The Way I Was

Too much of a good thing? Has 20 years living with a chef made me the worst kind of restaurant-goer?

It's an inexpensive neighborhood breakfast/lunch diner; but that's real bone-in ham, not the pressed & formed lunch meat. I appreciate that!
It’s an inexpensive neighborhood breakfast/lunch diner; but that’s real bone-in ham, not just pressed & formed lunch meat. I appreciate that!

Maybe you can help me discover a few more  great restaurants (not fancy, necessarily–I just want good food, well prepared, for a fair price).

Maybe I ought to wonder whether too much of a good thing is actually good for me. Other people seem to enjoy going out to eat a whole lot more than I do.

But I believe I’m fortunate. I love the food made in my kitchen, the way I prefer, with the ingredients I’m in the mood for, or more often, from ingredients I need for nutritional reasons. I consciously get my nutrients from food (yes, it’s possible–Harvard says so too). Being deliberate about what I’m eating is easiest to do when I know exactly what’s in my food.

My personal chef (my husband) knows everything about food procurement and preparation, including how to butcher (seriously! He can cut up a whole beast into those innocuously sanitary-looking cuts we name with non-animal names–filet of beef, pork tenderloin or saddle of venison instead of cow, pig or Bambi!) Therefore he knows how to talk to any butcher to get the choicest cuts at the lowest prices.

He can:

  • grow the organic vegetables and harvest them at the optimum time;
  • grind grain and make artisan loaves of crusty hearth bread;
  • whip up anything I have a fancy for–say prime rib with Yorkshire pudding, smoked pheasant with dill sauce. cioppino, weinerschnitzel, Texan brisket, Memphis ribs, Carolina pulled pork sandwiches with slaw, Korean beef and kimchee, curried lentil stew, cobb salad–whatever I want.
  • He even shucks oysters.

And after twenty years of living with him, I’ve learned to do most of all that, too (except butcher; I don’t butcher).

So I’ve become any great restaurateur’s or skilled chef’s biggest fan and any mediocre place’s sharpest critic. I have zero tolerance for those who are:

  • unskilled,
  • apathetic,
  • living on their laurels,
  • cheating by not serving what the menu says,

because I know they could do better.

But I do like eating out. I like the luxury of both of us sitting down to a meal neither of us has to prepare or clean up after.

And I’m a good customer:

  • I’m a patient, cheerful and appreciative guest. I know how freaking much work it is to put out dozens/hundreds of  meals, day after day. Even if the result of their efforts is mediocre, or even downright bad, they are nevertheless working their little patooties off. And I appreciate their hard work (although I sometimes wish they would work more efficiently and expertly).
  • If they make unacceptable errors (the wrong food, incorrectly cooked, wrong temperature) I politely and discreetly point it out and give them an opportunity to fix it. And if they can’t fix it, I don’t go into drama-queen mode because I am not looking for freebies.; I simply want what I ordered.
  • I tell them what they did right–I’m liberal with compliments. When they do a great job, they deserve to be appreciated (and well-tipped).
  • And I’m very patient with inexpensive, family-owned-and-run diners/joints/dives if they do even a few things well, especially if they’re obviously trying.

But I’m a hard-to-impress customer:

  • I always notice what’s not right. Don’t give me: servers who gossip while ignoring their guests; poorly trained staff who don’t know whether the burger is 1/4 , 1/3 or 1/2 pound; cold salad served on plates hot from the dishwasher; entrees that don’t jibe with the menu description (advertises cheddar but this is processed cheese food; says house-made hollandaise but this is definitely Knorr Swiss’s mix). Don’t serve me: over-the-hill ingredients; items represented as house-made but bought frozen/ready-made from Sysco (click on this Sysco link to see why so much restaurant food all tastes the same).
  • And my expectations are even higher for fine-dining establishments. So should everyone’s be! They are, after all, in the business of delivering exquisite service and exceptionally delicious, high-quality food. I loathe paying gourmet prices only to feel that I would have been better off eating at home (and then I regret not having donated that disappointingly-spent money to feed a developing-world family of seven for a year).
  • I expect a meal that is worth the price. And I know what a fair price is.

If you think my expectations are reasonable, I’d like to know about the restaurants you think are really great and worth the price. Where do you willingly spend your hard-earned money?

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23 thoughts on “Too much of a good thing? Has 20 years living with a chef made me the worst kind of restaurant-goer?”

  1. Very well said, Tracy: unfortunately there are so many mediocre or just plain bad restaurants out there that I have lost count… However, that way one becomes more selective in his/her choices!

    1. Funny–I had a feeling you might be one of the first to weigh in on this, Stefano.

      I think we (you, Francesca, Ken and I) are of the same mind on this–to pay someone to cook means they ought to earn their pay.

      But, if no one in a family or household can cook, those people tend to have more tolerance for mediocrity. Perhaps we’re inordinately fortunate.

      1. I agree, but I really am like you, meaning I adapt – if I am at a simple mom and pop restaurant obviously my expectations are much lower and I cut them more slack, but just like you said if I am at a pretentious restaurant that charges top dollars, then everything had better work as a well oiled machine and food quality must be top notch. Otherwise the whole thing just not makes sense any more and to me there’s no excuse there.

