The Customer Is Always Wrong: Welcome to the New Chef-Waiter World Order

Your wishes come last

The server finally sauntered over as everyone else was finishing their meals. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said flatly, bringing back my undercooked chicken, ‘but this is the way the chef prepares it.’ (Illustration by Leon Zernitsky)

The server finally sauntered over as everyone else was finishing their meals. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said flatly, bringing back my undercooked chicken, ‘but this is the way the chef prepares it.’
(Illustration by Leon Zernitsky)

I was raised to believe the adage the customer is always right, and as I’ve learned in advertising, it works better if one actually likes being in a service business.

I always thought this ethos would apply to the restaurant business, where serving patrons with a smile (even a disingenuous one) is part of the job description. However, lately I’ve detected an insidious strain of inhospitable service crossing over into actual hostility.

When the Upper East Side restaurant first opened its designer doors, I was thrilled to have a new eatery in the area, as the mom-and-pop places have all been replaced by glossy international luxury brands.

We joined friends who had booked the table in the dramatically lit main dining room. After air-kisses and polite conversation, I asked for my chicken well done, as the newest fashion is to undercook everything as many of today’s chefs think something “well done” is bourgeois and /or infantile. 

I happen to like it that way, and have resorted to begging the waiter to “burn it,” just to get something fully cooked at the very least. (One trick is to ask them to butterfly everything for a greater probability of having the meat see the fire.) I sometimes use the line “apologies to the chef” to butter them up and also to let them know I’m not a fool.

But when the entrée arrived and I cut into the chicken, I immediately recoiled at the glistening, coral pink flesh inside. I called the waiter over. “I ordered the chicken extra well done and the inside is barely cooked,” I said.

He rolled his eyes. “I’ll take it back and see if chef will cook it more.”

I motioned for my companions to eat as I waited for the final verdict. The server finally sauntered over as everyone else was finishing their meals.

“I’m sorry,” he said flatly, bringing back my undercooked chicken, “but this is the way the chef prepares it.”

“Excuse me?” I said as he placed the raw-ish carcass back in front of me. “You’re telling me the chef will not cook my chicken more? It’s almost alive.”  I was horrified.

“I’m sorry but that’s the way the chef prepares the chicken,” he said in a provocative gesture that was meant to say, “We are not interested in making you happy and there is a line of people waiting for your table.”

“That just happened to me here last week,” said my friend, a powerful CEO of a public company, shrugging as I sat there, not quite knowing what to make of the situation.

“So why did you make the reservation again?” I asked.

“Janice (not his wife’s real name) likes the ambiance. She loves the décor.”

I lifted my wine glass and said, “Welcome everyone, to the newest restaurant in town: Chez Fuck You.”

***

Isn't that Rich

‘The attitude and airs in this town are ridiculous,’ she shared. ‘And the behavior is topped only by the insecure patrons who put up with it.’ Illustration by Leon Zernitsky

There is and has always been a segment of the luxury market that borders on sadism. Perhaps there is an underlying philosophy that the worse you treat someone the more they will want it. 

This has spilled over to restaurants that overbook and do not honor timely reservations, keeping groups of people (including the elderly) standing and waiting for hours, while any random celebrity is whisked to a table. Waiters are now given license from imperious chefs to dictate to us how the chefs want us to eat, as if we are children who need to be educated on their ingenious and innovative preparation. And testy maître d’s often affect a disinterested and unhelpful persona, their ennui on full display.

My dear friend, The Impossibly Blonde and Glamorous Socialite (TIBGS) and I were seated in the grillroom of a private club I belong to in Manhattan, where Mark Twain once frolicked. I enjoy the club even more as it offers elegant dining in a landmark mansion, its ambiance and gracious service uncompromised by surly staff.

TIBGS concurred that elsewhere restaurant abuse was getting out of hand. “The attitude and airs in this town are ridiculous,” she shared. “And the behavior is topped only by the insecure patrons who put up with it.”

“I agree,” I said, watching the genteel waiter hand toss the Caesar salad on a vintage trolley.

