I am truly humbled by the response my last article on "The Restaurant Owners Bill of Rights" received. I expected it from the restaurant community, as they live it everyday. The public was my worry because it was the kind of article that could have been misinterpreted. Many articles have been written about the "Diners Bill of Rights" and we've all read them. But, as far as I know, I was the first to look from the "other side." The general feeling of the public was one of warmth and empathy. Morris Sendor, owner and editor of this magazine, (who has been gracious enough to print my unhinged ravings on reservations, etc.) said that because the reaction to the article was so great, he wanted me to update it yearly. Now this posed a conundrum (great wine, Caymus Vineyards). If I go on and on about the death of civility in restaurants, eventually it will be tiresome and perceived as whining. On the other hand I think I do have some experiences and insights I would like to share as a restaurant representative of my brother and sisterhood. So here is what I thought we could do: Why not list the ten most outrageous examples of restaurant behavior exhibited in the past year? Sort of like Tom's Top Ten. This approach will address the most important elements of this article. My first obligation is to entertain the readers. Without you we have no audience, without an audience we cease to exist. Secondly, I get to perform an annual exorcism on myself in order to stay sane. Thirdly and most importantly, the customers who appear in the article (no names will be printed) will finally get the attention they so sorely crave. Win. Win. Win.
10: THE SOURPUSS
I have a friend who has made the list. Crazy, right? He eats about three times a week in one of my restaurants. He has this thing about lemons. He absolutely HAS to have his lemons cut across the fruit and not end to end. I realize this is of very little importance to an organized, functional civilization, but in his world this is up there with air and water. He has given lemon-cutting lessons to every one of my service staff, in the middle of service by the way, ruined cases of this noble fruit and basically, at one time or another has provided every server with at least one flirtation with homicide. Picture a busy Saturday night coming to a complete halt because someone in the dining room has a pair of lemons that were cut the wrong way. Hard to believe right? Welcome to my world. This is a friendship I value, so I am considering hiring a moyel.
9: THIEF IN THE NIGHT
At my restaurant, Tease, in Roslyn, I thought it would be fun to frame and hang some menus from special dinners that I have eaten from around the country. The problem was where to hang them. We didn't want people standing in the restaurant reading them, as Tease is a small restaurant, but we wanted to share them. BRAIN STORM! Hang them in the bathroom so while you're sitting there, or standing as the case may be, you could pleasantly pass eh... the time. A menu from Charlie Trotter's was hanging over the urinal. It was a twelve course-tasting menu Charlie had prepared for my girlfriend and I and it had a certain sentimental value. Well, I guess someone was a little more sentimental than I because that same someone stole it! For what reason I can't even imagine. He must have been a seasoned pro because no one saw him take it. I personally believe that since an act like that is so petty and small that there was ample room in his trousers for an 8 1/2 X 11 frame. I have the memory of that night and that dinner even though I no longer have the menu. The man who stole it has the menu and only the memory of being a petty thief. His family must be very proud.
This one will kill you. One night at CoolFish, it became apparent to me that a woman standing at the bar had taken one of her breasts out of her dress. Strange you say? I agree. One of the men in her party seemed to be giving half of her new augmentation an impromptu exam. The last thing I want to do is to go tit for tat with a partially de-frocked customer, but someone had to so something. I did. I asked my manager, Tina, to tell the boob at the end of the bar to please place the new appendage back in the dress and to keep me abreast of the situation. After, I kid you not, a brief goodbye kiss and a wave of the hand, and the "twins" were reunited.
7: THE AUCTIONEER
We have a policy at the restaurants about Gift Certificates. We do not give change from the amount of the gift certificate in cash; we simply issue a new gift certificate for the amount left. It is not about the money, it's just a book- keeping nightmare. A couple had dinner at CoolFish and paid with a gift certificate and asked for the change in cash. We explained our policy and went about issuing a new certificate. It's tough situations like this where genius manifests itself. This gentleman proceeded to go from table to table asking that if anyone planned to pay in cash, and if so, would they purchase his new gift certificate and use it to pay some of their bill. All the while I might add, his date had her head under her napkin. Anyway, on about the fourteenth table, he scores. Another couple buys his certificate and absolutely made his night. Purchase price: $5.37. He actually waited for his savior to break a dollar for the change, pennies and all.
