We Have a Restaurant Fetish

In an episode of “Ugly Delicious,” chef David Chang and comedian Ali Wong are having a conversation at Din Tai Fung Restaurant where they refer to the liquid that squirts out of a soup dumpling as “dumpling jizz.” Later in the show, we see it physically manifested when Chef Chang sensually bites into a Sheng Jian Bao and hot broth gushes like a geyser from the swollen dumpling. He groans euphorically while the juices roll down his chin. It’s hard not to feel a little uncomfortable witnessing this epicurean money shot, but we can’t turn it off or we’ll miss the noodles.

Satisfying hunger has always inherently been a restaurant’s primary concern, but modern diners—raised on a steady diet of food porn—have more carnal appetites. The dining experience has morphed into an event that must be captured to maximize enjoyment. We objectify our food—and the chefs who make it—scrutinizing the dinner table with our smartphone cameras like forensic detectives preserving evidence at a crime scene. Eating is secondary to achieving the perfect Instagram-able moment.

No restaurateur has exploited these voyeuristic impulses better than the swarthy Turkish chef slash Steak Whisperer slash viral YouTube sensation Nusret Gökçe—more commonly known in social media circles as “Salt Bae.” Legions of lusty fans line up from New York to Miami to Istanbul for the privilege of having Chef Gökçe wield his phallic sword and carve their steak. Before they can enjoy it, however, they must wait for him to climaxshooting his proverbial load—in the form of snowy white salt crystals erotically cascading all over their sizzling meat. It might not seem totally out of place if he also cuddled and shared a cigarette with his adoring fans after the check comes.

Restaurant Fetish

The popularity of open kitchens in the early Oughts may have foreshadowed the dynamic of Chef as “Bae.” A chef’s work was no longer shrouded in secrecy. Television cooking shows had flung the kitchen doors open and invited diners in to see how the sausage is made. Guests were now privy to what was happening backstage and restaurant experiences had transformed into something meant to be observed. Long before social media, dining out had already become a voyeuristic experience. We learned that having someone cook for us, like sex, is even more fun when we get to watch. 

The cumulative effect of objectifying restaurants is akin to the effect of consuming too much pornography—entertaining these impulses obscures one’s actual desire and makes satisfaction difficult to achieve without perversion. Increasingly, people don’t enjoy restaurants as much as they fetishize them. Whether they realize it or not, most of today’s diners measure enjoyment by arousal rather than nourishment. We talk about our restaurant experiences this way, too—“The food was good but nothing I ate was orgasmic.”

In the midst of this narcissistic spectacle, industry professionals have had to accept the unwanted role of being fluffers for our guests. Metaphorically speaking, we dedicate an exorbitant amount of energy keeping our guests hard and wet, instead of quenched and full. Tableside service has become increasingly overstimulating as servers mug for the camera. Prostituting ourselves in this way has resulted in a difficult predicament—we know that allowing guests to take video and flash photography in the dining room is distracting but choosing not to cater to voyeuristic patrons may be construed as inhospitable.

One night, I colorfully recited the dessert specials for a guest who interrupted me mid-sentence, reached into her purse, discharged her phone and asked me to repeat myself for the camera. When I declined, she reacted as though I was being rude. Because I was designated to serve her table meant I shouldn’t have say over whether she could broadcast my image on social media. She made me feel like a sex doll—a pulseless facilitator of her urges—and it ruined the moment for her when I wouldn’t just lay there. 

This scenario also illustrates the way in which technology has eroded the personal connection that once comforted us about restaurants. It’s even more disconcerting to imagine a remote and distant future where embedded cameras in wearable devices will turn eye contact into video. Restaurants will deploy augmented reality applications as they search for ways of using tech to make guests’ experiences more immersive. Over time, these initiatives will only further exacerbate the problem of our objectifying restaurants, dissolving what’s left of the humanity in them where we once found sanctuary.

In this new world, traditional means of administering hospitality have become inert. For restaurant professionals, attentive service has always been defined by ascertaining the needs of our guests and doing everything necessary to fulfill them. But how do we forge a relationship with an audience that can only connect with us superficially? Hospitality professionals—perhaps with the exception of Salt Bae—want to be appreciated for the sacrifice that goes into pleasing others, for our minds not our bodies. Unfortunately, our guests are too horny to notice. 

