Leiden University logo.

nl en

The transformative power of food

Creating a good life and new work values through foodwork?

MasterChef pattern and biographical transformations

Food researchers are well-acquainted with the ongoing discussion around the potential transformation of social and economic relations through food. Among others, discussions frequently revisit the theme of alienation: a few examples of discourse on the engagement with food and food production could be referenced. For instance, Isabelle de Solier (2013) suggests that the middle classes’ interest in food production serves as a response to the lack of creativity and material productivity in both work and leisure. The non-alienating nature of craft production in an ethnographic case study of neo-traditional cheesemaking (Paxson 2013) is another example that can be explored. According to Dwight Furrow (2016), the Western world is currently undergoing a “food revolution,” motivated by endeavors to generate new significance in response to bureaucratization, standardization, and an overarching emphasis on economic growth. These themes are also reflected in “Sitopia” by Carolyn Steel (2021), where the author envisions a social utopia achieved through reestablishing the relationship with food, highlighting the role of manual food-related work as a remedy to the repercussions of industrialization.

This context has led individuals to pursue food-related work, whether as a leisure activity or a passion-driven profession, while attributing to it the potential to reclaim authenticity and agency within their own life stories. The relatively recent cultural phenomenon prompts people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds to use food as a framework for narratives of self-discovery and personal fulfillment. This paradigm, accompanied by the notion of the “empowering force of passion”, is prevalent in popular culture, including reality shows and lifestyle media outlets, with their grand-narrative of a “life-makeover”.

"Products of "New Bread" craft micro-bakery founded in Gdańsk by a former journalist.

Class, career and manual labor – paradoxes

I have been intrigued by the motivations behind these professional choices made within a specific historical and socio-cultural context: contemporary Poland, a postsocialist country that has experienced significant structural and cultural shifts over the last 30 years (and, accordingly, earlier, throughout the 20th century). In my research, described in detail in an article published in Polish journal Studia Socjologiczne, I examine real-life transitions from white-collar jobs to roles within the food industry. I have tried to reach people, living in a few large Polish cities, who voluntarily remodeled (or were in the process of changing) their current professional paths. These were biographical projects focused on professionalizing earlier activities practiced in private spaces primarily for leisure, which contrasted with previous jobs by involving a significant manual labor component. This was often, though not entirely accurately, referred to as “downward social mobility,” yet they possess a paradoxical nature concerning social class.

In post-socialist Poland, the desired career paths have been closely linked to higher education and white-collar jobs. The educational boom of the 1990s and early 2000s reflected people’s aspirations and a collective drive toward a meritocratic and middle-class society.

Dominant career trajectories were associated not only with non-manual work and Eastern European intelligentsia values, but also with stable or upwardly mobile professional paths. This is why deviating from these established career paths—such as those who professionalized their passion for food—might appear revolutionary and radical. Paradoxically, however, transitions from intellectual labor to roles in foodwork also confirm middle-class notions of an ideal professional life, not only because they are performed by privileged social actors with different forms of capital. They also underscore the importance of a “correct” alignment between work and passion. They are anchored in middle-class ideas of self-control, agency, flexibility, and the creative crafting of one's biography. According to Andreas Reckwitz (2017) it is the “deviation from the norm” that is increasingly becoming socially accepted nowadays.

In fact, individuals who start to produce food instead of continuing office jobs pursue careers that may be seen as valuable in a postindustrial society that undermines “the ladder career” in favor of more personal standards (Gruhlich 2023). At the same time, they allow us to address questions on rebuilding work relations. When changing career paths, the research participants do not do this in response to burnout or a sense of helplessness. Instead, they actively attempt, albeit with some experimentation, to “add on” to their experience this new dimension of a good life.

"Products of "New Bread" craft micro-bakery founded in Gdańsk by a former journalist.

Engaging in food-related professions and a “good life”

Tasked by the editor of the thematic section of Studia Socjologiczne, Anna Horolets, to reflect on the concept of the “good life,” I investigated how a career transition towards food production might shed light on this notion. One of the individuals I interviewed shared his experience with the decision he made: “My mother thinks that my previous profession was excellent and provided stability. You're in a good position—what more could you want?”. This “more” is a key aspect here: I aim to comprehend the experiences of individuals who opted for a shift, “dropping everything to work in a restaurant.”

