Juggling beer-fed cows and the salmon of doubt
Caught between customer and kitchen, our correspondent at the coalface reports on his intrepid life as a waiter
THE customer at table 17 is taking forever to make up her mind. ‘‘ Might I suggest the salmon, madam?’’ I offer, finally breaking the silence. ‘‘ It’s quite good here.’’
‘‘ I don’t know,’’ the woman says, furrowing her brow as she peers at the menu. ‘‘ I’m a fussy eater.’’ No kidding, I think to myself.
It’s Saturday night. I have other tables to attend to. This lady’s consumed one cocktail, 20 minutes, and most of my patience while contemplating her menu. Her husband’s getting antsy. I can feel my other customers’ eyes running up and down my body, their telepathic cries for attention rattling off the back of my skull like hail on a tin roof. The part of my brain that runs on autopilot, my waiter’s sixth sense, which lets me know drinks are running low or appetisers need to be cleared, starts tugging at my conscious mind.
‘‘ Let me give you a few more minutes,’’ I say, turning to leave.
‘‘ Don’t go anywhere,’’ the husband groans, ‘‘ or she’ll take even longer.’’ ‘‘ Yes, sir,’’ I reply, stopping in my tracks. The woman’s lips move like she’s silently reciting the menu items out of a prayer book. Fussy eaters are an interesting evolutionary paradox. How did they manage to survive the primordial jungle and pass on their DNA? Didn’t they just eat what was available or die? When haute cuisine was still a long way off, our appendixes may have been used to digest grass. You ate what you could when you could.
I can just imagine some Stepford cave wife getting mauled by a sabre-toothed tiger because she dithered between picking free-range mastodon and dietetic tree bark. Picky eaters seem like an evolutionary dead end, but they’re here anyway. I’m sure some academic will find a reason.
‘‘ Madam?’’ I prod gently. No response. Damn. There’s never a sabre-toothed tiger around when you need one.
The woman stares at the menu. This is taking way too long. I feel anxiety start to tickle my stomach. My blood pressure shoots up.
‘‘ Is the salmon farmed or organic?’’ the woman finally asks. ‘‘ It’s organically farmed,’’ I reply. ‘‘ There’s no such thing as organically farmed,’’ she snaps. ‘‘ It’s either wild or raised on a fish farm.’’
‘‘ These are farmed,’’ I reply, ‘‘ but the supplier doesn’t use pesticides or antibiotics.’’ ‘‘ Then it’s not organic,’’ the woman harrumphs. I want to tell this lady she’s wrong. She’s operating under the misconception that all organic fish is caught in the wild. Organic produce, by definition, is raised in a controlled environment that eschews the use of chemical pesticides, non-organic feeds and synthetic fertilisers. Because wild fish are not raised in such a controlled environment — hence the name wild —
of many of them don’t meet US Department Agriculture requirements to be labelled organic.
But here’s the real kicker: under the present rules only vegetarian fish such as tilapia and catfish can be labelled organic. Salmon are carnivores. Unless they’ve been raised on a fish farm eating nuts and twigs instead of little fish, they can’t be considered organic. What my customer’s asking for is an impossibility. Don’t blame me. Blame the Department of Agriculture.
‘‘ I assure you, madam,’’ I say, ‘‘ the salmon is excellent.’’ ‘‘ When was it delivered?’’ ‘‘ Friday.’’ ‘‘ Not today?’’ ‘‘ No, madam.’’ ‘‘ Ugh,’’ the woman says, wrinkling her nose in disgust. ‘‘ Frozen fish. I never eat frozen fish.’’
I catch the annoyed look threatening to spread over my face. This lady has no idea how restaurants operate. Most restaurants freeze their fish. If a restaurant gets a fish delivery twice a week, what are they supposed to do the other five days? Not sell fish? You can’t run a restaurant that way. Fish is delivered to the bistro on Tuesdays and Fridays. The guys clean the fish, cut them into fillets, wrap the measured portions in clingwrap, and freeze the suckers solid. Even Nobu, New York City’s temple of sushi, sometimes uses frozen fish.
The chefs use a special deep-freeze process that transforms succulent fish into rock-hard slabs. When the frozen tuna needs to be pressed into service, all they need is a band saw, 10 minutes, and a bowl of warm water to return the fish to its pristine red state. Fish purveyors have spent millions of dollars building gigantic freezers to freeze tonnes of premium tuna with sophisticated technologies that preserve the texture and flavour of the fish. Done right, tuna can stay fresh for two years. Imagine telling my finicky customer that. ‘‘ I’ll have the spaghetti pomodoro then,’’ the lady says, angrily shutting her menu.
