Washington City. That being said, the “intimate public sphere,” Berlant’s term for a political life defined by outpourings of shared feeling, began with “women’s literature” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whose sentimental or melodramatic outputs of “collective sociality routed in revelations of what is personal, regardless of how what is personal has itself been routed through institutions and social hierarchy.”

Perhaps Pain is the Austerity State and La Botaniste is its fantasy of the Good Life, but more likely and beyond that truer to the business model, they are different parts of the same thing. In a different but related argument, Mark Greif argues that the American State has not needed a “public” since the end of the 70s: the draft and mass production had been outmoded, and R&D labor was siloed to elites while affordable education was reconceptualized as a threat (look at the 60s student movements). “All the American public, the many, were needed for was as continuing consumers—as long as that demand did not place too much burden on the state for support—and this could be accomplished in the short term by loose credit.” Of course, Greif’s claim is only true if you’re white: as Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariam Kaba, Jackie Wang, and many other prison abolitionists have argued, in America, the state treats black people not just as consumers but also as consumable products to be extracted from via, for instance, police, prisons, and predatory lending. For Greif, however, the State’s disregard for the “public” corresponds to the condescending baby-speak with which our current “intellectuals” address a general audience:

They dumbed down, in short—even with the most innocent intentions. The public, even the "general reader," seemed to mean someone less adept, ingenious, and critical than themselves…. The public signified fun, frothy, friendly. And it is certainly true that even in many supposedly "intellectual" but debased outlets of the mass culture, talking down to readers in a colorless fashion-magazine argot is such second nature that any alternative seems out of place.

The multi-colored speech bubbles by La Botaniste SoHo’s front doors chirp to us in this same moronic tone, reminding customers that its Apple Volcanoes and Happy Fish Maki would even help them shit. “Feels so good to be light after a meal,” one such speech bubble murmured. “Easy digestion all the way. Regular as a Swiss clock––this food gets things moving!” Holding fast casual advertising to the same standards as “public intellectual” output is a genre error, like critiquing pop music for not being avant-garde poetry (and vice versa). That being said, it seems not insignificant to note how closely La Botaniste’s advertising language resembles the “fun, frothy, friendly” condescension which Greif describes, and which is so seamlessly demanded and deployed by media outlets; the two forms of writing are not the same, but increasingly and stylistically, they normalize one another.

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In the third episode of her DIS web series, titled “What’s in the Box?” Black X-ACTO knives open the titular box, pulling out “a kind of puzzle made of foam of like…the human digestive system? ...There’s a cool thing my friend once told me about Chinese traditional medicine,” she tells the camera, “this idea of the digestive system as kind of like a body that’s inside your body. It runs from the mouth to the anus and is like a distinct system. And recently there’s been all this stuff about the gut and emotional conditions, so it’s kind of like we’re inhabited by this emotional system that sits alongside our other stuff. That would be a cool way to think about a mind body distinction if you felt like it, but no pressure.” In medieval illustrations of death, the soul is often depicted as a tiny anonymous baby slipping out of the dying person’s mouth, with the devil––sometimes a demon, or sometimes merely a grim, business-like goat––present to usher the soul into Hell; an anticipation, perhaps, of a future state surveillance system designed to regulate the digestive machinations of its citizens via gut health propaganda. Neither a body nor a not not-body, perhaps the departing organon is not a weird ghost infant but merely our digestive tracts, the body inside our bodies, exiting our lips in a moment of reverse-birth. In other depictions, baguette-colored souls hover above their former skin-sacks, waiting for Pain, or for its opposite.

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Charlie Markbreiter