The Making of a Restaurant

Friday, May 04, 2001

"Fresh Air" today featured Ruth Reichl, a former waitress and New York Times food critic who is now editor of Gourmet and an author.

Among the highlights:

  • The kitchen, she says, is at war with customers. The waiter's job is to hide this fact from the customer. So, when a steak is turned back for being overcooked, the waiter should supplicate to the chef: "I'm sorry, Chef. The customer said 'rare' but I wrote down 'well-done.' This is my fault." The chef will grumble, but he will replace the steak, because he is at war with the customer, not the waiter.
  • Employee theft, especially among chefs, causes many restaurants to fail. An Ann Arbor restaurant at which she waited was done in by a chef who would wrap an entire side of beef in foil, hide it in the trash, retrieve it the next morning and then sell it to other restaurateurs. (This is one more reason why I think we're going to want our chef to join us as a third partner. An owner wouldn't steal from herself, would she?)
  • When reviewing restaurants, Reichl would go a minimum of three and as many as nine times. To conceal her identity, she would wear one of 11 wigs.
  • She describes her mother as being "taste blind" but infused with a love for the "theater" of the restaurant. I, too, love this theater, and it's part of the reason I love La Cumbamba. It's also one of the metaphors employed in "Starting a Small Restaurant."
  • Customers shouldn't hesitate to turn back food, but they should never withhold tips from a waiter based on failings that are out of his control, such as the food's quality or timeliness.
  • Her biggest peeve as a waitress was customers who asked for excessive alterations to the menu.

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Thursday, May 03, 2001

John Davis of Geja's Cafe says that long ago he "recognized that it was important to regularly schedule special events such as wine festivals to keep our name in front of the public and to sustain the interest of our patrons and our staff."

I, too, have noted the importance of events distinct from the dining experience. At Geja's, this means Winemaker Dinners, but for us it could be anything: small concerts, "Weakest Link" seminars or even giant ice cream parties.
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Tuesday, May 01, 2001

Regarding Loud Food: I concur with Sandy. I have fond memories of Mom pulling a casserole straight from the oven to the table, its cheese still popping and sputtering and gurgling and saying to my brother, father and me: "Eat me! I'm good!"

There's another way for food to appeal to the sense of hearing, and that is through the purring, lip smacking and -- dare we dream? -- moaning of the diners who are enjoying it.

As a side note, this inspires a menu idea: We should name a dish -- perhaps something with honey, oysters and kelp, yum! -- "What She's Having," the all-too-obvious gag being customers who say, "I'll have What She's Having."
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Heather has a thing against Loud Food. Heather says, "food should be seen and not heard." I disagree.

Without trying, a meal will appeal to -- and hopefully satisfy -- four of your senses. Why not go for the fifth? Kellogg's has long made a business of marketing the snaps, crackles and pops of its Rice Krispies, and it's done them nothing but good. When the waiters at Tango Sur bring me my sizzling Argentinian parillas, I can hear it before I can see it, and my mouth waters even more. Food that speaks will widen the eyes of the other diners, forcing them to ask themselves, Why the hell didn't I order that?

Let the food speak, I say. If we're worried about upsetting those sensitive to Loud Food, our menus could specify which items qualify as such. Our waiters could provide a gentle warning. Worse comes to worst, we can offer our customers some protection.
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I'm not a fan of dream recitations, but I'm compelled to share last night's: I was a guest in Baghdad, which is truly beautiful. Did you know that? I didn't. I was staying in a palace, of course, but the rest of the city was beautiful, too, especially along the Euphrates River (Which has been rennamed the Saddam River. Did you know that? I didn't.) and there were some amazing castles on the outskirts of town.

My host ran a restaurant out of his palace. The walls were enormous and bare. He had painted them lima-bean-green, but left a patch blank. I asked why, and he said imperfections like a poor paint job add to a restaurant's charm. Then he started talking about how the paint was a metaphor for Iraqi imperialism, but I wasn't paying a lot of attention at this point. Mostly I was thinking: "Imperfections = charm. I have to post this to the blog! I wonder where I can get online around here."

And I recite this dream not because it's terribly interesting, but because it shows how steeped in my consciousness the restaurant idea is.
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Oh, sure. Announce it to the world.
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YANI: Capital F.

Luke knows what it means.
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