Hard to Please.

“You can’t please everybody.”

Time and again, the old adage rings true. Back in September, this chef/owner/operator of So Restaurant in San Francisco temporarily closed his doors after a customer refused to pay for a meal that he didn’t enjoy. Of course, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He was up to his ears in paleos, gluten-freers, and people with “Sensitivities” and Allergies. I’m surprised more chefs don’t have episodes like that.

Any time someone says they have a Sensitivity, I’m immediately suspect. “I have a mushroom sensitivity.” Oh really? Or maybe you just don’t like mushrooms? I’d guess that maybe 2% of the people who walk through the doors of my workplace in Los Angeles with allergies actually have them. It’s become a real problem.

I’m not sure if people realize how much pressure this puts on a restaurant kitchen. If the guest gets sick on our property, from our food, we could be held liable for their illness, which would not only be expensive, not only due to litigation, but also to profit lost from bad press. I’m also not sure how many people have seen a real restaurant kitchen. There is food literally flying through the air. The odds of allergenic particulate landing on your “allergy–free” dish are rather unfavorable.

Remarkably, People also seem to have a fixation with the ingredient they say they can’t have. “The Forbidden Fruit” syndrome, where the man with the peanut allergy orders the dessert that has peanuts but asks for it with no peanuts. Why not just get a different dessert? It COMPLETELY boggles my mind.

Despite all of that, we do our utmost to make sure cross-contamination never occurs, When a ticket comes up with an allergy note on it, I wash my hands before touching anything, get fresh plates from the dishwasher, and take the utmost care not to touch a single thing that could have been contaminated with the allergen.

As a top restaurant in LA, we get all kinds of individuals through our doors. Of course we get the regular LA crowd, no gluten, no grains, no dairy, no nuts, etc. But then we also get some pretty bizarre creatures with bizarre eating habits. An especially memorable patron claimed he had an allergy to Chlorophyll. Now, I’m no nutritionist, but I seem to recall that eating leafy greens and broccoli, both full of chlorophyll, were super healthy things. How do you live your life without eating a single green thing? Absolutely appalling. I definitely call shenanigans. But that isn’t the craziest guest. Oh no, the piece de resistance is right here:

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Pardon the crumpliness. I balled it up and almost tore it in half in a tiny fit of rage. Read it over for five minutes and you’ll feel the same way. This… This is a list of allergies. But, if you look closely, only the top portion is non-negotiable. The lower, more extensive section is a list of “Limited Allergies” if which she may only partake of two of those items per meal or per day, or something. It was never quite clear… I dare you to try and find similarities between the items. It makes no medical or nutritive sense. I honestly don’t know if she’s ill or crazy. Maybe both. Either way, it’s our job as hospitality professionals to not even blink and desperately scrounge through our menu to find items that fit her… unique…. situation. After carefully perusing her list, we figured out that she could only have two of our gelatos, and not even the cool ones. I’m not sure what she had for her appetizers and entrees, but she declined dessert. As I said, there’s no pleasing everyone. Maybe I need one of those signs.

Candle Slamming

The thing about dessert is that it’s the “Special Treat for Special Times.” When people go out to eat, especially at expensive places, they are generally there for a special occasion. We’ve had people in our restaurant celebrating anniversaries, birthdays, engagements, weddings, and even a gay (gleeful, not homosexual) divorcee came in to ring in her newly single status. For each and every one of the happy and special moments in the diners’ lives, we write it down on a list of all the other people celebrating their special occasions. Often the list stretches down the counter, filled with twenty or thirty tables, each with a birthday, a couple in love, or happily and newly single people. Each of these tables think they’re special, while back in the kitchen, we just slam the yellow candle in the dessert and send it out, calling after the runner to say Happy Birthday or Congratulations. The guests think they’re special, but to us, they’re just a table number with a category next to it.

 

I’ve known people who make an experience out of their birthday, taking weeklong vacations, going abroad. But I don’t think I would ever want that, and I completely blame watching all these other birthdays and anniversaries. Simply put, I’ve just reached a critical mass of celebration. I have a hard time getting jazzed up about costume parties, theme parties, clubbing, etc. It’s just too much. I do get excited for dinner parties, though, but that’s mostly because food and I have a special connection that few can understand.

 

Yet, despite all the cynicism that has been manifesting in recent months, there is still no level of joy attained except by watching a newlywed couple cut one of “your” cakes; one that you spent countless hours on making 350 fondant rosebuds that spill down the three tiers of the white buttercream-encased monument to tradition and love. Or watching a five-year-old girl in a pink tutu and tiara dancing around her “Castle in the Clouds” cake, or the look of absolute bliss on your mother’s face when she takes a bite of the fudge you made for Mothers’ day.

 

So, maybe I haven’t lost all hope in celebrations. There are still moments that make my heart swell, but I’ve learned that I shouldn’t expect super special treatment from restaurants just because it’s a special occasion. One woman had dinner at The Restaurant and expected her dessert to be free. That’s completely ridiculous. If we comped every “Birthday” dessert, we’d be bankrupt. So, feel special when you go out to eat, but don’t think you’re the only one. You’re special, but know that you’re not. Just know that in the kitchen, you’re table 43 and a candle will be slammed into your dessert.

 

The Second Sigh

Having recently started a job at one of the top Italian Restaurants in the city, I was elated when my mother brought one of her best friends in for an early dinner at the Pizzeria. In fact, I was probably more excited at showing off my new workplace than she was to eat. Obviously, the front of house staff styled her out, with glasses of prosecco, complimentary appetizers, and the most charming style of service. Of course I brought out dessert, all smiley and happy to display what I do, and to watch her appreciate the excellence of my work, as she always has throughout my cooking/baking career. After she had finished eating, she and her friend thanked me and told me they had a lovely time, and that, I thought, was the end of that.

A week later, my family was on a road trip, and Mother sent me a text, moaning of the lack of good cuisine on the eastern side of the Sierras. “Mozza has ruined me! No other restaurant will compare!”

I responded, “Yes! You finally see my problem! The most expensive part of good food isn’t the cost of the food itself, it’s that nothing else will ever suffice.”

Maybe I’m a little crazy on this front, but I’m willing to eat oatmeal for two days, just so that I can have a nicer, more expensive meal out. The experience of dining, not eating, but dining, is one of such pleasure for the diner, and such a hedonistic display of pride from the kitchen, that simply can’t be imitated. Some people love the theater, some people love going to museums, and some people love reading, and others love partying. While I appreciate all of those things, I most love going to restaurants and consuming food and beverages that make me sigh twice in a row, once with satisfaction, and the second with the sadness that there is one less bite or sip left that can never be had again.

Is food my obsession? Undoubtedly, and it’s an obsession I’m willing to live with. The problem is that I don’t make enough money to support my fascination. A dear friend, also a baker, encapsulated the conundrum perfectly, “My thriftiness is in constant conflict with my sense of quality!”
So, if you’re ever in the great City of Angels, call me up, and we can starve for two weeks, then sigh twice together, because nothing but the best will suffice.

What’s it all about?

I’ve discovered that, in my current position in the pastry kitchen, I often perform excessively menial tasks, which gives my mind far too much time to wander. I decided to create this blog to catalogue my observations, and extenuating thoughts, from working in restaurants in Los Angeles. It will vary from farmer’s markets experiences to observations of chef behavior to experiences with guests. In essence, a plethora of random, half-amusing, half-pensive, half-interesting posts about restaurants, the people who work in them and what they do in their off hours.