Diva Chefs Dictate What You Order
L ynne Halpern’s dinner at the Atlanta restaurant Luna Si went from fishy to weird in two minutes flat.
The trouble started when Ms. Halpern’s daughter sent back to the kitchen a piece of “pink and slimy” undercooked salmon. Instead of a well-cooked entree emerging from the kitchen, out charged chef Paul Luna, wielding a meat cleaver for effect. “This is the way I cook salmon in my restaurant,” snapped Mr. Luna, who confirms the incident. “If you don’t like it, you should eat somewhere else.”
For a chef who prides himself on perfectly pink duck breast or the tuna steak seared just so, such treatment is tantamount to food abuse. Mr. Luna, the Atlanta chef, admits to rushing into his dining room to reprimand customers an average of three times each night. He can’t stand the fact he spends so much time perfecting a dish, only to see it ruined by a customer. “I don’t ask them to come to my restaurant,” says Mr. Luna
Ms. Halpern, a meat wholesaler, never went back to the restaurant. There’s a word for Mr. Luna’s behavior, she says: “inappropriate.”
You’ve heard of the celebrity chef. Now meet the diva chef. With people eating out more than ever, and a shortage of kitchen talent, chefs have become such hot commodities that they’re calling more shots than you’d think these days. They’re the ones picking your waiter, turning down substitution requests and even curtailing restaurant hours. And this power is spreading far beyond big city restaurants, to suburban and midpriced eateries.
Clearly, great chefs and great cooking are playing a big role in the nation’s unprecedented restaurant boom. But diners are increasingly shocked to find that even regular cooks, who used to gladly accommodate special requests, are suddenly dictating culinary orders. They won’t prepare meat well-done, won’t provide extra Parmesan cheese, and heaven forbid a diner wants a little raw garlic. At Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, the chef at the upscale eatery (who, by the way, named the place after himself) won’t serve diners hard liquor with their meals — only fine wine, beer and aperitifs.
But restaurant owners are already beginning to worry about the impact these temperamental chefs are having on business. How much more will customers take, owners ask, especially as concerns mount about the economy?
“A chef has to learn that his paycheck comes from customers,” says Wolfgang Puck, chef/owner of Spago in Los Angeles. Otherwise, diners “simply won’t come back.”
Take Lori Randall, a public-relations associate in Seattle, who sure isn’t going back to Lampreia, a popular local restaurant. Recently she got an “extremely nasty” message on her answering machine from the chef and owner himself. Her mistake? She forgot to cancel the reservation. The message informed her she is “definitely not welcome in his restaurant,” says Ms. Randall. “Who does this prima donna think he is?”
A good businessman, replies Scott Carsberg, the chef, who points out that his restaurant has only 48 seats. He makes no apologies for speaking his mind. “We had a verbal contract, and she broke it,” he says. “Why would I want someone like that to return?”
While chefs might see such measures as preserving their bottom line, such active interference can give customers indigestion. Ronald Bricke, an interior designer, is still fuming over a nine-course meal a few years ago at Bouley Restaurant in New York City. Seven courses into the four-and-a-half hour repast, Mr. Bricke decided he’d had enough. But when he asked for the bill, a waiter insisted that chef David Bouley had two more courses to send out. Mr. Bricke was incensed: “David decided how I was going to eat and I had to submit to it. It didn’t matter that it was after midnight.” Mr. Bouley doesn’t recall the incident, but says he would discourage a customer from eating a nine-course meal in an hour and a half: “It wouldn’t be healthy.”
What chefs don’t like about you! A list of their beefs.
Such frictions between customers and chefs come at a time when upscale restaurants are doing unparalleled business. There aren’t only 21% more full-service restaurants than a decade ago, they are bringing in more consumer dollars than ever. According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans will spend a whopping $128 billion in such eateries in 2000 — a 65% increase over 1990. They will also spend 45% of their food budget eating out, 3% more than in 1992.
Still, business may be slowing. According to Dun & Bradstreet, new restaurant openings started dropping in 1997, and fell 13% last year. While temperamental chefs certainly aren’t responsible for the downturn, ignoring customers could create problems ahead, especially as concerns mount about the economy.
Like Mediocre Cappuccino
To be sure, the chef “artiste” has been around as long as there have been spoons to stir. Legend has it that Apicius, the Roman gastronome and cookbook author, was so afraid of dying from hunger he poisoned himself. Primo, the chef in the 1996 movie “Big Night,” drove his restaurant to ruin by refusing to serve customers what they wanted to eat. But with the rise of gourmet culture, diva chefs have become as ubiquitous as mediocre cappuccino.
This past summer, Alain Ducasse, the much Michelin-starred French chef, heated up have-it-my-way dining in the U.S. when he opened an eponymous restaurant in Manhattan. By forcing customers to choose from a confusing array of flatware, park their handbags on little stools and use fancy pens to sign their astronomically high tabs — about $250 a head — he quickly alienated New Yorkers and reviewers, who attacked the chef as arrogant. (Mr. Ducasse has since eliminated the knife and pen ordeals, and his reviews have improved.) In a faxed statement, the chef said “these details are the difference between very good and excellent.”
This September, Marco Pierre White, a London chef who is often credited as the Uber-diva, went so far as to eject Tim Zagat, the founder of the Zagat Survey restaurant guides, from his restaurant, Mirabelle. The reason: Mr. White felt the Zagat Survey had been unfair to his restaurant. “He was crammed into a banquette,” remembers Mr. Zagat. “Thank God, because he looked like he wanted to punch me.” (Mr. White didn’t return calls.) Indeed, tyrannical chefs have become such an institution, they’ve even inspired an off-Broadway play called “Fully Committed,” a title that refers to the hoity-toity language a chef insists be used to tell guests the restaurant is booked.
Preventing Food Abuse
Chefs, for their part, charge that it’s the diners who are the divas. Instead of ordering off the menu, they want to customize dishes with substitutions and additions. Customers think nothing of sending dishes back two or three times for alterations, often asking that food be over- or undercooked. For a chef who prides himself on perfectly pink duck breast or the tuna steak seared just so, such treatment is tantamount to food abuse.
Mr. Luna, the Atlanta chef, admits to rushing into his dining room to reprimand customers an average of three times each night. He can’t stand the fact he spends so much time perfecting a dish, only to see it ruined by a customer. “I don’t ask them to come to my restaurant,” says Mr. Luna, who has left the Atlanta site, which has since closed. He is now opening a restaurant in Hogansville, Ga. “If they want to make the dish their way, they should stay home.”
Diners, for their part, think chefs should just lighten up. Amanda Thomas, who works for a New York handbag designer, almost laughed out loud on a recent trip to the Miss Williamsburg Diner in Brooklyn, N.Y. Not only did the menu state that chef/owner Pilar Rigon would never serve skim milk or lemon peel with espresso, it announced she’d banned waiters from serving extra Parmesan cheese. Ms. Thomas found the warnings “a little absurd” and hopes the chef isn’t “that serious.”
But Ms. Rigon couldn’t be more so. She labels drinking skim milk with espresso “stupid” and complains that Americans use too much cheese. “We decided this is not the way to go,” she says.
Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at email@example.com
The article was originally published here: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB974942365190410577