Small beads of sweat were already forming on his forehead before he entered the kitchen. He walked into the back where the chef, who was working furiously, didn’t even notice him. “Excuse me, Chef?” the waiter managed to peep out, barely audible above the kitchen clamor. There was no answer. “Um, excuse me, Chef?” the waiter said louder.
“Yes?” said the chef without missing a beat, his eyes fixed to the delicate Béarnaise sauce he was preparing.
“There is a patron outside that would like to speak with you. A lady at table nine who demands she speak to you right away! She seems very upset,” the waiter added.
The chef continued working, after finishing the sauce he began shuffling frying pans to and fro, and almost simultaneously seasoning some type of red soup with more and more salt, each time tasting the mixture until perfection was achieved. “Can’t you send the maître d’?” said the chef. “I’m very busy right now and can’t just stop in the middle of what I am doing. I just got the order for the VIP at table three and need to make sure it is perfect.” He paused for a second as if thinking of something, or perhaps he lost his train of thought. The chef recovered quickly and then began braising lamb chops. Two minutes later he was taking a perfectly browned duck out of the broiler, and had forgotten about the whole incident.
The chef noticed out of the corner of his eye that the waiter was still there. He knew the waiter from his years working in the restaurant; in fact, Joe had been waiting tables there for five years before the chef was hired. He wondered why he was still there lingering around when he should have been getting the maître d’ to address the very upset woman at table nine. “Joe, what’s up? Why are you still hanging around? We are really busy tonight and you know that everyone in the kitchen is working at max capacity.”
Joe looked at the chef for a moment, then said: “Chef, she is making a scene out there. I offered to have the maître d’ speak with her and she laughed in my face. Mike got involved, and after she chewed him a new one, she is still demanding to speak to you.”
Mike then came into the kitchen, noticeably angry with a wild look in his eyes. After sinking in every bit of money he had and getting a big loan from the bank, Mike had been owner and manager of the restaurant for the last four years. Under his reign, the restaurant had a sort of rebirth, going from a quaint little place catering mostly to locals, to a culinary destination on the short list for a Michelin rating, with a two-month wait for a booking. Mike had brought the chef on-board from another hot restaurant in the city about three years ago, and the two of them had put their personal lives and families on the back burner to allow the restaurant to take off. “Chef do you know who is in the house tonight?” said Mike, almost tauntingly. Not waiting for the answer, Mike blurted out “William Johnson! William Johnson is in our restaurant, tonight, and some lady at table nine is making a scene out there complaining about everything! You need to talk with her chef…calm her down, make her happy somehow, get her to leave…whatever you need to do.”
“Mike, you realize that I am working back here in this hot kitchen, making sure everything goes out properly cooked and seasoned, at peak dinner time on a Saturday night, right? Just because William Johnson is out there I am supposed to stop everything and run out there and make small talk with the lady at table nine?” The chef knew that William Johnson was the top food critic for the New York Times and was known for writing poignant yet sometimes scathing reviews. If his experience was less than stellar because of some unreasonable person at table nine, then the whole restaurant would suffer when the review came out.
Joe the waiter chimed in, “It will only take a minute, Chef. Then she can leave and we can go back to normal. Please?” Without waiting for an answer, Joe took off towards the dining room, headed to table nine, undoubtedly to tell the woman that the chef was coming out right away.
“Fine,” said Chef. He told his sous-chef to keep an eye on the roast for the VIP at table three, who was a bigwig investment banker that frequently brought clients to the restaurant. Tonight the VIP was here with his wife and college-age daughter. “Make it a perfect medium-rare, and then throw it under the broiler for thirty-seconds to crisp up the edges of the meat to a dark brown but not a blackened char. That’s how he likes it, and we want to keep him happy,” said the chef. “Also, I didn’t get the order for the food critic yet. When that order comes in, start working on it but let me plate it.” The chef timed his departure from the kitchen with the plating of the just-braised lamb chops, hoping that he had at least two minutes where it was safe to disappear.
On the way to table nine, he could already see a visibly agitated woman in her sixties, looking at her husband who could seem to care less. She was talking at him with her hands; he was drinking a cocktail and looking at the floor. In the ten seconds it took the chef to cross the dining room he wondered to himself: When was he going to have time to pee? He had been holding in his bladder for the last two hours, trying to get through the dinner rush before taking a break. Now even his bathroom time was being taken from him against his will.
The chef arrived at table nine, and introduced himself. The woman immediately asked him how long he had been a chef. She asked him if they taught in “chef school” that it is OK make a customer wait forty minutes for their order to arrive. Before he could answer, she told him that her dish was horrible. The salmon was dry. The cream sauce tasted bland. She told him that she could have gotten a better meal at TGI Fridays for less-than a quarter of the price. “At least the service would be better at Fridays,” she said. The woman’s brother, who eats at the restaurant all the time, had already been “texted” about the ordeal, and is furious. “You’ll be hearing from him,” she threatened. Finally, “I’m giving you a horrible rating on Yelp as soon as I get home,” she said, “If I ever get my car from the terrible valet service you have!”
The chef looked down at the woman’s plate and noticed that almost all the food was eaten. “I’m sorry you feel this way Ma’am,” said the chef, “but please allow me to explain. You see, we recommended that the salmon is cooked medium for best taste, however you insisted on ordering it well-done, so it was served that way. The cream sauce that goes with the dish was difficult to make without cream, or salt, or shallots, as you had requested we omit those items. So I did the best I could with the limitations I had. Perhaps you should have chosen another dish, or asked for the fish medium-well if you like it that way?” The woman exhaled in a dramatic fashion through her nose, making a snorting sound, while looking at her partner in disbelief. He continued to drink his cocktail, and was now pretending to check his email on his phone while maintaining a disinterested facade, clearly a survival tactic of a man who has been in this situation before. The chef continued, “besides, I am not personally responsible for your experience with the waiter, the valet, or even your wait time for the food. Two of my line workers called out sick today, and the best one left in the kitchen cut nearly half his finger off earlier this evening, so we are running a little short back there. One of the waiters just had a family emergency and ran out the door an hour ago, and therefore everyone else had to pick up another two tables. We are all doing 110% to make sure that everything gets done properly and that our clientele’s experience remains excellent. But you have to realize that we are still human. Please be reasonable.”
The woman gathered up her belongings, including her husband, and got up from the table, muttering something about “never coming back here again.” The chef, seeing that there was no way to please this customer today, returned to the kitchen. On the way back he saw Mr. Johnson placing his order, and he gave the critic a nod and a smile. Best not to waste the trip out of the kitchen he thought to himself.
Back in the kitchen, after taking a deep breath, the chef started preparing the next order. He viewed each dish as a singular opportunity to use his skills to make something great. When the plate leaves the kitchen and makes it to the table, the food must stand alone without a story or explanation behind it. The next customer did not need to know (or care to know) what went on five minutes earlier. The chef was a professional. He would deliver as promised, and then do it again and again until the night was over.
The chef wiped his brow and then fired up a frying pan, and as he poured olive oil into the hot pan he wondered just how late he would get home tonight.
Image via Hantsu