The Big Apple Feeding Frenzy: How Stress and Anxiety Make NYC the Best Food City on the Planet

Posted by Jeremy on Sunday, July 20th, 2014

Last month Elite Traveler magazine published its list of the top 100 restaurants in the world. Taking 3 of the top 5 spots were New York City’s Daniel, Eleven Madison Park and Le Bernardin.

The list is just the most recent confirmation of New York’s global culinary excellence. In New York, it doesn’t take much effort to find outstandingly creative and delicious food that runs the gamut of cuisines and price points.

You know you’re in a special food town when you can dig into Caracas-grade arepas, and Tobacco Leaf Smoked Chili Huckleberry ice cream without leaving one neighborhood of an outer borough. We’ve pretty much got it all and we’ve got it all good.

As a cook, when you’re big in New York, you’re big around the world. A litany of celebrity chefs including Flay, Colicchio, Samuelsson and Bourdain rose to prominence while working in the kitchens of NYC.

It’s no accident that the Food Network is headquartered here—food is headquartered here.

But why?

The unmatched ethnic diversity, population size and affluence are all offered up as reasons for New York’s gastronomic dominance. All of these explanations have merit, but what if the greatest reason was more biochemical than demographic and more emotional than infrastructural?

New York is defined by its hurried, unforgiving and in-your-face rhythm of life. By the time we finish our morning commute—having already contended with packed subway cars, blaring noise, one-of-a-kind odors and a healthy dose of the local attitude—most of us are frazzled, at best, and at worst, boiling with a Kafkaesque fury that drives us to impulse buy an 8-day Punta Cana resort package on Expedia that same morning

I speak with clients and friends who dare not venture out of their Midtown office buildings at lunchtime, fearing the sidewalk-obstructing hordes of tourists and inescapable Parliament plumes.

And let us not forget the demanding nature of our jobs. This city wouldn’t be the nerve center of finance, media, fashion and theater it is if our CEOs, bosses, directors, coaches and producers were warmhearted softies. Even in the absence of a tyrannical boss, the pervasive one-upmanship that exists here leads many individuals to push themselves to exhausting and destructive limits in order to advance their career and status.

Retreat is not an option. There are no (nice) beaches, few public spaces that even approach being peaceful and, truth be told, Central Park isn’t all that accessible to most who live here, especially during the winter. No—our emotional respites generally occur within the confines of restaurants and cafes. In food we find our refuge.

We’ve got hundreds of bleary-eyed locals waiting for hours in freezing temps for their chance to commune with a fabled Cronut. Those who can’t make it down to the bakery before dawn need not worry, as they can always shell out $50 and have two of these pastries delivered to their door by a Craigslist entrepreneur.

Last year saw the opening of Empire Biscuit, an around-the- clock restaurant selling audacious biscuit sandwiches like The Bright Crew, made with slow-cooked brown sugar oxtail, arugula and fennel butter. So overwhelmed was the shop in its first days that they required a “Biscuit Bouncer” to direct carb-crazed mobs.

Of course all humans can relate to the feeling of wanting to find comfort in a big bag of chips or sleeve of cookies. What makes New York different, however, is that we require an outlet for our anxieties that is on par with our high octane, biggerbetterfasternow mentality.

While your typical Tokyoite, Athenian, Montevideano, is content to chow down nightly on sushi, moussaka and asado, respectively, their New York counterpart isn’t satisfied until she’s eaten a sunchoke marjoram salad, quinoa-crusted short ribs and a gluten-free pomegranate lime cupcake pop.

Passionate food cultures can be found the world over, but nowhere on Earth is great food so universally expected and demanded than in New York.

Time and attention are precious commodities here. New Yorkers crave food that can keep their attention longer than their upcoming sales presentation, grueling rehearsal schedule and unanswered text messages; cuisine that is tasty and experiential enough to momentarily drown out anxious, manic self-talk and replace it with “God, this tastes so good.”

Our pizza’s great; our bagels-superlative, but these foods are just the dietary bass line that needs punctuating by exhilarating, novel and flavorful notes.

In a town where emotional and mental exhaustion run deep, it’s our food that provides a compensatory hug.

It’s not ordinary comfort food because we’re not dealing with any ordinary stressors. That’s not to suggest that overstressed populations running on elevated levels of cortisol don’t exist elsewhere, or that living in New York is much more difficult than living in other cities. But only in New York do we so effectively channel our collective anxiety into culinary genius.

As humans we are bound to adopt unhealthy behaviors to take the edge off of life. Since most of us can’t find the time to properly work through and release the multitude of negative emotions and fears that bombard us daily, we develop powerful subconscious programs that keep us stuck in our patterns of procrastination, low self-esteem, addiction and of course, eating poorly and too much.

Food will never be a long-term fix for our emotional issues, but as long as New York pushes the boundaries of anxiety, may the food we eat continue provide the most delicious fleeting moments of comfort this planet has to offer.