Not So Deep Thoughts

Part V: Just Like Starting Over

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Posted by jkhutchins on May 11, 2010

Forgive me.  But this has been on my mind for a while now and I want to sort this out.

New York Times article about confronting a chef.

Precis:  Chef is heard in the dining room chewing out an employee.  Twice.

NYT food writer goes to the kitchen, chews out chef.  Chef is unrepentant.  Chef comes to table, is defensive.  Chef throws out food writer and party.

NYT writer calls back chef, warns him about upcoming article.  Chef not interested.  Food writer wonders if he did wrong, or could have handled things better.

Point AShould food writer have written the article?

I say yes.  It brought up some interesting discussion about the rights of patrons and the rights and obligations of a restaurant.  In addition, the establishment was warned and essentially given a chance to argue their case before publication.  While some characterized the piece as revenge, I think it was a legitimate thing to do.  The piece was more about boundaries than shaming the chef.  That said, I’m not sure the chef needed to be named so prominently.  However, several New Yorkers were happy to know which restaurant to avoid.  So, overall, yes, the piece itself was reasonable.

Point B:  Should the journalist just have left?

That is a fair point.  I probably would have, but I don’t like confrontation.  Of course I also don’t like paying for food in the three digits.  The journalist had already settled in for a meal.  While there are plenty of restaurants in New York, he should not have been punished for the bad behavior of the kitchen.  His evening was already ruined at that point.

Additionally, by just leaving he does the restaurant a disservice.  Even if he leaves a message explicitly saying why he left, if the chef is that out of control, I suspect one more upset patron wouldn’t make much difference.  A note would not have the same impact as what the journalist actually did.  I won’t fault him on not choosing the easy out.

Point C:  Should the journalist have gone to the kitchen?

This was the main point of contention amongst the commenters.  Opinion was very divided on this.  Many argued that It was unsafe.  That may be a fair point, although the journalist stated that while he couldn’t remember exact details, he didn’t think he went past the door.  Many said he should have talked to the manager and let the manager handle it.  I strongly suspect that if the manager was going to handle the situation, he would have by the time the second yelling incident occurred.  That the manager did not do so indicates that he either didn’t feel it was a problem or that any action he (the manager) took would be useless.

In my opinion, if the manager was unable or unwilling to act, clearly the chef was too far out of control for a note or message to make much impact.

The other opinion on this was that the manager should have gotten the chef to come to the table.  Was that probably the best option?  Probably.  Assuming the chef did not refuse to come and the manager would make polite excuses.

The most heated point was whether the kitchen was  a sacred space or not.  Many commenters said that an angry reader would not show up at someone’s desk.  Up to a point, that is true.  But it does happen.  Some places they have to set up security because it happens.   In this case the kitchen was semi-open.  It is already an exposed area.  And the kitchen has already invaded the dining room with the shouting.  As long as the journalist is at the doorway and not being a danger or a major disruption, while being there was not a good idea it was not a gross violation either.

Point D:  Was the journalist in the wrong for making it about his experience instead of the employee?

No.  This is what the journalist did absolutely right.  While it seemed very self absorbed to many of the writers, it wasn’t the journalist’s place to do anything about the employee.  He was only entitled to complain about how it affected him.  Beyond that, he would have been inserting himself into a situation about which he knew little and was none of his business.  On this I applaud him completely.

Point E:  Was the chef entitled to run the kitchen the way he saw fit?

Strictly speaking, yes.  If he loses business because of it, that is his responsibility.  On the other hand, especially with high end dining, what a customer is really paying for is the service and ambiance.  So the chef violated the tacit agreement that exists in that situation.  If he really had to yell at the employee, he should have taken it out in the alley if he needed to.  The journalist was reasonable to complain.

Point F:  Should the journalist have consulted with his party first?

Of course.  But it was clearly not a planned out maneuver.  Minus points, but not a lot.

Point G:  Should the journalist have chewed the chef out of in front of his staff?

Probably not.  Still, I’m not sure any lesser action would have caught the chef’s attention at that point.  Also, if the journalist did stay out of the kitchen itself, perhaps it was on the chef to take the patron aside.  The real problem is it is impossible to say what actually happened.  The journalist wasn’t sure exactly what was said, and because of my personal experience, I’m not sure I would trust the chef, or anyone with that kind of anger management problems to give an entirely accurate account.  But that is my bias.  Without an eyewitness, I don’t want to give an opinion.  Nonetheless, the encounter almost certainly could have been handled better.   The chef should have calmed down on the spot, and the journalist should have poked his head in then left.

Point H:   Should the journalist have left after that?

Probably.  But again, he’s settled in for a good meal and in theory things will have settled down.  This also would be a probably wise but not obligatory move.

Point I:  Should the chef have ejected the journalist?

It’s his restaurant.  He can do what he wants.  I’m not sure it was the right move, but on the other hand the chef didn’t have a lot to lose at that point and it may have asserted his authority with the staff.  He could have chosen to try to recover instead.  He could have comped the meal and apologized about the disruption.  Having been shamed in front of his staff, however, it is understandable if not politic to just end the contact.   I just wonder how many other diners he lost because of mishandling the situation even before the account hit the papers.

Point J:  How biased is the account?  Was the chef really being demonized unfairly?

To some extent, almost certainly.    The journalist, based on the fact that he was blurry on many of the details, may have been under the influence of alcohol or overreacting and too angry himself.  Nonetheless, the fact that the journalist is questioning his own actions and was willing to talk to the chef before publishing works in his favor.  On the other hand, for my purposes all of this is hypothetical.  I am more interested in the questions raised than coming to a judgment.

I would have done things much differently, but I might have been happy to be with someone who would have been willing to speak up.  I hope someone learned something from the experience.


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