Cena Trimalchionis

2.12.11 § 2 commentarii

One of the most significant results of civilisation, in my opinion, is the phenomenon of eating out. Note that I don’t call it a by-product. Eating out- that is the very existence of places which exist solely to provide meals to other human beings, from Alain Ducasse Plaza Athenée in Paris to a Harvester in Barnstaple (and I use “meal” in its loosest sense there, of course)- is not a by-product of civilisation, but an integral and necessary result of the rise of civilisation. From a purely practical point of view, should one consider “civilisation” to be inextricably connected to the rise of urbanism, it’s a simple fact of urban planning that in pre-modern times, population density can only grow so high without open ovens in every Roman insula or Mohenjo-Daro block becoming hazardous. As such, when they wanted a hot meal, residents of ancient Roman blocks of flats would repair to the local caupona or popina[1], rather than subjecting the city to Neronian-scale fires every other week by cooking their dormice in domestic ovens.

Civilisation is ultimately what’s responsible for elevating the prototypical mealtime of Homo sapiens from squatting around a campfire gnawing on a haunch of wooly mammoth to sitting around a mahogany table with a bewildering array of cutlery. With this civilisation of eating, it ceased to be simply an act of providing the body with fuel but instead became a complex socio-cultural performance which we Anglophones refer to as dining. Now, here in the barbaric northwestern fringe of Europe, it’s really only a performance that we’ve engaged in for the past few centuries. In evolutionary terms, that’s no time at all. Far from long enough for it to become a matter of genetic instinct. Indeed, eating out is fraught with pitfalls of etiquette and the potential for social and interpersonal humiliation. The successful negotiation of this complex nexus of social conventions is what makes dining in a restaurant or pub a joy: it improves the flavour of the food. It makes you a better human, an urbane individual of taste and distinction, in the eyes of your companions and those who have the privilege to serve you.

Which is why I feel it is a public service to offer these few small words of advice to those who decide to eat out, in the earnest hope that they might avoid some of the graver embarrassments which might befall the unwary potential gourmand:

1) Your waiter has given you a menu for a reason. Contrary to expectations, behind those swinging doors there is not some Aladdin’s Cave of ingredients, with which the chef might knock you up absolutely anything you want, from Thai Green Curry with Pak Choi and Midgets to Flautist’s Liver with Fava Beans and Chianti. On the contrary, in the kitchen are those ingredients necessary to cook those dishes on the menu. And nothing more. It is utterly astonishing (to me, at least) how few people realise this. What’s on the menu is what we can cook for you. That’s why it’s on the frigging menu. Not only that, the menu also represents the totality of what chef is willing to cook for you. Exactly as it is described on the menu. We don’t just knock these things up in a spare five minutes. We actually research them, calculate the cost of each dish, from which supplier we’re getting the produce and how much of it we’ll need. So, for the love of every god in the sky, never go off-menu. If there’s something you don’t like on the menu, don’t fucking ask if chef is willing to replace the cheese for bacon, the beans for peas, the bread for pancakes etc. Pick something else. Something you will eat. If there’s absolutely nothing you want on the menu: go somewhere else.

It’s not just because it fucks up my GP (gross profit, what we’re all targetted on). And it’s certainly not just because I’m an awkward shitbag. Far from it: if you’re a vegetarian, I’m more than willing to make you up some vegetarian gravy, to leave off the bacon etc. On the other hand, if you’re a vegan, you shouldn’t be eating in public. Seriously. I respect your lifestyle choice, just don’t ask me to cook for you. And if you have allergies, I will do my utmost that you can eat my food without dying of anaphylactic shock. On the other hand (this is something of a pet peeve of mine) if you’re not allergic to something, but just really don’t like whatever it is, don’t tell the waiter that you have allergies. If you really don’t like tomatoes, I won’t put them on your burger. Don’t tell me you’re allergic to the damn things, or I’ll have to change the whole of your dish.

