The internet has become a forum for anyone to say anything about everything. I am not in favor of stifling criticism or abridging first amendment rights, but I do think that as diners we have certain obligations. Dining is not a passive experience. It is an interaction where I am in control of the experience as much as the staff and the kitchen.
So, I think there are so many ways that a diner can maximize his/her dining experience.
I remember the first time I went to the French Laundry. My husband had to work and I was lucky enough to secure a last minute reservation. I was by myself and although I am knowledgeable about cuisine, my wine expertise is marginal, at best. Laura Cunningham, at that time, was acting as sommelier and I decided to be completely open and honest. I said that this was the first time I had ever dined alone in a “fine dining” restaurant and I was somewhat intimidated. Also, my husband always ordered the wine and I would appreciate a lot of help. Laura suggested that I just let Thomas cook and she would pick the appropriate wine. I got there at noon and didn’t leave until 6 pm when diners were being seated for dinner. That was the beginning of a now long-term relationship that started with a very nervous diner.
The first time we went to El Bulli, Juli Soler, the GM, immediately picked up on our appreciation for cuisine coupled with the joie de vivre that we bring to dining experiences. From the start there was an extraordinary feeling that they “knew us!”
This is something we experience in most restaurants. I do not think it is because we are that much more knowledgeable (although after years and years of fine dining experiences and almost as many years in the kitchen, we do understand food). I think we approach each dining experience with excitement. I am never jaded or give the impression of “show me what you can do.” I really want to have a wonderful time and love and respect the profession to the utmost. I do not expect the “last meal on earth” experience every time we go out. Instead I so appreciate the effort of both the front and back of the house that I think this sense of “I am ready to enjoy myself and truly love what is served” conveys itself to the staff. Because we are so willing to let ourselves be willing participants in a restaurant, the restaurant willingly tries to give us their best. Also, if one dish doesn’t live up to expectations or there are missteps along the way, I am willing to chalk it up to experience. We try not to put a staff on edge or give the impression that you had better “wow” us. I think because we are so enthusiastic that enthusiasm generates even more enthusiasm from the staff. At one restaurant we go to frequently, the chef commented to us, “we love seeing your name on the reservation list.” I think the reason he feels that way is that we are ready to try whatever is offered.
Establishing a relationship with a restaurant is actually very simple. If you are a regular, you will get better treatment – reservations at the last minute, reservations at prime time, understanding of what you like, specially designed tasting menus and other perks. This might seem unfair and politically incorrect, but a regular is the bread and butter of a restaurant. They know you will come back again and again and as a result, your loyalty is recognized and rewarded. If there is a restaurant you really like, go back often. Every single time we dine at a restaurant, even those we have been to over 100 times, we always write a thank you email. We are very specific about those dishes we particularly loved, a server who was outstanding or anything that made the dining experience memorable. You would be surprised how few people write a complimentary email, but are quick to complain.
I think the biggest mistake diners make is to assume that you can have an instant relationship with a restaurant. Sometimes there is “love at first glance”, but generally this is a slow process.
HOW TO CRITCIZE
Chefs and staff are human and do make mistakes. How you handle those mistakes can turn an iffy situation into a win-win for both the restaurant and you as the diner. Waiting until you get home to write a nasty review on the internet might make you feel better, but you still had a lousy experience so how did you win? I don’t know of one chef or FOH person in the restaurant business who sets out to have unhappy customers. After all this is a business and these people have to make a living. Bring up your concerns when they occur. Being nasty won’t win you any awards and threats about blogging your dissatisfaction is unethical, to my way of thinking. The expression you get more with honey than vinegar is apt and true. Honey is not only easier on the service people in this world who are just doing their jobs, but it is less stressful for you. Patiently, quietly and calmly mention your concerns to either your server or the manager.
Bloggers expect the chef and staff to faithfully execute their responsibilities. I think restaurants have the same right to expect their customers to accurately report their experience. I can’t tell you how many times I have read descriptions of dishes that I know well that have a list of ingredients that isn’t even close to what was on the plate. Someone, writing that they were disappointed at FL and recommended that you “save your money”, described Keller’s cornets as “The small cone with tuna tartar and crème fraiche was plain and uneventful.” For the record, it is actually a Cornet of Atlantic Salmon tartar with sweet red onion crème friache. Another person writing about Manresa with the warning “awful food for an absurd price” described the famous Arpege Egg dish as “This odd egg muse(sic) had some really bad sour cream on the top layer (it was served inside a partically (sic) cut egg.)
For the record, the actual recipe is here:
If I personally don’t care for a dish, I have a responsibility to say that it wasn’t to my liking, but not that it was executed poorly. The ethic for blogging should be, in my opinion, not based on personal judgements, but rather specifics reported accurately.
I have given you a sense of where I am coming from as a blogger, but thought it would be beneficial to hear from chefs and restaurateurs. How do they feel and deal with food sites and people writing about their meals?
So chefs, restaurateurs and staff members, I look forward to your take on the situation. You are free to comment anon.