I have had the distinct pleasure to have eaten in quite a few Michelin starred restaurants over the years. I am grateful to have had the culinary experiences that I have had. An even greater distinction is that I have probably been allowed entry into more Michelin starred kitchens than most normal dining guests. Sincerely, I have less interest in having eaten at a famous restaurant, than I do in getting a glimpse of where all the Michelin magic happens…in the kitchen.
Don’t get me wrong. I know how to prepare myself for a one-of-kind meal at, say, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay’s in London or L’Orangerie at the George V in Paris. These are some of the most special times in my life, because I get to combine all the things I enjoy most – having an exquisite meal with my husband, Sean. (Of course, that includes dressing up, getting my hair done, and generally being pampered from the moment I step into the restaurant.)
Taking in THE SPACE
It is not entirely clear how it transpires, as every restaurant has its unique personality and protocols. And I tend not to come with a plan in mind. It just comes to me as the meal transpires.
First, as the maitre’d ushers us to our seats, I survey the room and the design-scape. I size up the space and sometimes the other guests. But usually, the decoration and layout. I’ll stop and admire a piece of art, or the floral arrangement; meanwhile the maitre’d and Sean pause as I catch up to them. It’s not long after we are seated (and Sean begins to peruse the wine list) that I am reaching for my phone (aka, camera).
Drinks are served and I am typically still analyzing the menu. I am looking at everything, not to discover what I want to eat, as much as to understand the chef’s philosophy of cuisine. I begin critiquing the menu and question the choice of this produce or that protein. Because I have a self-imposed limitation on the range of foods I will and will not consume, I am cautious. But when it comes to my critique of the dishes, I am anything but bashful.
There are two dialogues going on by this juncture. One with Sean about what to eat and another in my mind about the menu construction. Our servers may seem ready to take our order, but seldom are they truly prepared for the onslaught of questions and the test they are about to undergo. In part, I want to know what they know, and, in part, I want to know ifthey know. It isn’t an unfair examination, in my view, to ascertain whether our server is on his or her game. Did they attend the dinner briefing? Can they successfully represent all the hard work put in by those behind the scenes? It is less about ordering than it is about understanding.
Dining out is about discovery
Sean patiently watches as I begin a series of questions. “Are the sweetbreads pan seared?” “How did chef prepare the foie gras?” “If I wanted to replace the ewe’s milk with something else, could that be done?” Then, when the menu interrogation ceases, there is room for one final question: “who is the chef in kitchen today?”, followed by the request – “I would love to meet Chef!”
For an attentive waiter, this usually results in a message to the maitre’d, to inquire. The finer restaurants will want to conduct due diligence, and that is what I count on. It provides me with an opportunity to give them my background and share my genuine interest in what goes on behind the scenes. Often, we find ourselves ushered into the kitchen, if not between courses, sometimes even during the preparation of our meal, then after the dessert.
I cannot describe the feeling of gratification I experience when meeting chefs (and their teams) in their own environments. True, I want to make connections and learn from them; to congratulate them and show gratitude. But often it is more satisfying to “talk shop”, and this seems to appeal to most chefs. (The exception being when they are super busy. That is one reason we tend to either take early or late reservations.)
ENGAGING WITH THE CHEF
Chefs enjoy hearing from their guests, but I think it reaches another stratus when that guest can converse intelligently and listen intently about food. It was not uncommon for chefs to talk about what they are working on and how they envision transforming their menus with seasonal produce. Or how they partnered with local farmers to become more sustainable. Pardon the pun, but I eat this sort of conversation up. I learn so much and come away from these outings feeling full.
Going out to dinner is more than having a meal; it becomes an event. My husband endures and even promotes my excursions. And I am admittedly an epicurean and want to-be food critic. My joy comes from experiencing the artists in their own element, Michelin star or not.
Yet, having encountered numerous Michelin-starred chefs, I never in a million years expected a Michelin starred chef to request access to my kitchen. Nor could I have anticipated that it would be a turning point for one of my own kitchen staff….
[Excerpt from my book Seva: The Art of Hospitality, soon to be released.]