The Side Dish: On Kitchens and Writers and Chefs Who Drink

 

I must’ve been sixteen or seventeen when I witnessed a restaurant manager laying into one of her employees in plain sight. I stood, stunned, alongside other patrons patiently waiting to place their orders as the string of belligerent words was unleashed from the manager’s mouth. Degrading the employee on everything from appearance to time with customers, she seemed oblivious to the looks of surprise and shame emitted from fellow customers witness to the shocking moment. I shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other, aghast at the lack of professionalism, the inability to take business matters behind closed doors, away from the front row of waiting guests. No one said a thing as she shoved the insubordinate employee aside, taking position behind the ordering screen as he shuffled off to an unseen destination.

“Can I help the next person?” she announced loudly.

So appalled from the display that I moved from my spot in the line, vowing to take my business elsewhere. Amazed by the unnecessary show, I took to my computer once I arrived at my summer job, penning a letter to the restaurant’s main office with all the details of my experience. I was impressed when I received a phone call from headquarters only a week later from a supervisor interested in hearing more about the incident.

According to his report in the New York Times, financial writer Ron Lieber was enjoying an evening meal at Chef Marc Forgione’s TriBeCa restaurant earlier this month when he had a similar experience. Disturbed by the chef’s “loud, sustained, top-of-lungs yelling” coming from the kitchen as he took one of his employees to task, Lieber left his table mid-meal, and in what I can only imagine was a moment of his own hot-headed-ness, burst into the kitchen to address Forgione directly on the matter. Surprisingly, he then returned to his table, expecting to continue his dinner, only to be ejected from the eatery shortly thereafter by the chef.

At first, I was a bit torn on the situation. I agree with Lieber to a certain extent. It was, indeed, very unprofessional for Forgione to be causing such a scene, and he surely could’ve handled himself differently. But I’ve been in the kitchen during dinner service. I know the pace of stress and caffeine coursing through the kitchen at peak hours – plates flying, orders being barked from different directions, tickets and hot pans tossed every which way. In fact, I’ve even witnessed a few mild-mannered celeb chefs lose their heads, and their patience, at public events. Maybe I’m a little more understanding than most diners.

To be honest, after further contemplation, I’m more aghast at Leiber’s reaction. If this had been any other kind of business – a dry cleaner, a post office, a neighborhood fast food joint – would he have still felt it was his place to get involved? Why not address the situation with the front of the house manager and take your business elsewhere? For him to barge into the kitchen – what many chefs consider to be a “sacred space” – shows lack of respect and etiquette.

I can’t help but wonder, as well, if things would’ve been different had Lieber not been a part of the media. From average food fans to bloggers and food media, it seems like sometimes diners forget where they’re at, not understanding that above all, a restaurant is a business. Common courtesy rules, including respecting the business owner, should always apply.

Sometimes, however, the chefs do get out of hand, such as the recent Cochon 555 incident here in Portland.

I had an fantastic time being a part of such a unique and entertaining event – the dishes were amazing, the chefs pulled out all the stops, and I was absolutely thrilled to be a judge – but I’m not surprised in the least that fighting broke out during the after-party.

I can attest to the large amount of alcohol consumed by patrons during the event, with some of the best wines in the area a-free-flowin’. It was an outstanding afternoon – truly – but any time you’re throwing an event with five hours of “open bar”, more or less, there should always be an exorbitant amount of alcohol-absorbing foods – and a drink limit for guests. Otherwise, you’re asking for trouble. I see this happen quite a bit at wedding receptions, where guests are sloshed well before the main meal from a pre-ceremony cocktail hour, but I’m still surprised to see it happen at larger food and wine events as well.

Also…we’re fierce about our food sourcing here in the Pacific Northwest. Most of us are willing to fight, sometimes even literally, for our local farmers and food producers. It’s one of our endearing traits.

Editor’s Note: It should be noted that Lieber did not make his position at the New York Times known during his restaurant interaction with Chef Forgione.


~Jennifer Heigl

3 Comments

  • Jenny says:

    Not that this comment is about drinking, but I feel compelled to leave it anyway.

    I was at a certain NYC joint before it blasted off to its now-stratospheric heights where I regularly saw the chef behave so badly to his line – in an open kitchen. Chalking it up to his creative genius I assumed his temper tantrums were reserved for his staff, but I was sadly mistaken. I asked the sous for a few more green onions atop my soup, and he asked Chef. It was a quiet afternoon, not too many patrons present. He let fly a rampage about how I didn’t know better, who the he** was I to suggest what they prepared was anything less than perfect…and so on.

    I didn’t get my green onions, but I still went back despite the tongue lashing. I never asked for anything else, but I have never forgotten the way he treated me. And now that he’s the success that he is, well, it’s just a story now about how he became who he is today.

  • VinoGal says:

    You can’t forget the opposite side of this coin!

    You also have the FOH managers who’s blood-alcohol level wouldn’t even allow them to operate a vehicle let along start dinner service with a motivating pre-meal speech to the staff. You have the Wine Directors who are too busy exchanging business cards and cutting deals with distributors, for their own personal gain. During this time, the staff is running around all crazy, not trained properly and unsupervised. I have been ripped apart by corporate chefs because I would walk out with an unpolished glass or my decanter had looked like it hasn’t seen a dishwasher in weeks. I understood their passion. That was actually the only way I can possibly describe what was going on in their head. When I saw lack of attention, I feel like it made things worse.

    Now, there are limits. When you directly insult the employee personally, that’s just awful. Also, when the guests see this, their experience is ruined as well. You booked the reservation, yes, but you want them to book again, don’t you?

    Communication has to be controlled but the message has to be made clear. In the guests eye, we need to be perfect…even if we are human.

  • jenniferhh says:

    Thanks for the comments from both of you! I agree with everything. I hope that this particular instance was a warranted, and not just an overbearing, out-of-hand chef. We’ve all met a few of those along the line.

    “Communication has to be controlled but the message has to be made clear. In the guests eye, we need to be perfect…even if we are human.” Well said, VinoGal.

    It’s great to have more discussion on this topic, from all angles.

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