‘‘ For chrissakes, Marjorie,’’ her husband says, ‘‘ you can make that at home for a dollar.’’
‘‘ They don’t have anything organic,’’ the woman pouts. ‘‘ I’m fine with pasta.’’ ‘‘ At least try the salmon.’’ ‘‘ No.’’ ‘‘ It’s a great price for salmon, Marjorie.’’ ‘‘ It’s farmed.’’ the wife says. ‘‘ Forget it.’’ Marjorie’s husband has stumbled on to the reason why the bistro uses farmed salmon. Farmed fish is cheaper. That’s why the salmon we serve is $22.95 instead of $35.95. Restaurants serving super-highquality fish have to pass the food costs on to their customers. That may work for Nobu, but the average restaurant can’t risk buying super-premium fish and not moving it. Customers zealously demand the best, but when faced with the prices in black and white, their fervour often cools. Restaurants have to balance food quality with a healthy profit margin.
‘‘ Folks, I’m sorry,’’ I say. ‘‘ But I’ve got other customers.’’
‘‘ She’ll have the salmon,’’ the husband says, waving me away. ‘‘ Very good, sir.’’ ‘‘ But . . .’’ the wife sputters. ‘‘ He can’t order for me.’’ I decide to stymie the progress of women’s liberation and run away from the table. I go to the computer and ring in the woman’s salmon. She’s going to be fine. The salmon’s excellent. Besides, if she knew better, she’d want the fish to be frozen. Some fish, like salmon, contain parasites that are killed during the freezing process.
If the fish wasn’t frozen in the hold of the ship, you better pray it was frozen in the restaurant. People get sick from improperly stored fish. No one ever died from frozen fish. A few minutes later I encounter another animal lover. ‘‘ Might I suggest pasta, madam?’’ ‘‘ How’s the steak?’’ the lady asks. ‘‘ Excellent.’’
‘‘ Is it free-range,’’ Argentina?’’ ‘‘ Happy cows, madam?’’ I deadpan. ‘‘ Exactly,’’ the woman says. ‘‘ In Japan they feed their cows beer and massage them so they’re really happy. Keeps the flesh tender.’’
There is some truth to what the lady’s saying. If cows experience anxiety before they’re slaughtered, they can release hormones that degrade the taste of the meat. I’m all for making a steer’s end as painless as possible, but there’s something about this lady’s attitude that’s creeping me out. Her desire to see animals humanely treated has less to do with compassion and more to do with her taste buds. It’s like she won’t be happy until every petting zoo’s been turned into a death camp. ‘‘ That’s Kobe beef, madam,’’ I say. ‘‘ Do you have it?’’ ‘‘ No.’’ ‘‘ Why not?’’ ‘‘ Because we’re an Italian restaurant.’’ ‘‘ Oh.’’ I finally persuade the woman to get the striped bass. Luckily, she doesn’t inquire about its pedigree. I sigh to myself. When I was a child, customers never asked these kinds of questions. Gone are the days when patrons blindly ordered off the menu and took the chef’s word as gospel. Things such as free-range chicken, organic fish and the stuff hemp-sandalled hippies ate was unheard off. Kobe steak? A sybaritic rarity. Nowadays customers armed with information gleaned from the internet and television shows fancy themselves as apprentice chefs. Just because they read chef biographies, they think they know everything there is to know about restaurants and cooking.
Trust me, they don’t. In my seven years as a waiter I haven’t learned one-tenth of what there is to know. Do you watch Grey’s Anatomy and think you can perform surgery? I hope not. Customers often think they’re entitled to second-guess a chef’s judgment. Don’t get me wrong, in the long run an educated customer’s a good thing. I’m happy to see palates becoming more informed and adventurous. No one ate raw fish when I was in high school.
When I was a child, Tuesdays meant meatloaf and Fridays meant pizza. On Sundays, Dad would try his hand at making something out of a 30-year-old cookbook. In the end he just couldn’t overcome the Irish meat-and-potatoes genes.
Now tastes are much more sophisticated. High school kids eat sashimi, college kids churn their own tofu, and adults daydream about opening vineyards. We have 12-grain bread, frozen Thai food, $20 mustards, gourmet chocolates, and more places to eat out than ever before.
People forget food is first and foremost about survival. Everything else is secondary. Some people believe the impetus of eating to stay alive has faded from our consciousness. Oh, yeah? Go three days without food. When you’re starving, all the niceties about food presentation and theories about social communion, free-range this and organic that go out the window. This is an edited extract from WaiterRant:Behindthe ScenesofEatingOut by A. Waiter (John Murray, $35).
the woman asks.