6: THE ALLERGIST'S WIFE
One Saturday afternoon, I tasted some wines with one of my salesmen. A couple came in and wanted to see a dinner menu. After looking it over the wife said that she would like to make a reservation. Her husband chimed in and said he could not eat here because he was "allergic" to everything on the menu. Now, I must tell you that the word "allergic" when used in a restaurant is actually an acronym for "I don't like it, or it's too expensive." Example: Veal Chop $28.00...ACHOOO! I said that was fine and not every restaurant is for everyone. The woman was undeterred and after a "private" meeting in the foyer, including several eleven-letter words, they decided to make a reservation. On Saturday night CoolFish is a very BUSY restaurant and reservations usually have to be made weeks in advance. The husband says, "I really don't want to eat here but my wife insists so put us down for six people at 8:00." I explained I had no reservations open and all I could do was 5:30. He said, "That's totally ridiculous, who eats at 5:30! I don't want to come here anyway. This is unacceptable!" (The standard tirade). Now, the wife turns to me and says, "We'll take it." (OH GREAT!) The husband's face was so red, I suspect that if you hooked his heart up to LIPA he could have lit Syosset for an hour. He turned and said, "O.K. you win. (I WIN?) We're coming at 5:30 and the dinner better be perfect!" You see where this is headed? They return at 5:30, a party of six, hell-bent on reeking total havoc on the service staff. They had moves of Michael Jordan and the civility of Attila the Hun. All sodas had to be filled to the top, ice on the side. Wine glasses (16 oz. glasses to allow wine to breathe) had to be filled to the rim. Two servers were on their hands and knees adjusting the "wobbly" table with matchbooks. Salads and appetizers were of course, rearranged to the unrecognizable, all entrees came back to the kitchen at least once, some twice. And as a fitting conclusion, all desserts "sucked." Finally, the husband requested to see the chef. I came to the table for my final humiliation and he said, "This is the worst meal I have ever had!" I said, "Me too." He said, "Every dish was disgusting! (Nothing but porcelain came back on the plates.) What are WE going to do about this?" (See where this is headed?) I said, "Well, I've been cooking for thirty years and I've never gone 0 for 6 on a table yet, so I'm going back in the kitchen and I'm going to practice some more. So, the next time you eat here it will hopefully improve." He said, "You're not taking anything off of this check?" I said, "I would rather stick a boning knife in my eyes." Now, I've got to tell you, at this point the service staff were all doing the Wave. He said, "I just want you to know I will NEVER come back here!" (This is a threat?) I said, "Hold on one moment. I went to the bar and got a napkin and a pen and brought it to the table and said, "Could you just sign something to assure me you are serious?" He said, "I don't think you heard me. We are NEVER coming back here unless you pick up this check!" I said, "I heard you. We all heard you, and in fact I've never seen my staff quite so giddy. I just need a signature so if you change your mind I may have legal recourse." Want to open a restaurant yet?