“I love the restaurants that make up prices,” TIBGS offered.

“That’s a good one,” I said. “The best is the [well-known eatery] where no matter what you order the bill is always $150 a person. It always adds up to the same number for two people, whether you have no appetizer or two main dishes,” I revealed.

She mentioned a restaurant once favored by all the social swans. “It was a home away from home for me,” she recalled, “but if my friend [the famous proprietor] didn’t like you the place could be empty for all he cared. He would say there was no room, regardless of whether your eyes told you otherwise.”

She continued. “The other day I saw a woman at an outside table at [major Euro establishment] feeding her Havanese off a plate with a spoon,” TIBGS said in a tone indicating she was at once amused and appalled. “The restaurant said nothing even though everyone was outraged, because she is friends with the owner and happens to be titled.”

“Maybe her new title should be Her Royal Heinous, ” I suggested, tasting the fabulous well-done club chicken. “At least the dog had good manners.”

***

I recently joined some friends for a birthday celebration at an ultra hip Montauk restaurant. I would have preferred the old-school red-sauce Italian we sometimes frequent, oh so happy for the blue cheese dressing on the mixed green salad in the wooden bowls and the comforting eggplant parm and garlic bread. Once again, I bowed to my friends who prefer the “in” spot.

As I was sipping a refreshing watermelon vodka, my friend and neighbor appeared flushed. “They won’t expand the table even though I told them it was my birthday,” she said. It had originally been a group of 10—I detest group dinners but try to be flexible—and three extra friends showed up. While most normal restaurants would have just squeezed in three chairs or pulled the adjacent table over, the brittle maître d’ who clearly graduated with honors from Chez Fuck You told my friend that the extra three people would have to sit at a table across the room, even though there was an empty four-top right next to our table of 10.

“Let’s go.” I happily stood. “There’s a great old-school Italian I love nearby. They are so nice and accommodating and have the best red sauce in town. I am sure we can just pull up a few extra chairs.”

“No,” the woman said. “I like it here.”

“What’s to like? They won’t even seat your friends near each other,” I tried to reason, selfishly trying to push my agenda as visions of saucy meatballs danced in my head.

“We’ll just take the table of 10 and they can sit separately,” she said. “Let’s just stay.”

“Fine. I’ll sit at the children’s table,” I happily volunteered, hoping not to have another group dinner.

“Oh no. You’re part of the main group. We’ll make (the so and so’s) sit there since they joined last-minute,” she said. “Can you believe this treatment?”

“So why don’t we all leave?” I asked.

“I really want to eat here. I love the view and my friend said they have the best kale in town.”

My dreams of hearty spaghetti with garlic bread were dashed by the cruel inevitability of rude service and trendy greens.

***

“I knew it was my fall from grace when they sat me in Siberia,” said my L.A.-based friend, a well-known movie studio exec said of a high-profile N.Y.C. restaurant where they promptly gave him an inferior table after he had left his last high-profile post.

“What, were they reading the trades?” I asked.

He shook his head. “For years I’d been eating there and getting one of the prime tables and then when I lose my position they give me a table so far in the back I was almost near the service entrance.”

“How far back is far back?” I pried.

“So far back you’ve never ever even seen where they put me. “The thing was,” he said on the speakerphone from his car on the freeway, “that not that many people really knew about my departure. But THEY apparently did. Like they had a hotline to insider Hollywood gossip”

“What did you do?”


Waiters are now given license from imperious chefs to dictate to us how the chefs want us to eat, as if we are children who need to be educated on their ingenious and innovative preparation.


“I said to myself, ‘I really don’t like it back here in steerage, I better get another great job and quick.’ Honestly, I had a great package and was considering taking some time off—but that was one of the things that threw me over the edge,” he revealed.

“Have you been back since?”

“I stayed away for a time but when I got the even better position I decided to go back. Now I have a new strategy.”

“What’s that?”

“Now, every time I go there or to a new restaurant I bring a celebrity with me.”

We had just returned from Europe and were catching up with friends at a hip restaurant in Sag Harbor.

