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Monday Morning Agitator

If Ferran Adria Can Do It, Why Can’t David Chang? Purist Chefs Are Full of It

I had been meaning to write an article on restaurants that foist stupid rules on their customers for quite some time. But a recent article in the New York Times called Have It Your Way? Purist Chefs Won’t Have It , has put the issue front and center. Let’s get right to the heart of the matter: These chefs are full of it. The issue has nothing to do with their ability to preserve something special or unique, or protect their art. It has to do with three things: Convenience, money and ego.

One of my favorite quotes in the article was from my pal David Chang, who said, “Instead of trying to make a menu that’s for everyone, let’s make a menu that works best for what we want to do." What we want to do? I thought restaurants were a service business. And while I don’t begrudge David or any of his cohorts the ability to frame their cooking as an important contribution to the history mankind, the fact of the matter is that leaving the crushed peanuts off a dish because of someone’s allergy, or a slice of ham off a dish for someone who keeps kosher or halal, or even the anchovies off a dish for someone who hates eating them, does not do anything to undermine their art or craft in any way.

At a different time in their careers, the various chefs in that article would have jumped through hoops for their customers. And I say that from first-hand experience with a number of them. But now that they are celebrities, it has brought out a latent authoritarian streak in them which has resulted in the creation of a bunch of stupid rules. And rather than admit to their true motivation, which is convenience, money and ego, they claim theses stupid rules are necessary to protect what they have created.

Given how many places I eat at, I run into chefs and restaurateurs who create stupid rules, and who disingenuously claim they are vital to preserving their art, all of the time. One of my favorite stupid rule encounters was at the Culver City branch of the gastropub, Father’s Office. I went there especially to try their famous hamburger which they serve with blue cheese. One person in our party didn’t like blue cheese, and I was wheat gluten intolerant and blue cheese is made using rye bread. But the bartender refused to serve our burgers without the cheese telling us that our choices were limited to ordering the burger and wiping the blue cheese off, or ordering something else. Can you imagine telling someone to order something they are allergic to and telling them to wipe it off the food before eating it? It’s a law suit waiting to happen. But the ridiculousness didn’t stop there. One person asked for extra dressing for their salad and the waiter refused, and said, “we think it’s dressed perfectly."

I had a similar incident occur at Animal, also in Los Angeles, a city that seems to collect chefs that act like assholes (see When a Chef Acts Like a Schm*ck ) I was there with my family and the restaurant refused to leave the bread crumbs off of my broccoli dish, even though I was allergic, and when my son asked them to put the anchovy fondue butter that came with his rib eye on the side of the steak rather than on top of it, they refused. In that instance, their idiocy resulted in our leaving and we went around the corner and had dinner at Grace instead. But what made both experiences the same is that in each instance the restaurants claimed that the reason they couldn’t make changes was that they chefs concluded that the dishes were perfect the way they served them.

But the best story of all happened at Al Forno in Providence, Rhode Island. It was the night before my son graduated from college, and he and his college roommate came down from Boston to have dinner with me. The meal was going along swimmingly until our entrees showed up. I had ordered the Cowboy Steak, a grilled rib eye with homemade steak sauce and mashed potatoes, and when it arrived at the table, I found that it too was doing swimmingly, but in this instance in a rather deep pool of steak sauce. Now I have nothing against eating condiments with my steak. But I am not a fan of grilled meats sitting in a large pool of sauce because it ruins the crust that was built up during the grilling process. This dislike isn’t limited to condiments; I have sent many a steak back to be re-plated when some chef has decided that adding a ladle of reduced demi-glace to a dish of grilled meat is a good idea.

I turned to my server and said, “I’m sorry, had I known the steak was served that way, I would have asked you to put the sauce on the side. Can you please take it back to the kitchen and have them wipe off as much sauce as possible, and ask them to put the steak on a clean plate." Much to my astonishment he refused, telling me that the owners considered it a signature dish, and the kitchen was under instructions not to make any changes to it. Now I am the first one to respect an aesthetic when a chef actually expresses one. But the dish that was sitting in front of me wasn’t Keller’s oysters and pearls or Blumenthal’s Lamb Hot Pot; it was a grilled rib steak, sliced and served in a 1/4 inch pool of steak sauce with a softball size scoop of smashed potatoes next to it. In fact it was so short on aesthetics that it could have easily passed for the Blue Plate Special in any number of diners around the country.

