There Are James Cordens Dining In Restaurants Every Night

I always laugh at the latest bout of performative outrage over celebrities abusing the staff at restaurants, as James Corden allegedly did at Balthazar this week. Not because I think it’s funny, because of course it isn’t, but as a former server I know this entitled behavior is quite common in restaurants. If you haven’t read the news yet, Corden apparently dressed down the staff at Keith McNally’s Manhattan bistro when several mistakes were made preparing with his wife’s bespoke “egg-yolk only” omelette with Gruyère. Reports claim that Corden repeatedly admonished his servers, yelling insults like: “You can’t do your job!” and “Maybe I should go into the kitchen and cook my omelette myself?”

The situation called to mind a similar row involving “Iron Chef” Cat Cora back in 2019 when Cora was accused of going ballistic and flipping off the hostess at Chicago’s Alinea after she was refused a table (even though her party arrived without a reservation). Cora vehemently denied the allegations until the owner Nick Kokonas released surveillance tapes that showed her getting aggressive with the staff. Like McNally, Kokonas used social media as a bullhorn to air his grievances and the food media, as they always do, worked themselves into a froth about it for weeks.

The most amusing part of it to me was that restaurateurs like McNally train their staff to be docile when guests become ornery, like Corden did. It’s generally unacceptable for servers to speak up for themselves when customers talk down to them. I’ve had many coworkers lose their jobs for talking back even though they were clearly justified in doing so. The prevailing wisdom in hospitality circles is that nothing good can come from challenging the primacy of the guest’s needs. That leaves staff impotent in situations like this and vulnerable to being abused by people like Corden who get aroused by the power dynamics. It happens everyday restaurants. The perpetrators forget, but the servers don’t. These situations live on in their restaurant nightmares for years.

One inalienable truth about the Corden and Cora situations is that the people who deserve an apology, the staff, rarely get one. Lost in the posturing and Instagram shaming is that a group of hard-working and likely exhausted restaurant workers were trying their best to make these people happy. No one was conspiring to hijack Corden’s leisurely lunch. There wasn’t a vindictive line cook who prefers Jimmy Kimmel purposefully slipping traces of egg white into Mr. Corden’s wife’s omelette. The cooks probably separated the whites from the yolks to order which—especially during a crazy busy Balathazar service—isn’t easy to do without flaw.

Balthazar is still one of New York City’s busiest restaurants

Every restaurant I’ve ever worked in over the twenty-year span of my career has had guests, often regulars, that mistreat staff. Rarely are these individuals refused service or asked to raise the standards of their behavior. Instead, restaurant workers are conditioned to hold their tongues and “kill them with kindness.” Unfortunately, we end up killing ourselves, on the inside, when we’re repeatedly asked to administer triage to aggrieved guests who have no legitimate grievances.

The Corden situation, trivial though it is, should remind us that we need to re-examine the lob-sided power dynamic inherent to hospitality. The fallout from the pandemic has exposed how the old rules of engagement have become a hindrance to recruiting talent. The labor shortage is at least partially born out of the fact that former restaurant workers are tired of cowering to undeserving rich people like Corden, especially when doing so puts their health at risk. If hungry people want restaurants to be able to find adequate staff, they need to accept a new framework for how they should behave when they dine in them. Allowing James Cordens to throw hissy fits like Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory every time there’s a mistake in their order is simply unsustainable.

Within less than twenty-four hours, Corden apologized to McNally personally, and his ban was reversed. Unsurprisingly, there were no reports of Corden directly apologizing to the staff he’d abused. I wonder if the staff would be so charitable about allowing Corden back into the restaurant if they were given a say. My guess is they wouldn’t, because they’d rather that table be occupied by someone with a good conscience and a clean diaper. To an owner, faceless tables represent naked sales. They just want the seats full. To staff, on the other hand, how the occupants of each table comport themselves can dramatically affect the tenor of their night.

The fact is that most restaurant workers don’t have time to dwell on the James Cordens of the world. Our sanity is challenged every night by guests’ outlandish behavior, and it always exceeds our wildest imagination. “You can’t make this shit up” is one of the most common phrases uttered behind the curtain of every restaurant. We maintain sanity by filtering out the impurities and assuring ourselves that it’s not us, it’s them. There will always be another James Corden, and we’re better off saving our energy for the next battle than wasting our breath on carpool karaoke. Plus, the rent is due, and we probably have to work a double tomorrow.

