For the last year and a half, I had the pleasure of working in a restaurant. Okay, not just a restaurant—a marvelously fancy, expensive, award-winning restaurant. It was the kind of place where time moved at a metaphysical pace, where bites beget body shivers and you felt like you were best friends with the server by course five…of fourteen. Hospitality—the good ol’ art of generous reception—was the rule. My phone voice: so sweet. The experience: even sweeter.
I am not a chef. I cannot bear to even *attempt* carrying a tray of Riedel and my polishing skills are lackluster at best. Furthermore, I do not want to be a chef, nor anyone who has to be near glassware, for that matter.
When I explain my post-collegiate career choice to outsiders, the line is always something like, “If I want to do food writing I need to know the ropes!” or, “I figured everyone needs some service experience at some point.” These statements are both absolutely true, but the main reason I dove into this industry when I had no plans to continue in it was the desire to simply be part of it. To watch the magic unfold day after day and, I suppose, to eat staff meal.
For the last year and a half, I had the pleasure of working in a restaurant. . . . It was the kind of place where time moved at a metaphysical pace, where bites beget body shivers and you felt like you were best friends with the server by course five…of fourteen. Hospitality—the good ol’ art of generous reception—was the rule.
We have to eat to live, so in every practical sense the act and everything surrounding it should be uneventful…like breathing, sleeping, or sipping your third cup of water when you’re not necessarily thirsty but just know you need it. With all this being said, food—and the experiences surrounding it—can be magical! It is magical. A bite of something can give you chills or help you remember your grandma. People gather and celebrate milestones in restaurants, and when stuck at home people should also turn to dining—really dining—for comfort and escape.
Right now is not the time to try to comprehend. Forget the kitchen confidential, the dishwashing, the back-of-house scrabble (though, of course, these things must never be discounted when understanding the wonders of restaurants). Instead, it’s time to learn to harness the magic, warmth, and fancifulness of hospitality—while keeping a little enchantment in it for yourself, too.
One of the joys of going out is feeling like you’re somewhere far, far away. This feeling can be imitated by doing something as simple as lighting candles.
Utilize the special occasion (aka never-been-used) plates and the single vintage martini glass you can’t get rid of. Change the lighting up. Decant the wine. Use multiple forks! Throw on a tablecloth. If you don’t have one, use a sheet.
Food is the medium chefs—both professional and homespun-as-can-be—use to tell their stories. You can do the same. Use food as a way to spread love, warmth, and honor, baking an extra pie for your neighbor (that maybe introduces them to some new flavors?) or whipping up something a great-grandparent especially enjoyed.
If saying “I love you” isn’t enough, there’s always breakfast in bed.
It’s easier to turn yourself down at the grocery store than it is in a restaurant. The argument is “I don’t need a treat” versus “Well, when else will I be here again? I’ll have both desserts.”
GET THE TREAT.
The good butter. The good steak. Tons of fancy berries just for the heck of it. Round ice cubes and champagne and that weird cheese you’ve been eyeing.
It’s not about how much you spend but rather how excited you are to dig in. Maybe that means caviar; maybe it means serving your favorite childhood pudding cup for dessert.
You’re probably not a sommelier, and a quick “best wine with cod” Google search isn’t going to make you one. (Sorry.) The good news is, there are a ton of people who are sommeliers—and chefs, and sauciers, and cocktail mavens. These people’s job is to recommend the good stuff, and they are great at what they do. Search them out and ask questions. Try to understand the answers and learn something while you’re at it.
One of the best parts of dining out is engaging with the chef/waiter about what they’re serving. Try to understand your food: where it comes from, its history.
Even if you’re the only one who’s listening.
Spills happen. Sometimes the pasta contains morels even though you said “please no mushrooms.”
You wouldn’t be mad at a waiter for a little mistake. Don’t be mad at yourself or a loved one, either.
You wouldn’t be mad at a waiter for a little mistake. Don’t be mad at yourself or a loved one, either. “Remember the time you ruined our nice dinner by using salt instead of sugar in the dessert” can instead be, “Remember the time we drank chocolate milk out of the crystal glasses?”
As a “Let’s leave it ‘til morning” devotee, it blew my mind the first time I saw post-service cleanup in a restaurant. Everyone worked together so seamlessly, and the whole space—though it had just been through a lot—was gleaming. Take dishwashing time as meditation time. Mull over the events of the evening and enjoy the feeling of warm water and the gift of waking up to a sparkling kitchen.
There’s a reason people turn to the same dish time and time again. There’s less stress for you when it comes to preparation, and very minimal potential for disappointment.
At the same time…
For example: A candlelit birthday dessert when you hadn’t said a word, a final course of housemade chocolates, a personalized menu, an extra dessert delivered with compliments. The one night I dined in the restaurant I worked at, my coworkers showered me with gifts at the end of the meal—my favorite fruit, my favorite flowers. I didn’t cry until I got in the car, of course. But I giggled. And felt so, so loved.
The one night I dined in the restaurant I worked at, my coworkers showered me with gifts at the end of the meal—my favorite fruit, my favorite flowers. I didn’t cry until I got in the car, of course. But I giggled. And felt so, so loved.
In perhaps the sweetest gesture of all, they also gifted me a Ruth Reichl memoir filled with handwritten quotes by food writing greats. I’ll end with one such bit of wisdom by the iconic critic herself:
“Every restaurant is a theater, and the truly great ones allow us to indulge in the fantasy that we are rich and powerful. When restaurants hold up their end of the bargain, they give us the illusion of being surrounded by servants intent on ensuring our happiness and offering extraordinary food. But even modest restaurants offer the opportunity to become someone else, at least for a little while. Restaurants free us from mundane reality; that is part of their charm. When you walk through the door, you are entering neutral territory where you are free to be whomever you choose for the duration of the meal.”
Which brings us to…
No problems, plagues, or to-do lists allowed at the table.
BY Sophie Vilensky - December 13, 2020
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.