How the world’s great restaurants go about their business

  • Vir Sanghvi
  • Updated: Sep 10, 2016 22:16 IST
When you go to a celebrity chef’s restaurant, you imagine that he is in the kitchen, cooking your meal. In fact, a great chef will never ever cook for you and me. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months reading up about the world’s great restaurants (and visiting a few of them). The more I learn, the more I realise how little we, the punters, know of how a great restaurant really works.

Here are some of the things I’ve discovered.

When the chef is famous...

When you go to a celebrity chef’s restaurant, you imagine that he is in the kitchen, cooking your meal. In fact, a great chef will never ever cook for you and me.

Most chefs love the famous Paul Bocuse quote about the role of a chef. When Bocuse, still the most famous chef in France, was asked who cooked in the restaurant when he was travelling, he responded: “The same people who cook when I am there”.

A chef is not meant to cook. His job is to create great dishes, which are then executed by junior chefs. In the old days, a famous chef would only stand at the pass. This is the place in the kitchen where waiters hand in the orders they have received. The chef’s job is to shout out the orders which are then executed by the various sections in the kitchen. Typically, a chef (especially in America) will shout out something like “Fire one scallop, one chicken and one lamb”. The section chefs will shout back “Yes, chef” and will proceed to cook the food.

The finished plates will then go to the pass where the chef will examine them to make sure they look right. He may taste something (and even this is rare). But that’s about all he will do. The waiters will then collect the plates from the pass.

So Bocuse was right. Even when he was there, he didn’t actually slave away at the stove.

Because chefs worked out that, on a day-to-day basis, all they did was stand at the pass, they began to wonder: can’t somebody else do this?

And so, the whole business of turning chefs into brands began. A famous chef (say Alain Ducasse or Nobu or Gordon Ramsay) is hardly ever at the pass. He is too busy opening new restaurants, looking after kitchen administration and (presumably) inventing new dishes.

When you do bump into Ducasse at one of the outposts of the global empire, it is because a) it is a special occasion, b) it is a new restaurant and he is setting up the kitchen or c) he is on his global rounds, which means he will probably stay in that city for a week that year.

Even then, he will not be at the pass. He will ponce around the restaurant, greeting guests and posing for photos. He is a celebrity and wants you to know that he is there. Why should he hide away in the kitchen?

(Getty Images)

When you place your order...

Those of us who regard restaurant cooking as the sort of thing they do on MasterChef have never seen a real restaurant kitchen.

Because the kitchen is under so much pressure to turn out food, it functions like an assembly line. The guy who makes your dinner is somebody you have never heard of, who only wants to get it out as quickly as possible. He has no time for the romance of haute cuisine. In the kitchen, he functions like any other assembly-line worker.

That’s why standardisation of recipes is so important. Each station will usually have photos of how the plate

should look so that even a new chef can churn out an old menu favourite.

That is why chefs hate it when you ask for your dish to be customised (“Can I have the sauce on the side please?” or “Could you go easy on the spices?”) because it interferes with their method and interrupts their flow.

And that’s why requests for customisation are often ignored by the kitchen, no matter what the waiter tells you. And that’s why things frequently go wrong: a steak is overcooked or a dish is over-salted. If you feel that there is a genuine problem with the way your dish is cooked, always send it back.The great chef whose name is on the door will not be insulted. First of all, he doesn’t even know you are in the restaurant because he is not there. And secondly, whoever is at the pass will know how easily things can go wrong.

When you try to score a reservation...

Have you ever wondered why it is so difficult to book great restaurants even three weeks ahead? In her book on Daniel, one of New York’s most expensive restaurants, Leslie Brenner writes that even if you booked weeks ahead, you could not book a table at a decent time for dinner. The reservation staff would only offer you early or late tables.

This was because the prime-time bookings were controlled by the manager who would only offer them to regulars, to people who had the unlisted number for the restaurant, to VIPs and to hotel concierges. You and I wouldn’t stand a chance.

That’s why concierges can always get you into a great restaurant: they get an allocation. (Now, a few restaurant reservation services also have allocations.)

Sommeliers often hold their best deals for regulars and might steer you away from a good choice, so if you spot a deal, don’t let them sway you (Shutterstock)

When you’re choosing a wine...

Though most Indian sommeliers are useless, the ones in the West are highly qualified, have tasted many (if not most) of the wines on their list and have located hard-to-find or unusual wines for their cellars. So it is worth taking their advice.

But if you are a serious wine buff and spot a rare wine or one that is offered at a great price, some French sommeliers will sometimes try to put you off by saying things like “the wine is still too young” or “I opened a bottle the other day and the wine is not drinking well”.

Always ignore them. If the wine is on the list, they are obliged to serve it.

Why do they put you off? Well, because great vintages are hard to replace. So they like serving them to regulars rather than ordinary punters. Also, price is a factor. When a wine comes in, the sommelier will usually put it on the list at three times its cost price. But over time, as that particular vintage becomes rarer, retail prices for the wine will go up, but the restaurant will not revise the prices on its list. So many great wines can be cheaper at restaurants than in the shops.

Sommeliers know this. So, if you spot a bargain, then they will steer you away and save the bottle for a premium customer.

This price-advantage can be true of restaurants in India too. For years, the Orient Express offered great wines at bargain prices. They had bought them over a decade ago when the rupee was 40 to the dollar and prices were lower, anyway. (Then I made the mistake of writing about it and the wines were quickly snapped up by wine lovers!)

When you’re anything less than a VIP...

Do not be fooled by the claim that Western critics are anonymous or that great restaurants have no VIP culture.

At all fancy restaurants, regulars, high rollers, celebrities and media get special treatment. Their names are marked out on the reservations list (at Daniel, the code for a VIP is ‘PX’) and when the order goes to the kitchen, the chef at the pass is told it is for a VIP table.

In the West, unlike India, restaurants live and die by reviews. In Paris, chefs will kill for three stars from Michelin and in New York, four stars from the New York Times is the ultimate accomplishment.

So managers look out for critics. The pantry usually has a wall with photos of every major critic. By now, restaurants have worked out how Michelin operates: two anonymous middle-aged men who will order a cheap to middling wine and will test the service by dropping a fork or a napkin. (The movie Burnt captures this.)

So, the moment a critic is in the house, word gets out. The captain keeps his eye on the table. One waiter is assigned to only watch over that table. The seniormost chef in the kitchen tries to cook as much of that table’s food himself as he can. The guy at the pass tastes every dish before it goes out. And yet, they try and pretend to the critic that they don’t know who he is.

Does it work? Yes, nearly always. Does it matter? In her book on Daniel, Leslie Brenner interviews William Grimes, the New York Times critic who gave it four stars. Grimes was recognised on nearly every visit and the kitchen was warned.

Did Grimes think it made a difference? “At a restaurant of that calibre,’’ he argued, “I don’t think they were serving two kinds of food to two kinds of people. A restaurant can’t make itself better than it is.”

Well yes and no. Brenner, who was in the Daniel kitchen when Grimes visited, argues that “it is naïve and expedient to imagine that a cook with two months of experience can put together a (dish) like Alex Lee (the top chef at Daniel), or that a line cook with 14 months under his belt can do as good a job as Daniel Boulud with his genius and lifetime of cooking”.

So let’s be brutal: VIPs get better food and service, and even allegedly anonymous critics (at least those who matter) don’t get the same experience as us!

Sadly, that’s how life works.

From HT Brunch, May 15, 2016

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