Wednesday, May 27, 2009

In Defense of Chefs

A couple of weeks ago I took a sabbatical of sorts from my consulting work and writing to get back in touch with something I had lost; my love for cooking – my passion to be in service to others.
As such things go, a friend of a friend makes a phone call and I find myself in a small, intimate Italian restaurant in Boca. The names have been changed but it’s something like, ‘Alfredo’s Tuscan Grill’; the kind of restaurant that we’re all familiar with, white table clothes, informed waiters, an expressive wine list and a sound, grounded Southern Italian menu. It turns out that the owner, the chef, after being in the same location for 25 years had decided to retire to his importing business and to spend more time with his family. The only person he felt comfortable selling to was his nephew.
I was brought in to learn from Chef Alfredo; mimic his techniques, taste profile and cooking methodology – the thought being that the established and loyal clientele would crave Chef’s food even when he’s gone – it’s ‘Alfredo’s Tuscan Grill’ after all.
I spent a few weeks shadowing him while the details of the sale worked it’s way through the legal and financial morass that’s killed many a deal. I silently took mental notes on a spoon full of spice here a dash of aromatics there – no recipes written down of course. I strained past chef’s shoulders to watch him make Tiramisu and Ricotta Cheesecake; Filleto Pomodoro, Sauce Ragu and how he built a sauce Sorrentina in a pan at the last minute.
All these things I memorized till I felt I was ready to take control and run a shift on my own.
I had everything down except for one thing, I was not Chef Alfredo and that’s who the guests were coming to see.
I had recognized the European business model early on in my training; it’s something that we American’s have either forgotten or overlooked.
In my own experience in restaurants in Paris, Bern and Locarno Switzerland, The Black Forest in Germany and throughout England I saw first hand how the Chef ran the show. The Chef was there at the front door to welcome his guests, to cajole and joke amicably with his friends, to suggest new menu preparations or to hint at hidden gems in the kitchen not available to all. If there were front of the house managers or General Managers, they all deferred to the Chef as being the resident expert and the true reason that guests came.
Chef Alfredo worked in the same manner, showering his guests with attention, shouting into the kitchen to his assistant, with a knowing wink, to use the freshest mussels for table 5; hurriedly running into the kitchen, with a flash of hands over a pan personally perfecting a dish for table 8 - all the while choreographing the movement of the staff, the tempo of the dining experience, the lighting, the music and the final rounds of Lemoncello.
That’s the European way; something that we in America have held at bay, preferring consistent chains, cookie cutter food, systems, efficiency and profit over passion, daring, family, closing for a month in the summer to give everyone the same holiday off and the feeling of inclusion.
Somehow I think we could use a little more of later and a little less of the former; for guests and for staff.
The thing that Chef Alfredo, I and the legions of our brothers and sisters in arms who are connected to the sanctity of our chosen craft offer is not food nor ambiance but relationship; a connection to something bigger than us, a family, a home away from home.

In these days of contracting economies and declining checkbook balances there’s something to be said for a place where the chef knows your name, where he greets you at the door and whisks you off to your table; where you feel doted on and included in the mystery of food, libation and good friends.
There’s a large, affluent family of contractors from Philadelphia that come into Chef Alfredo’s once a week; one side of the family one week, the other side the next week. As they walk in the door, depending on which side of the family it is, the staff starts to buzz and orders are being fired because, without fail, they order the same appetizers every time to start. It’s as if coming to this restaurant, sitting around their table is a ritual of welcoming, of coming together, of embracing once another after a hard week out in the world. Chef Alfredo provides this family with the opportunity to come together, once again, to savor something familiar in a world of constant change and to let them get back to what’s truly important – each other.

If you only could only afford to go out once a month wouldn’t you choose a place, and an experience that goes beyond eating and epitomizes the best attributes of dining?

I’m not Chef Alfredo, nor will I ever pretend to be, but what I’ll be there, at the front door, welcoming you in, grateful for your presence and quietly telling you about all wonderful dishes I have in mind, only for you. There’s nothing finer than taking a group of your friends to a little out of the way place just because, ‘The chef is a personal friend of mine’.

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