B.J. Novak, the wry Office alum, demonstrated his ability to throw a (sponsored) party on Dec. 1. He filled a parking lot along Cahuenga Boulevard with his celebrity friends and a swath of fashionable Hollywood in their Kith and Fear of God fits for ChainFEST 2023, a bizarre first-of-its-kind gathering meant to celebrate and send up corporate cookery. It’s the next step in Chain, Novak’s high-concept riff on chain restaurant culture. The companies that bought into this “gourmet chain food festival” concept included Chili’s, Sonic and Panda Express. Notables in attendance were from the Novak-verse: Mindy Kaling, John Legend, Chrissy Teigen, John Mayer, Andy Cohen, Chris Pratt, Kiernan Shipka, Maude Apatow, Ike Barinholtz, etc.
Away from the cameras — including Novak’s own (his “Chain Brands, Inc. and its affiliates” were shooting the event for an unknown purpose) — people mostly picked at the food, in each case a fancified version of what might be found when a normie would show up to order at a franchise location, which was understandable because, to get this out of the way up front, it was mostly inedible. The brands had their marketing folks milling about, but where were their quality assurance executives? The Red Robin burger was mealy; the Pizza Hut crusts didn’t achieve their greasy-lacy trademark. Only Dunkin’ was able to retain its sensorial qualities on-site for this influencer crowd, and only Jack in the Box managed to truly complete the assignment. It upped its game with slow-braised American wagyu beef tacos and “Chain’s Original Taco Perfecto sauce,” which took a menu cornerstone to a striking new place.
What Novak was up to on Dec. 1, and with Chain in general, isn’t clear, and perhaps he wants it that way. It’s part profitable Millennial nostalgia play, drawing on the same signifiers and hazy yearning that’s driven the frenzy around the Museum of Ice Cream and other “immersive” attractions over the past decade. It’s also a Pop Art project and a big joke — one in which the paying sponsors and the junk-food consumers are, from all appearances, both in on it and the butt of it.
Novak’s vision is at once field-of-dreams and elaborate conceptual bit. He first publicly floated it in 2018, on an L.A. food podcast, relaying a reverie of red leather booths, sports bar TVs and big laminated menus. He spoke about the branded narratives peddled by Outback, TGI Fridays and Applebee’s with the knowingness of a veteran hospitality manager or a well-informed investor in the casual dining sector. One thing Novak is not is some Michael Pollan or Eric Schlosser figure; there is no evident weighing of any dark side of commercial cuisine practiced at this scope and scale.
The restaurants that Chain is emulating have nominal themes. Outback is Australian, Chili’s is Tex-Mex. This one’s angle is meta. It’s a composite of its genre, an ouroboros of cultural references.
From the beginning, the deadpan punchlines were to be found in consumer taste and the tensions of artificial scarcity and mass-market abundance. It’s an area of Americana exploration that’s long been mined by folks ranging from sculptor Claes Oldenburg (his oversized reproductions of everyday food items, like slices of cake) to fashion designer Jeremy Scott (his 2014 Moschino runway show riffing on the visual language of McDonald’s).
In that 2018 podcast, Novak said his original idea called for just a single brick-and-mortar location. What went unsaid was that this would make the name Chain itself a dry joke. “The cool thing about only having one means, zoning-wise, you can put it in one of these chic neighborhoods that are all over L.A. or New York that will not allow a Chili’s or a Fridays and will only allow one-of-a-kind restaurants,” Novak mused. “You put Chain there, [then] everyone really just wants to go.” (Las Vegas has since been considered as a permanent location.)
Novak launched Chain amid the pandemic, with to-go boxes. His famous friends, including Kaling, Shipka and Mayer — who is said to have designed Chain’s logo — helped spread the word. The concept’s next iteration was a sit-down “restaurant” in a rented home in L.A. It seated about 50 people, required a $65 ticket (in other words, a reservation) and, at one point, had a waiting list reportedly 15,000 names long. Emmy-nominated production designer Ruth De Jong — Nope, Oppenheimer, Yellowstone, the revival of Twin Peaks — worked on that iteration. Her aim, she said, was to “collapse the vibe of all chain restaurants” into “a single visual language” that included decorative memorabilia and a lot of retro-minded wood paneling.
The restaurant also offered no menu and no modifications. This is in keeping with the chef-driven fine-dining culture of the past generation, of which Novak’s partner in the venture, Tim Hollingsworth of L.A.’s Otium, is Exhibit A. (Before Otium, Hollingsworth was the chef de cuisine at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry and has also been seen on Netflix’s The Final Table.) It also speaks to the apparent budding auteur intentions of Novak, who directed, wrote, produced and starred in a well-received comic thriller, Vengeance, last year. Yet it’s the opposite approach of the customer-first ethos that binds so many Americans to places like Burger King, proclaimer of “Have It Your Way.”
With Chain, Novak is astute about the possibility of rapture in sensory aesthetics and attendant memory. He’s decidedly less so about the vicissitudes of class. He seems either unaware or uninterested in why or how chain restaurants act as (at times dubious) waystations and mechanisms for the non-famous and non-fashionable to gather and eat affordable food, and how his Chain, by gussying up the menu items and decontextualizing the milieus and generally turning the chosen genre into an absurdist luxury commodity, turns a way of life into a farce.
Fine-dining chefs, whose careers even in seeming success are often shadowed by financial peril (see: The Bear), have been making American comfort food their own for decades. Every big name now claims their own classic dish — Keller, fried chicken; Wolfgang Puck, pizza; Grant Achatz, the ice cream sundae. 2022’s dark kitchen satire The Menu touched on this purported desire for simplicity and authenticity in the request for a “real cheeseburger” from the mad genius chef played by Ralph Fiennes. (Hollingsworth, for his part, is clearly sincere. He’s said he’s tested his Crunchwrap Supreme recipe more than 80 times before he was satisfied.)
Chain exists within — and expresses itself through — a world of “drops” and collaborations, which means, as a business enterprise, it can be hard to tell what’s a critique and what’s just another payday. The speed-run from sly, in-good-fun riff on merchandising to full-scale cooptation from the big boys has been incredible. Among other partnerships, Chain has in the past done a Scream-themed “Stabby Meal” in partnership with Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group, and Chili’s decided to do a cross-promotion. “It was mutually beneficial to both sides,” Chili’s chief marketing officer George Felix told THR in March of this year. “The credibility that they bring from a cultural standpoint is huge.” Thomas Frank, who wrote The Conquest of Cool, the seminal book about how corporations relentlessly turn art and critique about themselves to their benefit, might choke. Meanwhile, at ChainFEST 2023, the VIP room was called the Postmates Lounge, and there was a gift shop selling merchandise featuring slogans like “I got Sauced at Chain.”
Novak is ambitious, clever, even ingenious. But Chain leaves a bad taste. Still, his cameras continue to roll. Maybe he’ll have the last laugh.