It took 45 minutes of waiting and being jostled while they cleared and set the table. Finally they seated eight of the 10 people in our party and everyone was famished.

“Why don’t we order appetizers?” I offered.

“I’m sorry,” the waitress barked. “We cannot take the order until everyone has arrived.”

“Do you think it would be possible to get some bread and water?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said with the warmth of a prison matron.

“This is ridiculous,” my friend, whom I call my second wife, said as she waited for her houseguests to arrive, nervously looking at her watch.

“Why don’t we up and leave and go to the pizzeria in town? They make awesome pizza and the best espresso,” I offered.

Another guest at the table raised an eyebrow. “I’m not eating at a pizzeria. We just have to put up with the abuse. After all, it’s August in the Hamptons. Where do you think you are, Capri?”

“I have an idea,” I said to Second Wife. “Can you call Harry and Mark and see what their ETA is? If they are more than 10 minutes away, you can put in their order?

The waitress returned to slam down a breadbasket. “When are your friends getting here?” she said, rolling her eyes. “This can’t be an all-afternoon event.”

“I know,” we now tried the honey versus the vinegar approach. “They apologize for their late spin class but my friend here called them and we actually have their order.”

She tried to process something outside the norm. “Well, we can’t take orders unless the whole party is here but I guess it might work. But NO ORDER CHANGES when they get here.” She pulled out her pad as she laid down the law.

“We promise. You’re a dear and a delight.”

“Doesn’t everyone just want to leave?” I asked when she left. “This isn’t exactly relaxing.”

“Richard, there’s nothing relaxing about the Hamptons in August. At least you had the opportunity to escape and go to Capri,” my friend lectured me.

I raised my glass of white wine and toasted. “Welcome to Chez Fuck You.”

***

No one has more restaurant stories than a Hamptons neighbor who is known for his very specific culinary desires.

“So there we were at (hot restaurant by hot restaurateur) when I asked the waiter if they had any salt and pepper. A reasonable request, no?” he said.

“I would think so,” I said, eating my well-done egg-white scramble at a diner that  could be one of the few places on the UES that takes real requests seriously.

“So as I was saying, the actor/waiter came over and said, ‘I’m sorry but the chef prefers that you do not eat his chicken with salt or pepper.’

“So I told him that if he was a good actor, his role that night was that of a waiter—and he should act like one and bring me what I want.”

“And did he bring it?”

“It was a Mexican standoff. I eventually won it, of course, but I never went back. That said, it’s a popular restaurant and it’s packed all the time”

“That’s the problem,” I said. “Everyone is whipped.”

***

The invitation was vague enough to make it interesting and Dana and I decided to attend the Ralph Lauren event during Fashion Week in Central Park. We arrived close to the 9 p.m. call time at the entrance to Central Park and 72nd Street. As we exited our car we were met by a group of helpful security and polite handlers who directed us to individual golf carts that drove us into the park and deposited us with the other guests. Ralph’s staff,  beautifully turned out in crisp summer white Polo shirts, were extremely polite, groomed  and beautiful.

“My you look lovely this evening,” the young man complimented Dana as we walked by.

“Would you care for popcorn for the show?” another graciously offered.

“Would either of you like water?” The chiseled waiter offered bottles of signature-branded Polo water.

We all gathered by the lake to watch the projected fashion show, the images creating a ghostly yet artful runway against the Central Park West skyline. After an image of Ralph took a bow to great applause, we were ushered out where a cart and retinue of Ralph Lauren waiters smiled brightly and offered the guests whimsical and creative Ralph’s coffee cups to go. The contrast of how one of America’s greatest success stories and luxury brands treated his guests in contrast to the appalling behavior now being served in many of today’s supposedly best restaurants only reinforced why some people rise to great heights and others flame out.

If Mr. Lauren ever opens a restaurant in New York I’d like the first reservation. I know the ambiance would be extraordinary and the service gracious and well turned out.

Finally, I’d be able to get chicken the way I want it. Now, wouldn’t that be a fashion statement?

The Customer Is Always Wrong: Welcome to the New Chef-Waiter World Order