Friday, November 17, 2006

Note to Restaurateurs: This is Still the Hospitality Business.

Special commentary by guest reviewer Antonino Caracciolo

Italian Wine Guy has asked me to write about the hospitality business, especially from the aspect of running a restaurant. I'll start with a hypothetical review:

"The basic problem underlying our evening here can be summed up as, "Angry chef". We had made a booking for four at 8:15 on Thursday evening some five days earlier, arrived a little early with our guests and were told, "Fifteen minutes before the table is free". Cutting a very long story short, we were eventually seated almost an hour and a bottle of wine later having been bypassed by quite a few later arrivals. No apologies from the young hostess, her much junior assistant or the somewhat self-important maitre d'. In fact we weren't actually seated; we saw a table for four being cleared and seated ourselves, not wishing to stand and drink for another hour."

"The wait staff were OK although when my wife requested the halibut, it was almost refused. For the main courses, my rabbit was somewhat overdone, the osso buco were apparently good, the halibut was somewhat dry and overcooked but it was the liver that made this meal memorable for all the wrong reasons. Our guest asked for it to be lightly cooked and pink - what arrived was very dark, overcooked and tough as boot leather. Our guest returned the dish and asked for it again, lightly cooked. Ten minutes later a waiter came and asked her to choose something else: she declined and insisted on the liver but was told that it was only cooked "one way" (our friend is a superb cook). She eventually declined to order another main course and went to the kitchen, quietly, to speak to the chef. He eventually came out of the kitchen and, when asked to cook the liver lightly, refused and fairly abusively told our friend that he refused to cook it any other way. If she didnt like it she could leave right now, and asked the waiter to prepare the check."

"Following this, once the main course was finished, we decided to leave. We did not leave a tip ( a first for us) and, quite simply, will never return to Da Asinello. We had eaten there several times over the past four to five years and enjoyed the food but this last evening is unfortunately the one that we will remember."

This could be a review from a very popular restaurant. These things happen. A place gets a great review, someone from Vanity Fair writes about it, Saveur lists it as one of the best restaurants in America, and faster than you can say "Bam", the place changes into an emotional obstacle course. And we're just talking dinner for four!

Some places just take it as it comes. Recently, Italian Wine Guy told me, when he was in Tuscany, and went into Da Antonio in Castelnuovo Berardenga, as he entered, the hostess asked him if he knew this was a strictly seafood restaurant. Quite an unlikely occurrence in meat heavy Tuscany. IWG said,"yes, that's why I came here." Ok, qualifying the client.

At which time they had an 8 course, all-from-the-sea, meal. At the end the chef came out and sat nearby with some friends. They laughed, enjoyed each others company, and celebrated friends, food and life. Imagine, a chef sitting down with old friends and enjoying their time at work with their diners!

In Italy this seems to be a natural occurrence, it happens often and daily. Why is it in the USA the restaurateur sometimes acts like a high priest, a Pharisee, handing down verdicts and edicts as if from some divinely designated place?

The kitchen isn't an altar, and if it is, why must we treat this new religion of dining with the age old habit of fear? Is this the purpose of the restaurateur, to turn their establishment into a palace of panic?

Sure, there is plenty of pressure in the kitchen. But diners don't come for that, they come to escape the outside world.

Restaurateurs, remember your profession is one of hospitality and conviviality. Today's diners have the option of many choices. Screw up and they'll drop you like a hot potato. No matter how popular you are today. It's a stove, not a shrine. The only miracle diners want is to be treated with civility and respect.

Like we learned from Momma.


Anonymous said...

"Why is it in the USA the restaurateur sometimes acts like a high priest, a Pharisee, handing down verdicts and edicts as if from some divinely designated place?"

A vexing question indeed. Americans seem to like a place better when they're treated like crap. They confuse poses with "artistic" temperament. They want the overpriced meal to be an Experience. And maybe we think going out to eat with friends and having a great time is too...working class.

These all only postulations, but they seem to be borned out by some of my experiences and observations.

Another example, by the way, of the cultural gap between the USA and Italy. In brief, they know how to enjoy life and we don't, much.



Anonymous said...

Forgive the execrable typos in my previous post! "Borned out" indeed! Been a rough week, lads, time for vino.

EVWG said...

So true. I see a bit of a quiet challenge going out to the new generation of restauaranteurs to create a welcoming atmosphere people are going to remember positivley and return. The laid back factor. I was at get together with a group of freinds that had just graduated from the same culinary school in New York City. The theme that ran the same path straight through all of their visions was the concept proposed in this post. Auspicious beginings of hopeful changes in focus. Awesome post! Cheers!

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