Based on the collected material, it turned out that the allure of engaging with food stems from the clear, visible, and controllable outcomes of one's efforts. The new profession is not merely categorized as manual labor—career switchers intertwine manual labor not only with conceptual work but also with educational, publishing, or business management activities. They eagerly emphasize the knowledge-intensive nature of working with food. However, within these various forms of new commitment, it is the tangible results that hold significance for people. What I find particularly intriguing is that while physical effort is not at the core of this new professional path, materiality—understood as the visibility, sensuality, and tangibility of the work's outcome—is rewarding. It stands in clear opposition to alienating abstraction and emerges as one of the primary demands for transforming the human relationship with professional work.

Some individuals may express dissatisfaction with their previous roles, feeling ensnared in a lengthy chain of dependencies where they perceive themselves as somehow “invisible.” Working in a kitchen appears to be the antithesis, offering a clearer perception and control over the scale and time invested “from the effort to the outcome”. The tangible relationship with the outcome of one's work yields a particularly significant result—it fosters a connection with another individual: a consumer, or more appropriately, a guest or a partner. Thanks to my interviewees I am convinced that this aspect notably, and perhaps even centrally, contributes to the concept of improving lives through work. For example, the return of empty plates to the restaurant kitchen symbolizes the essence of work, evoking notions of gift-giving beyond mere economic transactions.

I discovered that working with food indeed offers something that helps counteract the alienating nature of certain professions, and characteristic of late modernity. This is why I propose to apply the concept of resonance, as suggested by Hartmut Rosa (2020[2013]), to better comprehend the experience of career changers. Rosa's fundamental proposition is set against the backdrop of the world's complexity and illegibility, which eludes human experience and intervention. He writes about the need to reconstruct the relationship between people and the world in the era of “acceleration.” According to him, people are concerned with building a dynamic, two-way relationship with the world—one that is not solely rational, optimal, or instrumental. Resonant relationships are non-instrumental, aimed at an affective and bodily response from another person and connected to the transformative action for both sides of the relationship and for the world. At the same time, resonance is not synonymous with recognition, praise, or reward. Its essence includes an unknown factor: it cannot be entirely planned, predicted or deliberately manufactured, unlike the contemporary work environments focused on standardizing outcomes. Despite the paradoxical relation to class and albeit relatively limited potential for transforming the system, I think the career shifts towards food production should not be interpreted only as extravagant private decisions. Resonance in Rosa's concept is more of a fleeting spark than a stable state, but it nevertheless sets the direction for thinking about a good life and the place of work in it.

Furrow, Dwight. 2016. American Foodie: Taste, Art, and the Cultural Revolution. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Gruhlich, Julia. 2023. Career Failure: A Sociological Perspective. In: A. Mica, M. Pawlak, A. Horolets, P. Kubicki, eds. Routledge International Handbook of FailureAbingdon-on-Thame: Routledge, 6779.

Paxson, Heather. 2013. The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Reckwitz, Andreas. 2017. The Invention of Creativity: Modern Society and the Culture of the New, translated from German by Steven Black. Malden, MA: Polity.

Rosa, Hartmut. 2020. Przyspieszenie, wyobcowanie, rezonans. Projekt krytycznej teorii późnonowoczesnej czasowości. Przekład Jakub Duraj, Jacek Kołtan. Gdańsk: Europejskie Centrum Solidarności /Rosa, Hartmut. 2013. Beschleunigung und Entfremdung. Entwurf einer kritischen Theorie spätmoderner Zeitlichkeit [Acceleration and alienation. Draft of a critical theory of late modern temporality]. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Solier de, Isabelle. 2013. Food and the Self. Consumption, Production, and Material Culture. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Steel, Carolyn. 2020. Sitopia: How food can save the world. London: Chatto & Windus.

Acknowledgement: This blog post is based on an article published in the Polish sociological journal Studia Socjologiczne as: Agata Bachórz, „Rzuciła pracę w korpo i zajęła się… gotowaniem”. Praca z jedzeniem, nieoczywiste transformacje zawodowe i poszukiwanie alternatywnej relacji ze światem [“She Quit Her Corporate Job and Took Up… Cooking.” Professional Food Work, Unobvious Career Shifts and the Search for an Alternative Relationship with the World], Studia Socjologiczne 2013, 1, 59-86, DOI: 10.24425/sts.2023.144833. The article is a part of the thematic section dedicated to “alternative visions of the good life,” initiated, edited and introduced by Anna Horolets.

This website uses cookies.