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Well Done But Juicy

well-done-steak

On an otherwise smooth night, a guest summoned me to his table in a panic because he was disappointed with the Filet Mignon he had ordered well done. His complaint, easily foretold, was that the steak was dry. Everyone—except this guy, apparently—knows that Filet Mignon has very little fat and should not be served past medium rare. But before I could even respond, he launches into a five-minute diatribe about how a properly cooked well done steak should still be juicy. He pointed to the dark crust on the outside that was studded aggressively with black pepper and explained that it also shouldn’t be burnt (it wasn’t). To prove that it was dry, he offered me a taste of his steak—one of my pet peeves because I find it insulting to be offered someone’s half-eaten food. Only a person who doesn’t see you as an equal would offer you his leftovers. 

I brought the dish back to the kitchen bracing for the inescapable moment where the chef needs an explanation for the inexplicable. I told the chef that the guest wanted the steak remade, juicier this time. The silence in the kitchen was deafening. You could hear the chef’s blood pressure rising as he stared blankly at the dehydrated Filet. He explained the obvious that re-firing the steak would yield exactly the same result. It would also take an extra twenty-five minutes to cook.

So, I returned to the table and, on the chef’s behalf, suggested we prepare the steak medium well instead. The guest agreed and, of course, was annoyed by the wait and underwhelmed by the second iteration. The whole ordeal was a reminder of how often in hospitality we’re expected to show deference to ignorant people.

well-done-steak

When a guest doesn’t like the way a dish tastes, it’s easy. You take the dish away and replace it with a refurbished one or you offer alternatives. When a guest doesn’t like something because he thinks the dish is improperly cooked, it’s more complicated. “My pasta is undercooked” (no… actually it’s perfectly al dente). “These clams are too salty” (no… they have natural salinity). “My cappuccino isn’t hot enough” (no… a properly made cappuccino isn’t supposed to be scalding).

The customer is not always right and, when these things happen, the staff is faced with the inevitable dead end of having to confront someone’s meritless complaints. We usually choose the path of least resistance, but taking the high road requires us to prostrate ourselves before untoward guests. 

Some diners describe the way they like their meat cooked in abstract terms. “I like mine pink but not bloody, just a touch more to the rare side of medium.” Sadly for them, a line cook with twenty steaks on the grill doesn’t have time for an existential conversation about how each individual steak is cooked. The mnemonic scale of doneness (R-MR-M-MW-W) exists for a reason. If we don’t standardize a language for cooking meat, then we will spend the entire night recooking steaks.

Incorrect meat temperatures are the most common instances where food is sent back in restaurants, and so often the guest’s judgement is wrong. Chefs will rarely stand their ground and refuse to make the dish again when it was cooked properly the first time. In the hospitality game, we’re trained to give people what they want and sometimes that means putting our pride aside and doing it over again even when we know it was right the first time.

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The Triumphant Return of the Tiki Bar

For six years, Brian Miller hosted “Tiki Mondays with Miller” at various venues all over New York City. These workshops became an incubator for new ideas and, as he spread the Tiki gospel, thirsty disciples followed him faithfully from bar to bar. Brian’s vision reached an apotheosis earlier this year when he commandeered the opening of The Polynesian, a new rooftop multiplex in Times Square dedicated to all things Tiki.

“The Tiki movement has always been around,” Brian said over a neat snifter of Foursquare Premise Rum from Barbados. “There are plenty of people that have loved Tiki for many years. They’ve just been celebrating it in their own home Tiki bars.” If Tiki has always remained popular, I asked Brian, why all of sudden has it gone viral?  “In the state of our current political climate it’s no wonder people want to escape to the islands,” Brian smiled wryly and swilled the rest of the rum that was left in his glass.

Vaya Kon Tiki at The Polynesian

At this year’s Tales of the Cocktail—the annual alcohol-soaked geek-out in The Big Easy—Tiki was having a moment. In the middle of the week, several hundred attendees filtered through the rooftop of the Hotel Monteleone for a “Pool Party” sponsored by Rum Barbancourt that featured its Haitian rums shaken in Tiki-inspired mashups. At another tasting event, the legendary mixologist Don Lee—who recently opened Existing Conditions in New York City—partnered with Tiki Tolteca conjuring island potions he’d created using Ming River Sichuan Baiju.

