Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Hot Kitchens, Hot Tempers

I was amused to read this story in the New York Times Diner's Journal, of a customer who was thrown out of the eponymous Marc Forgione restaurant by the chef for going into the kitchen and complaining about the chef's verbal abuse of his staff. The short version: dining party is seated; chef loudly and repeatedly berates waiter in kitchen; discomfited diner goes into kitchen to complain; chef takes umbrage at diner's uninvited entrance into kitchen; chef asks customer to leave restaurant. It's not so much that the story was in itself so amusing, but rather that something very similar happened to me several years ago.

We were having a breakfast at a restaurant that I'd prefer not to name - it's somewhat embarassing. OK, it was Jerry's Deli, and it was a long time ago, and it hadn't quite sunk to the depths of mediocrity that it now happily occupies. Frod Jr. and Little Miss F were with us, and were much younger - maybe 6 and 3, respectively. The restaurant was not terribly busy, but the food service was nonetheless unusually slow. Meanwhile, as we sat, we couldn't help but notice that a stream of pretty much uninterrupted yelling and cursing was coming out of the kitchen. Jerry's is a big, cavernous place, located in what was originally a cafeteria and which had housed a number of nightclubs before its current incarnation. And though we were seated a good twenty yards away from the entrance to the kitchen, there was absolutely no mistaking the noises that were coming out of there.

Now, I happen to be a fan of colorful and creative cursing. But this was not particularly creative, it was not getting the food out any faster, and it was providing an education to our children that we did not particularly desire at this particular point in their upbringing (needless to say, they had never heard me or Mrs. F say any such things - the fact that a 2-year old Frod Jr. used to shout "Dammit!" from the back seat of the car when we got stuck at a stoplight was purely spontaneous behavior). And so I asked our waitress if she could perhaps ask the chef to stifle the profanities a bit.[*]

The result was not unexpected. Either the chef lit into our poor server the same as he had been doing to his kitchen staff, or she was too terrified to even say anything, but the stream of high-decibel profanity continued, unabated. And we still didn't have any food. So after several more minutes, I went back into the kitchen, spotted the chef who was doing all the screaming, and said:
"Listen, everyone in the entire restaurant can hear you. And it really doesn't make a difference to me, but I've got young kids here, and my 6-year old son just asked me when his fucking french toast is going to be ready. Do you think you could tone it down?"
It got quiet after that. We weren't asked to leave. And Frod Jr. got his fucking french toast.

My take on the kerfuffle described in Diner's Journal? The diner was right to complain but did so for the wrong reason. Generally speaking, it's none of your business how a chef deals with his/her staff. However, if it's intruding on your dining experience, then it becomes your business. It's not your place as a diner to tell a chef how to run his team, but it's absolutely your right to complain if the commotion in the kitchen is distracting you from your meal. On the other hand, if Chef Forgione is serious about the "sanctity of the kitchen," then he better find a way to make sure that whatever happens in the kitchen doesn't make its way into the dining room.

Updated to add: Here's a little further detail from Marc Forgione, reported in GrubStreet.

[*]Asking someone else on the staff to intervene in the kitchen is a step the Diner's Journal author skipped, and one that might have avoided the breach of the kitchen ramparts which so offended Chef Forgione's sensibilities.

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