As I Like It!

A TALE OF TWO RESTAURANTS

In the late seventies I had the occasion to visit Chicago on business, and my wife accompanied me to take an advanced cooking class from the renowned French chef, Jacques Pepin. One of our leading agenda items was a visit to Jean Blanchet’s highly regarded restaurant, Le Francais, in Wheeling, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, but, alas, we were unable to secure reservations.

To say we were disappointed is an understatement. Many food critics and reviewers held that Le Francais was the best restaurant in the country and Blanchet a chef equal to Andre Soltner of Lutece in New York. The establishment stayed booked for at least six to nine months and our plight seemed hopeless. Fate intervened, however, and we learned that Jacques Pepin and Blanchet were close friends. One call from Pepin and we were in.

On the appointed evening we couldn’t have been more nervous if we were headed to a State Dinner at the White House. We parked under the big oak trees that sheltered the rambling white building and were greeted by the maître d’ as if we were regulars and ate there weekly. We were seated and the show began. Beautiful surroundings, impeccable service, and an extravaganza of perfectly prepared dishes accompanied by excellent wines. The evening surpassed our wildest expectations in every way.

The reason that I’m taking this trip down memory lane is to relate what could have been a very unpleasant situation in most restaurants, but was turned into a very satisfying experience. The couple seated at the adjacent table were first-time diners and just as excited and awestruck as we were. They had just finished the final serving of a long line of appetizers and small plates and the wait staff was clearing away the dishes and preparing to serve the main course when disaster struck.

The waiter carrying their dinner inadvertently tripped and the whole meal went flying across the floor. Of course the entire dining room stopped mid-sentence and gawked at the unfolding tableau. A group of busboys and assistant waiters descended on the mess and rapidly cleaned it up. In the meantime the maître d’ appeared and whispered to the head waiter, “I am declaring a ‘Code Red.’ Alert the entire staff.”

What happened next will always be what I consider to be one of the finest hours in American dining. As if by magic, Jean Blanchet, dressed in his chef’s whites and wearing his toque, strode up to their table and said, “Mr. and Mrs. Whoever, you are in for a rare treat. As you observed, we have a small glitch in our service and it has presented Le Francais with the opportunity to demonstrate our appreciation to you for being our guest.”

Even as he spoke, a pair of waiters appeared with two trays of small plates. There was foie gras, escargots, caviar and lox. The wine steward appeared with a bottle of vintage Bordeaux and Blanchet stayed to describe each dish as it was served. This continued until the head waiter appeared with their original order re-prepared and steaming hot. The transition from disaster to delight was seamless and seemingly effortless.

Later, as we were about to leave and return to downtown Chicago, Blanchet came over to our table and asked if we had enjoyed the evening and to be sure and tell Jacques hello for him. I took the opportunity to tell him how impressed and amazed I had been by the “Code Red” action at the adjacent table. Blanchet smiled and said, “People often travel long distances to dine with us. I believe that we have an obligation to be certain that they are not disappointed. We demand premium prices for our food and service, and our patrons have every right to expect perfection. By preparing for an incident such as occurred this evening, the entire staff is trained to respond and the kitchen can rapidly provide the interim dishes.

“The real key is that the other diners are in no way inconvenienced by our mistakes. I would hope that the couple next to you tonight will have happy memories of the evening and will return to dine with us again.”

I know that we had happy memories, and we did return on several more occasions and I must have told a thousand people about the evening. This is unfortunately the exception rather than the rule. Last week I had an entirely different experience.

We were entertaining business associates and it was suggested that we have dinner at what was described as the best French restaurant in this particular city. Well, we weren’t in Paris and the competition was not really a challenge, so it probably deserves the title. It is located in an upscale shopping area and is very pleasantly appointed. We were greeted by the owner and seated in a booth for six. The lady left menus and told us that our waiter would soon arrive.

He did and it was clear that he had no real idea about serving a meal in an upscale and expensive restaurant. He was pleasant and scared to death. We attempted to be patient and gentle with him and it seemed that we might get through the evening without incident. Service was a little jerky from the start, but we were getting it done. After the appetizers were served and cleared, we settled into conversation while awaiting our entrees.

After about thirty minutes, I began to wonder what had happened, but since no one else seemed to be concerned I held my tongue. Our waiter never came back to check on us and I decided to make a meal on the very good French bread and butter. Just before an hour had passed, the owner came to our table and said, “The waiter failed to enter two of your orders into our computer system and they are not prepared. So there will be a small wait while we get them ready. I apologize for the inconvenience.”

She then turned on her heel and walked away. No real apology, no offer of a glass of wine or a complimentary dessert, nothing but, here are the facts, we screwed up, and you need to get over it. My twenty-four-dollar pork chop arrived in about forty more minutes after having been under the heat lamp while the two missing meals were prepared. It had the consistency of Jack Link’s jerky. Even Sasquatch would have gagged on it.

I offer this exercise in hubris and arrogance in an overpriced, wannabe eatery in comparison to Jean Blanchet’s professional, humble response to a similar situation.

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Categories: As I Like It!

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