Searching for Tony Bourdain

Foie gras taste on a Big Mac budget

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should

I generally try not to be a snob. I wasted large chunks of my adolescence not allowing myself to enjoy everything because it didn’t fit with my narrow image of myself. Eventually, I got over myself and learned to embrace whatever makes me happy. That doesn’t mean I’m not judge-y on occasion (a lot), but I try not to make people fit into pre-defined categories.

My view is illustrated beautifully from what is perhaps my favorite scene (for how touching it is) in one of my favorite movies, “Ratatouille.” After notorious food critic Anton Ego is surprised by the chef who cooked the meal he thoroughly enjoyed, he writes, in part, the following:

In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.

That applies on the other side of the plate, as well. You don’t (and shouldn’t) have to be a Park Avenue Princess to appreciate a multi-course meal that requires numerous pieces of flatware. But that brings me to a personal motto of my own: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

I believe everyone in this world should have opportunities to take part in all kinds of wonderful experiences, despite their background. But, every experience comes with specific rules of etiquette. And I firmly believe they should be followed. (For example, unless it’s a popular music concert or comedy show, I do not believe jeans should be worn to a non-movie theater. Puccini and Shakespeare deserve better, people.)

Case in point: Friday at McCormick & Schmick’s in Chicago. My mother came into town to wrap up her spring break and do some shopping with me. As she’s an observant Catholic and we are in the midst of Lent, she needed seafood options, and McCormick & Schmick’s was a perfect solution.

Shortly after we were seated, a couple was seated into the booth next to us. Because of the high backs on the booths, I never saw them–all conclusions and judgments are made solely on what I heard from them and our shared waitress.

From their initial conversation–discussing what dishes were good–it seemed as if they had been to a McCormick & Schmick’s location before or knew someone who had. It didn’t take long for me to realize that probably wasn’t the case.  When the waitress took their drink orders, they asked about the buffet. The clearly confused waitress informed them there wasn’t one.

So now, I admit it, I’m starting to judge. I’m not fundamentally anti-buffet, but I think it can be safely say they have limited application in the world of good food. I’ve had some amazing meals at buffets (just say “Chicago Marriott buffet” to a member of my family and watch us swoon), but they mostly seem the haven of people who want to get as much food as they can for relatively little money. Quality isn’t really much of a concern. And so, I’m thinking, these people don’t really appreciate what they’re about to eat. And that’s a shame, because McCormick & Schmick’s is good.

But, whatever, maybe they just got confused or were misinformed. They’ll look at the menu, order something awesome, be satisfied, and recover from this blunder, right? I wish.

I lost track of our disconcerted diners for a while because I was too busy fawning over the fabulous fare that was coming to our table. (See mini-review below and Flickr stream for details.) But, while my mother was gone to the ladies’ room, they reminded me of their presence in a big way. Without warning, from the booth next door came rumbling one of the loudest, most guttural, belches I have ever heard. No “excuse me,” no hushed, embarrassed whispers. Then came another, just as grotesque as the first. The man from whom the gas release had erupted merely said a self-congratulatory, “woooo!” (Side note, as I looked on for a synonym for “belch”–I kid you not–there was an ad for McCormick & Schmick’s on the page.) I would forgive this man for the first one–maybe it caught him by surprise–but subsequent emissions should have been at least muffled. I wouldn’t even belch like that in McDonald’s. I wouldn’t belch like that in front of people in my own home. There weren’t many other diners in the restaurant at the time, but it didn’t exactly do wonders for my appetite.

The meal may have caused some activity in the man’s GI tract, but it didn’t seem to satisfy him otherwise. I heard the waitress explain that a steak cooked medium well (don’t even get me started here…) would take longer, leading me to believe our gassy gentleman had complained about the wait time. Later, I heard the waitress explain that a ribeye (yum) is a fattier cut (this is a bad thing?), and that if he wanted something leaner, a NY strip or sirloin would work better, and she’d bring him that, leading me to believe he wasn’t happy with his medium well steak once it appeared. But he must have been eating something all the while because he belched again. Twice. (For those keeping score at home, yes, that makes four total.)

Now, I don’t expect everyone to have memorized their steak cuts, nor do I discourage sending back a meal which you find dissatisfying through some fault of the kitchen. But if you’re going to eat at even a decent restaurant, use your most valuable resource: the waitstaff. A properly-trained server (as our waitress was) will be able to provide recommendations (food and drink alike), explain dishes, and help you choose the cut of steak you’re most likely to enjoy. But you have to ask. Some will offer suggestions without inquiry, but they don’t read minds. Respect the food–and the kitchen staff–enough to do your homework.

You don’t have to have attended charm school to attend a nice restaurant, but there is a level of decorum that should be met. If you have to belch, muffle it. If you don’t know what steak would be best, ask, don’t guess then complain and send it back. And if your main concern when eating out is not the quality, but the quantity, perhaps you should stick with places with “Old Country” in the name.

Respect the food. Respect the staff, and respect the experience they have worked hard to give you. And respect your fellow diners. We don’t want to hear your gas emissions and complaining while trying to enjoy our meals.

If you can’t, there’s a great place where you can always eat just what you want, made just how you want it: your own damn kitchen.

Mini-review–McCormick & Schmick’s (Rush & Chestnut, Chicago, IL): It might be a chain, but it’s a good chain. I’ve been to both Chicago locations and the location in Columbus, Ohio. The menu changes each day depending on what fresh seafood is available. I’ve never been disappointed with anything I’ve ordered. The preparation is old school–well made, perfectly executed, but nothing avant garde or experimental–and ain’t nothing wrong with that. The decor, too, is old school–dark paneling, mounted fish on the wall, and white cloth napkins. Waitstaff is always friendly and helpful, and the bar serves up excellent cocktails. On a personal note, with my numerous fish allergies, I often have issues with cross contamination at seafood restaurants. Not here–shows me they run a clean, well organized kitchen. Props for the lack of anaphylaxis. See our Flickr stream for visuals of the fine meal my mother and I enjoyed on Friday. Rating: Food Porn (On the Tony-inspired Searching for Tony Bourdain Scale: Warthog’s Anus/Icelandic fermented shark–epically awful; Rachael Ray–has some good points, but mostly annoying; It Does Not Suck–better than expected, but not really that good, either; Food Porn–can’t talk, eating; Religious Experience–building the altar now.)



1 Comment»

  Amanda wrote @

Amen. I’ve had people insist they want a medium steak and then send it back because it’s not done all the way through. When I tried to explain the difference between medium and well-done, they interrupted me, told me I was wrong and then I had to go fix their steak. Which I wouldn’t have minded doing, if they hadn’t been such jerks.

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