5: LACK OF PROZAC
Here's a new move, let's go to the restaurant a half an hour before our reservation and when our reservation is due, let's scream at the hostess because we have been waiting a half an hour for our reservation. (Yeah, we've never seen that one before.) So, in she walks, "The Beast." (Remember Linda Blair?) She seemed ordinary enough. Go figure. 9:00 reservation, 150 people in the bar waiting to be seated, and "The Beast" walks to the hostess stand, time 9:01. Let the games begin. "The Beast" turns to the hostess and screams (I do know the difference between elevated voices and screaming.) "I'VE BEEN WAITING A HALF AN HOUR! THIS IS BULL- - - -! WHO THE F- - - DO YOU THINK YOU PEOPLE ARE? DO YOU THINK YOU ARE SOME KIND OF MANHATTAN F- - - ING RESTAURANT? I KNOW PETER GIANOTTI! YOU'RE NOT GOING TO DO THIS TO ME. I DON'T CARE HOW MANY PEOPLE YOU HAVE WAITING, I DON'T WAIT! (Lots of I's and ME's). The hostess is dumfounded and makes a feeble attempt to calm her down. (Obviously without medication.) "The Beast" continued, "YOU PEOPLE WILL BE SORRY I'M TELLING ALL MY FRIENDS! (Friends?) NOBODY WILL COME HERE ANYMORE!" And then in one final magnificent display of insanity, she takes the reservation sheet off of the hostess stand and rips it to pieces, throws the pieces up in the air and says, "F - - - YOU!" "The Beast" then leaves. Wow! I wonder when the attendants realized she had escaped. It's not over. "The Beast" proceeded to another Syosset restaurant owned by a friend of mine. (How much joy can one woman spread?) At the restaurant "The Beast" announces to all that she was just at CoolFish and the hostess was nasty and rude so she put her in her place and ripped up the reservation sheet and left. This is just what the service staff wanted to hear. My friend called me to confirm the story. All this is going on while we are all trying to get through Saturday night service with our collective dignity intact. So, I confirm that yes, it was true. He said, "What do you want me to do?" I said, "Kill her." He said, "I can't do that!" I said, "Why not?" He said, "I'll go to jail." I said, "It's worth it. Besides, it would take the police three months to narrow the suspect list down to fifteen hundred people. I don't think you'll get caught." He said, "I can't take the risk, I have a family." I said, "O.K. I understand." Hey, I tried.
4: VEG HEAD
This one made the list because in my experience it is unique. One night at CoolFish a woman orders a grilled and roasted vegetable platter. This generally includes farro, potato, peppers, spinach, portabello mushroom, asparagus, hummus etc. You get the picture. One of my waiters, Benny, who is a seasoned pro, orders the dinner with the others at the table and said to me, "Watch the Veg Plate. I have a feeling about this one." This is a challenge. We set out to make a vegetable plate for the ages. We had grilled flat breads, perfectly cooked vegetables, fig balsamic syrup, cold pressed extra virgin olive oil. It was in a word, gorgeous. We sent it out, smiles all around, chests puffed with pride. I should have known. Benny returns to the kitchen with the Veg Plate in his hand and said, "Chef, you are not going to believe this one!" I said, "Ben, I've heard them all." Benny said, "With all due respect, I don't think you've ever heard this one." I said, "Heard 'em all Ben, hit me with it." Benny said, "The woman doesn't want it because there are too many vegetables on it. She wants the chicken." I said, "I surrender."
3: A LAMB BY ANY OTHER NAME IS STILL A SNAPPER
Have you ever had someone say something to you that made you totally speechless? You know you get that look on your face that a dog gets trying to comprehend what its owner is saying, head subtlety cocked to one side, eyebrows scrunched down, and deep in thought. Try this one. A woman orders a rack of lamb for dinner. Good choice, harmless enough. We cook the meal and sent it out. About five minutes later I get wind of a problem on table 24, the lamb. She is not satisfied with the server's explanation and she demands to see the chef. I go dutifully to the table wondering what the problem was. I asked the woman if there was a problem and she said, "Absolutely there is!" I said, "What's wrong?" She said, "The lamb is not lamb." I said quizzically, "What?" She said, "The lamb is not lamb." I said, "What is it?" This is where the dog look came over my face. She said, "I don't know, but it is not lamb." I said, "Ma'am, the only other animal that has a rack that size is a Labrador retriever." She exclaimed, "You served me a dog!?" I said, "Noooo, I was trying to make you understand that it couldn't be anything but lamb." She said, "I can't believe you could serve a dog." I said, looking to her husband for some mercy, "I can't believe I've actually arrived at this point in the conversation. I assure you it is not dog. I don't know what else to say." Her husband, who has been eating the whole time this is going on, looks up from his halibut and said, "Make her a piece of fish."
(I'm speechless) I finally said, recovering from my paralysis, "What if she doesn't believe it's snapper?" He said, not looking up from his plate, "I'll eat it." Is it me?
