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 Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

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.

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