I do know my way AROUND a table, though. I can wrangle a place setting with five glasses and twelve pieces of flatware and a finger bowl without so much as a tremor. I know that one should leave one’s soup spoon IN THE SOUP PLATE when finished, even though it kills me every time (well, at least Miss Manners says you should, and that's good enough for me. But only when dining formally; at informal meals, when eating soup from a bowl, it's okay to put the spoon on the plate the bowl came on). I can eat a pear off a dessert plate with a fruit knife and fork and I know what food is finger food at a picnic or a formal luncheon and I know that the thing the Brits do at four o’clock is correctly called TEA or AFTERNOON TEA, not “high tea” as food illiterates with delusions of elegance so often describe it. (High tea is a rather low meal, eaten around five o’clock, sort of a one-course working-class supper and quite often substantial and delicious—you won’t be getting watercress sandwiches and scones at high tea, more likely a breaded pork chop and a potato...)
But what has, uh, cheesed me off of late has been the increasingly condescending, patronizing, smug attitude evinced by the food-service industry towards its own customers, at least in places like New York.
When did this arrogance amongst food-preparers get so out of hand? Has it ever been thus, and I just never noticed before? They may call themselves chefs, but they’re really just cooks, you know, so what’s with the ’tude?
I'm a simple, humble diner, but I’ve eaten in a pretty fair amount of acclaimed and majorly starred hash-houses (ooooh, burn!), so it’s not as if I’m some food Philistine who thinks Olive Garden is a temple of haute cuisine (no slam on OG, it's fine for what it does), or a mannerless clod who drinks tea with her pinky raised (get that finger down before I break it for you!) and eats her peas with her knife. (Actually, I don’t eat peas at all, hating veggies with the fierceness of a five-year-old, but that’s another story...)
What set me off was reading a blog account by a food critic that “Chef” (just “Chef”, no humble “the” or lowercase “c”) of an upscale restaurant had forbidden the critic’s party from ordering so much as an appetizer before all members of the party had arrived. Now, this wasn’t some fancypants tasting-menu place or anything; there was no legitimate reason Chef couldn’t have slung a salad or some shrimp their way to stave off hunger pangs. But they couldn’t even ORDER before their party was complete.
Just another piece of arbitrary kitchen tyranny by a jumped-up frycook hungry only for power over his captive audience. (And believe me, I’ll happily take a good frycook over a preening, dictatorial fusspot who calls himself “Chef” as if it’s his proper name any day.)
I’ve had a few restaurant incidents myself. I once requested no mashed potatoes (hate ’em, unless they’re so laden with gravy that I need a spoon to eat them) at a meal at an upper West Side eatery. I was informed that “Oh, Chef won’t allow that.” I tell ya, Chef was lucky he didn’t get my scraped-off (by me, onto the bread plate, I didn’t care if the whole darn restaurant saw me being unmannerly, and I'm sure Chef heard all about it...) tubers in his arrogant face.
And the problems are by no means just with “Chef”. There was a well-loved Indonesian-rijstaffel midtown restaurant that my office mates and I used to dine at regularly many years ago—best satay in the city, lovely sliced bananas in coconut milk. At one memorable lunch, when I very politely pointed out to the server that my fork was filthy (and I wasn't the one who had made it so), he proceeded to wipe it off with a corner of the tablecloth and replace it beside my plate. Whereupon I proceeded to fling it after his retreating form, scoring a direct hit. I was only sorry I didn’t skewer him like the satay.
Which is what made my recent restaurant adventures in Olean, New York so pleasant by comparison. Servers who were helpful, friendly and polite...and open to meal directives (“No green stuff, please” chiefest among them). Food produced by excellent plain cooks, food that wasn’t cloaked in layers of bizarreness and pretentiousness and didn’t need it, either—just simple steaks, chops, chicken, stuff that you could actually recognize and taste. No attitude except “We hope you enjoy your meal.” With a subtext of “And we’ll do whatever you want or need to make it happen.”
And so, of course, we did.
I mostly read newspaper restaurant reviews for laughs these days. If people actually like to EAT this affected and preposterous stuff, fine and dandy, but to me it reads more like the Emperor’s New Food. The more elaborate and exotic Chef gets, the more ecstatic Reviewer gets. Sort of a culinary circle-jerk, and if you don’t like it, you’re obviously unworthy to partake.
Fine with me! Faced with such a choice, I’ll gladly and gratefully eat burgers.