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Dining Tips

Why The Chef Can’t Make The Dish You Just Invented

I wish I had a dollar for every time as a waiter that a customer asked for something that wasn’t on the menu. The request usually starts with an innocuous “Could the chef make me …” and ends with some absurd bespoke pasta recipe with ingredients culled from various other menu items. I would never dare say no outright, knowing they would immediately point to the menu and insist that if the kitchen has those ingredients on hand, then they should be able to make their invented dish.

Good waiters learn to be diplomatic. But the truth is in most fine dining restaurants, kitchen rules aren’t made to be broken, and the staff knows that certain requests can’t be accommodated. So we say we’ll ask the chef if it’s possible, disappear behind the curtain without even bothering to ask (because we already know the answer), and return to the table with an apologetic but emphatic “no.”

What these customers never seem to understand is that food in a restaurant isn’t prepared the way it is someone’s home kitchen. A restaurant kitchen is an assembly line built for rapid and consistent food production. Most of the prep work in a high-volume restaurant is done in advance, so that during service cooks can prepare and compose a variety of dishes as quickly and efficiently as possible. Today, as margins tighten and food costs rise, menu ingredients need to be more carefully portioned than ever.

The kitchen prepares a “mise en place” –– loosely translated in French to mean “putting in place” –– a neatly organized template of easily reachable ingredients in front of every cook designed to expedite the cooking process. The rigid division of labor in a kitchen brigade means that any disruption of normal operation can throw things out of whack. There are often multiple cooks involved in preparing different elements of individual dishes. In order to deliver consistent food, each of their tasks must be orchestrated seamlessly. Timing is everything.

Since chefs don’t want to risk the machine breaking down, they’re often unyielding about allowing guests to stray from the script. It isn’t because they don’t want to make people happy; it’s because they know if they let one person change the menu, then everyone gets to change the menu. A restaurant kitchen can’t function properly if it can’t enforce reasonable bylaws.

It isn’t because they don’t want to make people happy; it’s because they know if they let one person change the menu, then everyone gets to change the menu.

Let say someone wants to add mushrooms and spinach to a pasta dish on the menu that doesn’t come with mushrooms or spinach. That person sees mushrooms and spinach printed on the menu in other places, so they assume it’s an easy request to accommodate. While it may be true that the kitchen has those ingredients, there’s a chance if it repeatedly uses them for non-menu items, like this fantasy pasta and others, that it may run out.

Some ingredients need to be parcooked in advance, so if the kitchen does run out of mushrooms, for example, it can be challenging to replace them in the middle of a busy night. There may be plenty of raw mushrooms in the walk-in fridge, but there isn’t time in the middle of a busy service to pull a cook off the line to clean, slice, sauté, and season more mushrooms while new orders continue pouring into the kitchen. By then, the prep cooks have all gone home.

Even something as simple as adding sliced tomatoes to a mixed green salad can cause havoc. If sliced tomatoes aren’t set in the mise en place, then to accommodate the request, someone has to leave the kitchen to search for a tomato, clean it, and slice it artfully for this special salad. The cook who leaves the line to grab tomatoes is jumping off a moving train, while the guest who makes a special request is like a straphanger standing between the subway doors while the train is leaving the station. It may possible for the kitchen to execute this single maneuver with minimal disruption, but now imagine that happening in a 200 seat restaurant with all sorts of different exotic requests all night long. Not so easy anymore.

This is why chefs say no so often. One special request isn’t a problem; special requests for an entire dining room of people at the same time is a recipe for disaster. The aggregate effect of allowing so many changes all at once makes it near impossible for the engine to run as smoothly as it should.

The argument against saying no has always been: “Chefs should want to make every customer happy.” The problem is that accommodating one guest’s special request may compromise someone else’s experience, especially the ones who play by the rules. It’s why everyone can’t have an 8 o’ clock reservation (no matter how much they beg for one) or why every party can’t be seated in the banquette table of their choice. Nothing in a restaurant happens in a vacuum.

Patrons need to be even more mindful of the herculean challenges restaurants face keeping clientele happy in today’s business climate. Kitchen crews are running leaner now with labor shortages and rising hourly wages. Inflation is crimping margins, and, as a result, systems need to be even more streamlined and efficient. So, unless you have very serious dietary restrictions, respecting the menu is a small sacrifice, and you should do your part to help keep the trains running on time.

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