I can be a difficult guy to dine out with. Just ask my long-suffering wife. I’ve run restaurants my entire adult life so I know how the sausage is made. Literally. I’ve held every position in the front of house and have been in management for over a decade. And a five-year stint as a food writer had me visiting an average of a hundred restaurants a year. I can walk into a restaurant and notice immediately if it’s in trouble. The stink of death from a formerly cutesy but now failing ‘pan-Asian soul food’ concept? I’ve smelled it. Insouciant management, disinterested waitrons, off-season ingredients – I can root it out like a pig during truffle season. A quick perusal of a menu will tell me whether or not the chef is having an identity crisis. It’s a talent that means I’ll always have a job; unless that job is to be an enjoyable dinner companion.
And I can’t switch it off. Lighting too high, music too low, a table sitting unbussed for too long or guests milling at an unattended host stand all bother me more than say, the Syrian refugee crisis. I’ll hold up a wine glass and note not only spots but also a light effluvium of lint speckling the rim. They need to change the rinse-to-sanitizer ratio in their dishwashers, I’ll say. If the servers were polishing with microfiber cloths then lint wouldn’t cling to the stemware like the last Cheerios in the bowl. It’s pithy observations like these that explain why my wife would rather relive the 2016 presidential race – what felt like all 137 months of it – than go out to a restaurant with me.
This hyper-vigilance is causing a strain on our marriage. Romantic dinners are compromised by my inability to ignore pretentious menu language or service staff that describe squab as “kind of like chicken.” A quick lunch will have me lamenting aloud the number of appetizers coming from the hot line – “Don’t they know time is of the essence? The chef should focus on compelling cold items that can be prepared quickly by the garde-manger so the grill can pump out the entrées faster.” My wife could easily be an Olympic gold medalist in eye rolling.
That’s not to say that she doesn’t have her share of peccadillos; particularly as it pertains to food. She doesn’t cook, for instance. She was living alone in a studio apartment when we first met, and she kept her silverware in the oven. “Why not?” she asked when I raised upturned eyebrows at her. She’d never turned it on. To her, the oven was just another area to store things.
On the odd occasion that she does venture into the kitchen to attempt something involving the microwave, she has the most endearing (read: maddening) habit: she never closes the cupboard doors. It’s taken me close to a decade to become accustomed to living in a home that always looks like it’s been freshly ransacked.
I realize of course this is nothing. Compared to me, her culinary transgressions are mere grains of Himalayan pink salt on an endless loup de mer. Whereas I’m so insufferable her misery index usually hovers somewhere between “agitated” and “three weeks in Abu Ghraib.”
Early in our marriage, we were having dinner at a much-lauded West Hollywood boite. She was a vision; flaxen hair resting on alabaster shoulders, Nordic cheekbones and a clinging dress that protruded in all the right places. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be there. Until our entrees arrived. My onglet was slathered in sauce, cantilevered over a mound of smashed Yukon golds. My wife caught me frowning thoughtfully at my plate. “What’s wrong?” she asked, immediately regretting her question as I inhaled deeply and began my dissertation. “This is all wrong,” I exclaimed, and then proceeded to do a line-by-line breakdown of the dish. ‘“The steak is piled onto the potatoes. Not only does that make the underside soggy, but the heat they exude is cooking my perfect medium rare into a greying medium well. And any chef worth his salt will sauce the plate; not the protein. Saucing steak is an apology. It means he’s either embarrassed by the cut – reduced bordelaise will not turn hanger steak into a ribeye – or he’s hiding the fact that he’s overcooked it. This sauce is everywhere, obscuring what should be a gleaming Hubba Bubba pink center.” I wasn’t done. Protruding like little mailbox flags were contiguous spears of charred asparagus. “It’s November!” I was almost shouting at this point, “Where are they getting this asparagus?” The final insult was a sprig of rosemary incongruously perched atop this monument of ineptitude. My wife saw a steak. I saw a teetering ziggurat of sadness.
My words came out in a torrent. I wasn’t so much speaking as ejaculating paragraphs; so busy steamrolling that I failed to notice my wife’s eyes cloud over like the windows of an abandoned retail space. I was the conversational equivalent of the guy who’s still throwing punches at the air after being pulled off of the body he’s already beaten unconscious. This was on our anniversary.
It’s not just at tony brasseries with Frette linen and hand-blown stemware. It can happen anywhere. Ramen houses, taco trucks, vegan holes-in-the-wall; even at a barbecue joint. Just recently we were dragging coarse hunks of cornpone across a spent plate of smoked pork ribs when the number of service staff bumped me. There were too many bussers on the floor. I was on the verge of an exhaustive delineation of how management needed to adjust their staffing matrix. About how bussers and servers cost the same by the hour, but that bussers don’t generate revenue. Servers do. The restaurant just needed to train the servers to do more side duties, thus reducing their labor cost and increasing sales while the servers made more money because they’d be tipping out fewer subordinates. I was going to say all that. But something stopped me.
It was a quote I’d heard years ago from an Italian chef I was interviewing for a story. We were discussing what makes for great cuisine when he offered this; a good chef adds ingredients when he wants to improve a dish, he told me. But a great chef takes them away. He was right. Pasta aglio olio needs nothing more than a splash of lime-green olive oil and fresh garlic, anything else masks its beautiful simplicity. Thirty-five toppings stretching from stuffed crust to stuffed crust will never beat the margherita pizza’s Holy Trinity of torn basil, zingy San Marzanos and some so-fresh-it-drips fior di latte. In essence, the more you add, the less you get. He could have just as easily been talking about my marriage. My usual unsolicited observations were just a wilting radish rose on the edge of the plate – I’d have a much better dish without it. So out they went. I bit my tongue – and it worked. For the first time in a long time, we got to enjoy dinner the way most couples do; as foreplay. If you catch my drift.
Critiquing restaurants is fun. Sleeping on the couch is not. So, I now use my restaurant powers for good; a Pavlovian stimulus/response reminder that less is more. Instead of remarking that ‘my salad has been served on a warm plate’ or that the runner has placed my entrée with the protein portion facing away from me, I’ll ask, ‘how was your day?’ And actually listen. Turns out the person across the table is a lot more important than what’s on it.
Unless it’s salted caramel budino. That’s something we can both agree on.