Reintroduced by a faithful cabal of Tiki evangelists like Martin Cate (of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco) and Paul McGee (of Lost Lake in Chicago), the canon of Tiki recipes—once the butt of bartenders’ jokes—has shown it can be about so much more than just fruity beach drinks. Bartenders are finding a new freedom—honoring Tiki tradition while also experimenting with ingredients outside of the lexicon. “I’m trying to expand the bounds of what is considered a Tiki drink,” Miller said, “by including other spirits like scotch, gin, bourbon, tequila, mezcal, sherry and cognac to try and appeal to wider audience.”

At Tales, mixologists from around the world, decked out in their most audacious Hawaiian shirts, flocked to Latitude 29—Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s iconic New Orleans Tiki bar—like making a pilgrimage to Mecca. My thirsty comrades and I tasted our way through the “Longpulls” section of the menu. Our favorite was Beachbum’s Kea Colada—an exotic blend of island rums, coconut cream, lime and pineapple. The cocktail had surprising depth to it, undoubtedly due to the quality of the rums he uses, with a soothing creamy coconut flavor that lingered but not in a way that lesser Piña Coladas make you feel like you just drank suntan lotion. The Beachbum himself worked the room—you could barely see his eyes peeking out from under the wide brim of his straw hat as he generously poured us a taste of a special Plantation limited edition Jamaican rum called “The Collector.”

Tiki bar
The Banshee at Latitude 29

At Cane and Table in the French Quarter, they have an extensive rum program and cocktails they refer to as “ProtoTiki.” The bartender there happily made us a delicious off-menu drink in one of their vintage-style Tiki mugs. He improvised—drawing from the bar’s comprehensive inventory of rums—shaking three different ones (Plantation, Hamilton and Banks 5 Island) together with passionfruit, cinnamon, orgeat and grapefruit. Of course, he didn’t forget to finish it with an umbrella (the Tiki umbrella was originally invented to keep the ice from melting in the hot Sun). “Proto tiki is a way to explain our focus,” said Kirk Estopinal, the owner of Cane & Table. “Drinks that deliver the tropical experience without throwing a million things into it.” Although Cane & Table is rum focused, Kirk is quick to point out that it isn’t really a Tiki Bar in the traditional sense. “Tiki is fun and a backlash to stuffy cocktail experiences and precious historical stuff,” he said, “but we aren’t interested in the kitsch.”

Despite its exotic Polynesian motifs, the Tiki Bar is a uniquely American invention. Its history traces back to the post-Prohibition 1930’s when two Americans—Don “the Beachcomber” and “Trader” Vic—inspired by their Caribbean and Polynesian travels imported the laid back island style and attitude they’d encountered and paired it with great rum cocktails incorporating fresh tropical juices. The decor and menus of these bars had its own distinct flavor too—bamboo walls, signature ceramic mugs with Tiki idolatry and Americanized Chinese food. In the midst of the Great Depression, Americans needed an escape. The movement continued to flourish for several decades before fading into obscurity. By the early 1990’s, the Tiki Bar was all but extinct. 

Tki bar
Tiki Mugs from Cocktail Kingdom

Back in New York, Captain Miller—swaddled in his signature sarong and his face painted with dark eyeliner a la Jack Sparrow—serves his signature  “Vaya Kon Tiki” in a menacing ceramic skull mug with a flaming lemon carcass filled with smoldering coconut meat. Brian infuses rum with rooibos tea and shakes it with a cayenne pepper coconut cream to give it a warm, subtle afterburn. I was tempted to call for backup to sample the large format cocktails, but after my third drink I knew there was no way I’d be able to pronounce the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, a Blue Curacao cocktail served in a fishbowl for four people.

It was fitting that Tales of the Cocktail concluded with Lost Lake, the famed Tiki Bar in Chicago, winning the award for Best American Cocktail Bar. It was the second time in the last three years that a Tiki Bar took home the national crown. Navy Strength, a new Tiki Bar in Seattle, also won the award for Best New American Cocktail Bar. “Tropical drinks never went away they just got gross,” said Estopinal of the Tiki trend. “The public has a keener eye than years past. No way are we going back to all the mixes made in a factory, so it’ll be around indefinitely. Or at least until I retire in my little corner of the world.”

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