2: CRACK BABY
We all know what plumbers crack is don't we? You know, that bare space between the back of a pair of low riding pants and the bottom of a high riding shirt. Beautiful sight isn't it? A gentleman shows up at Tease and sits at the bar showing enough skin to moon Manhattan. This is the last thing you want to look at while dining, but what can you say? He tells the bartender he is meeting some people for dinner much to our mutual relief. The rest of his party arrives; they sit down at a table of four with his finest asset facing the bar (Thank God!). Check this out...He removes his shoes from his sockless feet, crumbles up his cocktail napkin, and without looking over his shoulder throws the cocktail napkin over the bar at the bartender. Picture Kareem Abdul Jabar and his skyhook. The bartender is in a complete state of disbelief. Who wouldn't be? He tells the manager and they are plotting his demise. Who's going to tell him to pull his pants up? Who is going to tell him to stop throwing cocktail napkins? Who is going to tell him to put his shoes on? (He was actually rubbing his feet while giving his dinner order). Problem is, every time the staff looks at the table they "Crack up." He wound up finishing dinner and leaving. The staff said, "Do you believe that guy?" I was just grateful he didn't remove his shirt.
Everyone reading this article knows someone like this. There is no point in giving some people a menu. It's a useless exercise. They can't eat anything on it, (allergic, remember) but once they complete the redraft, they will grudgingly order a dish provided every element of the said dish has been thoroughly rearranged. Party of four, Thursday night, this woman is interested in the tuna with foie gras, portabello and red wine glaze. The problem, however, is she doesn't like tuna, foie gras is fattening and the red wine glaze has alcohol and veal stock in it. Most sane people would pick another dish, but crazy people usually don't know they are crazy right? So she forges on. She tells her waitress (for the whole table I might add) they will have four tunas. Two prepared as they are on the menu (what a concept). Her friend would like her tuna well done (not recommended) with black and white sesame seeds (?) foie gras well done (again, not recommended) shiitake mushroom instead of portabello (who doesn't like portabello) and Dijon Honey Mustard Glaze (which isn't even on the menu) instead of red wine glaze. That was, as I later discovered, the EASY one. Ready? She wants salmon prepared like the tuna with only white sesame seeds. (Did I mention sesame seeds white or black were not on the menu?) She wants the salmon grilled not seared. She's told that's not good for the sesame seeds. She does not care. Take the foie gras that was going to be on my tuna, sear it with some kind of fruit vinegar and give it to my husband as an appetizer. The portabellos are O.K., but they will need to be steamed and sliced and I want a sauce made with only lemon, NO BUTTER. (We were assembling a team of specialists.) I literally went to the table twice just to try to understand the order. Truthfully, I can't even say if she told me the same thing both times, but it was a slow night, and in a twisted way I was kind of having fun watching her (Just like a car accident. Don't want to look, but can't turn away). All the while knowing I don't have a prayer of getting this right. So, out goes what we considered out best attempt at the impossible. Both special orders are returned to the kitchen. The first one needed more fire on the already well done tuna. The salmon had to be completely redone. Also, the portabello was too "mushy" (she did ask for it steamed), and the sauce was too thin (no butter remember). Our second attempt to correct the uncorrectable also crashed and burned. I am summoned to the table for an appearance with the "Queen." She said, "I'm very disappointed with the food." I said, "What's wrong?" She said, "Look at her tuna, it's too well done." I said, "You sent it back to be cooked more, after it was already well done, just as you ordered it." She said, "She didn't want it THAT well done! And my salmon is TASTELESS! (No sh- -!) Take both of these back! We're not that hungry anyway, so I think we'll split a vegetable plate. Is there enough on it for the two of us?" I said, "Last I heard, there was." So, there you have my Top Ten for the year. Hopefully, you've had fun reading this. It's certainly been good therapy for me. I would like to invite my fellow restaurateurs to send me their most outrageous customer stories, so we can start to compile a Hall of Fame to give these customers the proper recognition they deserve for all their hard work. I would like to thank Morris and Rosalie Sendor for indulging me with this forum. I am proud to call them friends.
Thomas G Schaudel
Coolfish By:Chef Thomas G. Schaudel