        1. Stefano, are there any places you know of that do what they’re supposed to do–work like a well-oiled machine? I’ve been often disappointed and only rarely impressed. My favorite place was Auberge Hatley in North Hatley Quebec (but alas, it burned down!!!) Their chef of 20+ years opened his own wonderful place in Sherbrooke.

          1. Well, if I had to think of only one, it would be Sushi Yasuda in New York City.
            In case you had not tried it yet, if you like sushi and happen to be in town you should definitely give it a go as it is mind blowing!
            If you are interested, I wrote a review a while ago on Flora’s Table (http://florastable.com/2012/11/14/restaurant-mini-review-sushi-yasuda-new-york-ny/)
            Then there are other restaurants in NYC, CT, Milan… Not an awful lot, but some in my view really got it right! 🙂

            1. Ah Stefano, you said what I wanted to say. It is so nice to see the three of us (plus our better halves) in sync. There is just not much out there that delivers when it comes to fancy dining. It makes me really sad, because I want to like the food, but if the flavors are not there, then why bother?

  2. Well, I mostly eat at my local bar/restaurant called Dalts. They pour their drinks heavy and most of their food is ‘homemade’ BUT I have a feeling you’d be able to tell the difference with your keen palate. I do enjoy a steak from Ruth’s Chris if I am ever so lucky to save up and get there. I think all of your points are beyond valid!

    1. I looked at Dalt’s website–I’d definitely try the place out. The prices are low enough that even if it wasn’t the best meal I ever ate, I wouldn’t feel ripped off. And I tend to trust people who do redskin smashed potatoes.

      I’ve had pretty good luck at Ruth’s Chris, too. And Flemings. When chains are well-managed, at least they’re consistent…

  3. I, too, would love a husband like yours! Mine can only grill meat but he does it well. Something you hit on in a response to a comment was consistency. That drives me crazy. One day it’s wonderful so you take all your friends and it stinks. Uggg! I love breakfast places because they are hard to screw up and I just love being waited on early in the day.

    1. I definitely appreciate my husband!

      And I recently had the mortifying experience of taking friends to a restaurant we had loved, only to have everything connected to service go exactly ALL wrong. (the food, thank goodness, was still very tasty, although not attractively plated).

      And breakfast is the meal we eat out most often. Sounds like we think alike!

  4. Hello. I just commented on one of your pages about restaurants. I have food sensitivities and find it difficult to find a chef who will cater to my needs. I find that chefs will become offended if you cannot eat one of their creations. They try and work with me beginning with their creation and work backwards (‘what do we need to cut out so you can still have my masterpiece?’) rather than starting with what I CAN eat and creating something from those foods. When I find a chef who will, it is like finding gold.
    I am not the only one with special needs. Is eating out one of the pleasures of life, we need to fore-go for our good health?

    All power to you for sticking up for excellence in the restaurants 🙂

    1. It’s a dilemma for people with health-issue food-sensitivities. I think many chefs go into the business because sharing their interpretation of food is important to them, it’s an art form. I don’t think the majority of them go into it thinking about how to cater to the needs of people who might need a special diet. Nutritionists are motivated by that concern, but they almost never cook for people–they advise. So where does a person go to find someone who will cook for special needs in a restaurant?

      The difficulty is–the kind of chef who can “create” something from a list of ingredients (instead of following a set of instructions to create what the head-chef/owner, who is often not present) is usually also the one who has the expertise to command over-the-top prices, someone like Alice Waters…

      I wonder if it would be financially feasible to design a restaurant around the concept of “you-list-the-ingredients and the chef will spontaneously create a wonderful dish for you?”

      I do know that even with my/our limited special needs, we have had to forego eating at a quite a few restaurants (forget fast-food and usually any chain is out unless we limit ourselves to a plain undressed salad, and who wants to do that?)

  5. One of my sons-in-law was a chef and likes to cook at home. He has a better appreciation for an excellent meal because of his background. Me, I just love the food he prepares … and eating out at restaurants where I know I’ll get excellent food and, service. (After Paris, though, I vowed to never eat again because I feared no mere meal could compare. I quickly broke that vow, but remain steadfastly loyal to restaurants that know how to treat their customers.)

    1. I think Paris was the thing that really opened my eyes to the pleasure of food. I was there for 2 weeks when I was 17, and again in my twenties. I’ve been to some good restaurants since then, but nothing has been like Paris.

      I’ve found a few places in Quebec that are more similar to Paris than anything I’ve found here in the U.S. But although they speak French (with a strange accent) and have a French sensibility–it’s not Paris.

      1. The food served in Paris … and in excellent stateside restaurants we dined at … know that the presentation is very important. So what you get is a feast for the eyes and the taste buds.

        Years ago, when we lived in New York state, we visited Quebec. They do have some excellent restaurants there. A lovely city, but I still prefer Paris.

  6. I feel like we are quite similar when it comes to going out. I WANT the places to succeed, to impress me, to make me happy. I am not going out for dinner to have a bad experience. So I give a lot of leeway, and I am very liberal with praise as well…but as you say, all too often, it just doesn’t work out…

    1. I’ve almost given up on the pricey places. They have to be REALLY impressive to make me feel like it’s worth spending that much money. Some of my favorite restaurants are ethnic places; or the old fashioned family-run single restaurants (not chains). There was a family restaurant in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin–they had a huge menu, and never messed up on anything. And we’d get lunch for 2, with tip and tax, for $14-18.

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