After some back and forth with the waiter, it became obvious that he wasn’t going to budge. I decided to taste the steak to see if I could stomach eating it. Well not only was the crust ruined by the sauce, the sauce itself was so overwhelming, and so drowned out any taste of beef, that I handed the plate to the waiter and asked him to bring me a menu so I could order something else. I settled on the duo of pork (a grilled pork chop and pork sausage if I recall correctly,) and he sped off to the kitchen to place my order. About 10 minutes later, the manager suddenly appeared at our table. But rather than speaking to us, he started fidgeting with the items on our table, like repositioning the salt and pepper shakers and water glasses. I figured he wanted to discuss my refusing the steak so I broke the ice and said, “I assume you heard what happened?"

What happened next was one of the most surreal things that ever happened to me in a restaurant. After the whole spiel where the waiter refused to re-plate my steak, the manager says, “I heard all about it—what I don’t understand is why didn’t you just ask them to put the steak on a dry plate?" Shocked by his response, I told him that was exactly what I had asked for, but they refused to do it. He then asked me to wait a minute and he went back to the kitchen. He returned a few minutes later and he told me they were re-plating my steak as I had requested and it would be out in a few minutes.

After I was finished eating, I asked our waiter how long he had been working at the restaurant. “Six years" he responded. So I asked him, “During those six years, have you ever seen them serve the steak without the sauce? “No" was his answer, adding “you’re the first person I have ever seen them do that for." So what happened, and why did the restaurant decide to ignore the stupid rule? Was their art worth so little to them that when one customer refused to go along with their stupid rule, they crumbled and changed their policy?

Turns out we were one of their last reservations of the night, and after preparing our entrees, the cooks started breaking the kitchen down. When I sent my steak back and asked for something else, it meant they had to fire the kitchen back up, and more importantly, they had to work 20-30 minutes longer than they would have had I not sent the steak back. So they complained to the manager. Since the kitchen was under orders not to break the stupid rule, and I had refused to go along with the stupid rule, it was left for the manager to make a judgment call about the stupid rule. Either he could make his kitchen staff unhappy by insisting they work longer hours, and maybe pay them overtime to boot, or he could give them permission to break the stupid rule by allowing them to put the sauce on the side.

Now granted, I was dealing with the manager and not the chef/owners, and for all I know they would have forced the kitchen to fire the grill back up and work overtime. But that really isn’t the point: The point is that it demonstrates the arbitrary nature of the stupid rule. Can you imagine one of Damian Hirst’s assistants deciding to change one of his pieces because a potential buyer asked him to? I can imagine the exchange: “I’m sorry, tell Damian I love that dot painting, but the color palate isn’t to my liking. Would you mind changing the color for me?" Well of course that would never happen, and that’s because art deserves a certain type of respect. But steak and potatoes, at least the way it is realized at Al Forno, has nothing to do with art and is merely fancified sustenance, regardless of the egotistitical claims by its owners. So, when faced with this particular dilemma, the manager abandoned any pretense that it was something worth preserving and told them to break the rule.

If I haven’t yet convinced you that these dishes do not rise to the level of art, let me introduce you to the greatest chef in the world as my next example. Most people would agree that no other chef or restaurant is entitled to have a puritan attitude about the food they create than Ferran Adria. Yet his restaurant goes to great lengths to accommodate people with allergies, as well as asking them if they eat oysters and other raw shellfish, or whether they eat variety meat like brains. Don’t believe me? Last month I took a party of eight people to El Bulli and one of my guests didn’t eat meat. That particular night, Ferran was serving a number of dishes featuring foie gras, as well as five different dishes that utilized hare. Did the kitchen tell my non-meating eating guest to shove it? No, they altered some of the dishes for her, and when that wasn’t practical, they served her seafood or vegetarian dishes. Now are you telling me that Ferran Adria is willing to alter a dish, offer people vegetarian options and go to great lengths to prepare special food for them, and David Chang can’t do the same? Give me a f*cking break.

What it all comes down to business and ego. For the chefs mentioned in both the Times article and this one, their business is so strong that they can afford to cater to their own egos and bottom lines instead of catering to their customers. But if they needed the business they would be singing a different tune: April Bloomfield would offer multiple types of cheeses with for your burger, Graham Eliot would pour the milk into your Decaf coffee himself, and George Germon and Joanne Killeen would probably rush out to the supermarket to buy me a bottle of A1 if that’s what I wanted to eat with my steak instead of their home made sauce. And not only would David Chang offer a vegetarian option, he probably wouldn’t have that idiotic reservation system at Momofuku Ko, or that silly rule about not allowing guests to take photos of the food at the restaurant.

If chefs do not want to accommodate their customers, they are clearly within their rights to refuse them. It’s a free country, and they are allowed to run their business as they see fit. But please stop handing us this line of bull that it has something to do with their art or craft. If Ferran Adria can put his ego aside and not feel inconvenienced by people who have allergies or who are picky eaters, and is willing to invest the additional time and money it takes to make people happy, while not feeling that it interferes with his art or craft in anyway, I don’t see why these chefs can’t do the same.