Thursday, October 23, 2008

The ability to self-correct

In the wake of a recent dining experience at Frasca Food and Wine, perhaps the finest Italian restaurant in North America, located in Boulder, Colorado, I have come to a conclusion about one aspect of great restaurant service: the ability to self correct is of paramount importance.

We were eating a multi-course meal and pairing glasses of wine with each course. On one of the first courses, we were served our food (hot) but not the accompanying wine. We took a few bites before I decided to set down my fork and wait for the wine to arrive. It was a tasting menu, the portions were small, and I decided that if the name of the game is tasting the food with the wine in your mouth at the same time, I wasn't going to waste another bite. It had the potential to be a fairly substantial wrinkle in an otherwise out-of-this-world dining experience. I glanced around for a server, sent out my best something's wrong here vibes, and then the our wine was brought over after only a couple of minutes in the wilderness. We never directly spoke with the server about the missing glasses of wine, but on every subsequent course our wine was delivered before the previous glass was emptied- long before the next plate of food hit the white tablecloth. What it represented to me was a professional institution in which employees are constantly recalibrating their actions on the fly, which is perhaps one definition of five-star hospitality.

Upon reflection, perhaps there is a deeper, more personal reason for my animosity towards a wine- or a plate of food- served after its time, so to speak. While in culinary school I had to do rotations through the school's four restaurants, which, because of the time of my final term in school, which was the holiday period, roughly from Thanksgiving through New Year's, was the busiest time of the year and every table was full from open to close, every night of the week. As a captain, or front waiter one night in the Escoffier Room, the school's classical French restaurant and easily the one with the fussiest service (and some of the most expensive wines), I oversaw a service failure which still haunts me to this day. I was serving a four top, two couples, well-heeled types who came up from the Manhattan area- the bread and butter of the CIA restaurants' clientele, one could argue (tour buses of seniors being another major contigent!)- and they were ordering some serious wines. For the main course, which was rack of lamb, they dropped a bombshell and ordered one of the more expensive wines on the list, a Bordeaux whose exact provenance escapes my memory- and easily the most expensive bottle of wine I sold in a season of expensive bottles of wine during my short career as a server at the CIA.

To make a long story short, since the bottle of wine was stored in the school's vast wine cellars, not in the dining room where most of the wine was stored, it was a twenty minute walk and a pain in the ass to retrieve it. I had to ask the dining room fellow, who was doing an actual fellowship under the tutelage of Bernard, who was the instructor/maitre d'hotel type dude (formerly the captain of the dining room at Daniel in Manhattan). The meal progressed, the food was served, and the fellow and I promptly forgot all about going to get the $200 bottle that needed to be decanted and give time to breath in order to fully open up.

The four guests were served their racks of lamb, and I stood off to the side watching them eat, when, like an idiot staring blankly off into space, I wondered why the person who had ordered the wine had set down his utensils and started looking right at me. I realized my mistake, the fellow went to grab the bottle, it was hastily opened and poured, and the meal carried on without so much as a mild rebuke from the customer- a sign of true good taste and manners.

Now this could be chalked up to me- and the fellow, technically- being students. It was a school, a learning environment, and I certainly learned from my experiences there. But nonetheless. The customer paid market price for his wine but was given less than a great service which is included- and expected- in the price of said bottle, and that's what buggers me.

I haven't spent any time in the ten years since this incident working in a dining room, but I like to think that if I ever do, I will have the ability to self-correct- no matter how much time has past in between.

7 comments:

Scotty said...

There is actually a home cooking analogy to this, especially for the pro cook. When my entree is ready, I want it to be served - not be worried about whether the chocolat milk is made.

Why can't spouses communicate like a sous! ;-)

Kirstin said...

Agh! I hate going to a restaurant and not having my wine served with my food, which its intended to highlight. It's fine if they forget it and bring it shortly thereafter, but I've been in some places where I just kept eating, thinking they were going to retrieve it, but they never did. Maybe shame on me for not saying something.....

redman said...

ah, the days of chocolate milk for dinner ...

Scotty said...

Oh yeah, at least she is trying more foods. We all went to a sushi bar for our anniversary. She had gyoza, but tried some sushi.

Joie de vivre said...

Food for thought. Thanks!

Michael Natkin said...

A related pet peeve: I hate when I order an espresso and dessert, and they don't come out at the same time. Especially if the espresso comes first, because it is only good for a moment, and I really like to have it in quick succession with a bite of chocolate. Wow do I sound fussy saying that out loud!

redman said...

I'm with you on the coffee and dessert. There are times when I want a nice coffee or espresso with a sweet dessert- usually chocolate- because I love the way they taste together. There's nothing worse than getting one without the other.

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