The Food Stinks and the Portions Are Too Small
Most chefs have a favorite dish. Mine, unequivocally, is Steak Frites, a classic and inexpensive dish that can be found in just about any café in France. It is a simple preparation, my version involving a thin piece of sirloin strip and French fries.
To prepare Steak Frites, you take the meat and sear it on both sides in a really hot pan, preferably cast iron. Use either butter or olive oil as your fat. It cooks very quickly. You then remove the meat, throw some finely chopped shallots in the pan, deglaze with a little veal stock and some cream, and finally – off the burner – mix in some Dijon mustard. It is the mustard sauce that makes the dish.
To cook the fries, immerse them in 400-degree peanut oil, not once, but twice. Drain them on paper towel or a brown paper bag. Season them while they’re still very hot. They should be golden brown and crispy. They love the sauce.
Plate the dish by putting a generous portion of sauce on the bottom, the steak atop the sauce, and a mountain of fries everywhere. Very elegant.
It is owing to my love affair with Steak Frites that I was shocked, dismayed, and, in the end, amused by the events of the evening which I am about to recount. This little drama unfolded in the dining room of my ten-table restaurant in Sarasota, Florida. I guess you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
“A guy at table ten wants to see you,” said Julie, my best server, in a tone suggesting that it wasn’t about compliments to the chef.
“I’ll be right out.” I finished plating a fish stew, wiped my hands clean and headed out to the dining room.
Thar he blowed, a whale of a man with a large piece of meat affixed to his fork. He was … well, I’d have to say he was brandishing the piece of meat, was what he was doing. I just couldn’t wait to find out why.
“Hi,” I greeted him and his three dinner companions cheerily. No eye contact with the companions, all three of whom seemed suddenly fascinated with the grain of the dining room flooring.
The man with the steak kebob fired his first salvo. “You call this a steak?!”
I scrutinized the proffered object. Most definitely a steak. “Yes,” I confirmed.
“Christ, I’ll bet the thing doesn’t weigh six ounces.”
“Nine, actually,” I assured him, “before cooking.” I would have offered to bring a scale, but I reasoned that this was going to be a losing battle.
“If Ruth’s Chris tried to get away with serving a steak like this they’d go out of business.”
“This isn’t Ruth’s Chris.”
“It sure as hell isn’t.”
It was nice that we agreed about something.
“And what the hell is this crap?” he went on.
I searched his plate, but, customer-oriented though I am, I couldn’t see any crap. “I’m sorry?”
“This yellow crap,” he said, pointing to a pool of my renowned mustard sauce.
“Oh, that,” I answered. “That’s mustard crap.”
“You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you?”
Good. We had moved on to a new subject.
“Come on, Ron,” said the other man at the table. “Leave the guy alone.”
“Whajusay?” sputtered Ron, and I realized all at once both that he was drunk and that he suffered from a hearing problem. “Dju say leave the guy alone?” Strange, he hadn’t seemed drunk a minute ago.
Turning his pig-eyed attention back to me, he now brought the issue of money to the table. “An’ I s’ppoze you ‘spec’ me ta pay for this slop, buddy?” Ron, evidently, had something of a vision problem as well. My name is Alan, not Buddy, a fact that was clearly indicated on the front of my chef coat.
This had to end. I had more slop to prepare back in the kitchen. I extended the proverbial olive branch. Extricating the fork from Ron’s hand, I placed it on his plate, which I now removed from the table and held aloft in my left hand. To a chef who is being publicly abused for no good reason, a plate full of food in the hand has the feel of a trusty weapon. “Here’s my offer… Ron.” He looked like a Ron. “If you get up and leave right now, dinner’s on me – for the whole table.”
Howls of protest from the Friends of Ron, who insisted that they were enjoying everything thoroughly.
“No,” I insisted. “I insist.”
Exit Ron, his mortified entourage in tow; but not before they had stuffed Julie’s appreciative fists with wads of cash. Back to my kitchen, to the applause of tables one through nine inclusive.
I guess it’s episodes of this kind that have made my wife want out of the restaurant business. But me, I love theater, and the restaurant business, as you can see, can be very much about theater.