No. The real reason is that chefs are machines. We know every dish on the menu, and we can cook them on auto-pilot. Special requests make us stop and have to think about what we’re doing, and that just slows down the whole of service. It fucks us over entirely: I’ve made Diane sauce to exactly the same recipe throughout my career; some thirteen years. Some twatbag asks for it with wholegrain rather than dijon mustard and I essentially have to relearn something that I could otherwise do without thinking, and thus taking time from what would otherwise be spent on other meals. You are making your whole table’s food late, and everyone else who’s ordered after you.

And, while I’m on the subject, if there is a separate daytime and evening menu, never try to order something off the daytime menu in the evening. It’s eight o’clock and the rest of your table has ordered steaks, fresh fish, mussels. Great dishes, proper restaurant food. And you want a cheese sandwich on brown. I’m sorry my friend, but you are a grade-A cunt. If all you want is a cheese sandwich, fucking stay at home. Or go to Subway (they’re about as likely to make you a plain cheese sandwich on brown as I am.) I’m just not going to do it, and you should be ashamed for even asking.

2) Which, with the special requests, brings me to my next point. Don’t ask for the sauce on the side. It annoys the hell out of me. Have you ever tried pouring à la minute peppercorn sauce from a frying pan into a milk jug with an opening less than an inch across? It’s just sodding awkward. “Sauce on side” diners are generally those who order well-done steak (don’t). They’re generally the ones who only eat “plain food”. I do not work in a Berni Inn. If you want plain chicken and chips, either fuck yourself and re-educate your tastebuds or go somewhere else. This isn’t the eighties, we don’t serve food in baskets anymore. People who are only willing to eat “plain food” should not eat out unless they’re going to a sodding McDonalds. Such people are to be shunned.

(I’m serious about not ordering well-done steak. Just don’t. Particularly not if it’s fillet: you’ll break the chef’s heart. No chef wants to serve boot leather. If you don’t like bloody meat, don’t order steak.)

3) Chef is never willing to make you an omelette. If he were, it’d be on the sodding menu.

4) While still on the subject of special requests, recall that you are not dining at a hospice. This is not Care in the Community. So don’t ask for utterly retarded things: I cannot make a low-protein spaghetti carbonara.

5) Tip. Not tipping does make you a bad person. Seriously. The Dalai Lama tips, while Hitler made a point of never doing so. Who would you rather emulate? Obviously (and thank any god you care to mention), I don’t work in America, where tips are essential to the staff’s livelihood. Nevertheless, even here in the UK, tipping is important. Not only is it just polite, it’s also where my drinks at the end of the shift come from. Don’t come between me and my booze.

Don’t think that you can get away with not tipping if the service or food was shitty. The only justifiable reason for not tipping (short of your waiter being egregiously rude to you, of course. If he hits on your girlfriend, spills beer into your crotch or calls you a “cheapo shitebag without the manners or finesse of a rutting donkey” (that was a damn good shift), then you’re perfectly justified in not leaving a tip. Complain to his manager as well: waiters like to think that they’re fireproof, and should be disproved at every turn.) is if both the food and the service were aweful. Think about it. If you had excellent service but bad food, why penalise your fantastic waitress in order to punish the kitchen? Similarly, why punish the kitchen when you’ve dined like a king but your waiter didn’t know his arse from his elbow?

And yes, anything less than 10% is insulting. Don’t leave your small change as a tip: any waiter worth his salt will follow you out of the restaurant and remind you that you’ve forgotten your change. Really loudly, in front of other people. The elderly should also take note here: we are not your grandchildren and as such fifty pence is not a reasonable tip on a forty pound bill.

If you can’t afford to tip, you shouldn’t be eating out. And remember, a verbal tip won’t buy my beer.

6) Make a note of when the kitchen closes. If the kitchen closes at half nine, don’t order food at twenty-five past. I’m saying this for your benefit as much as mine. By this time, the chef will be ready to close, having cleaned the kitchen down and pretty much put everything away. Some cockend coming in and expecting starters and two well-done steaks five minutes before close is going to be the least popular man in town (never cut into a chef’s drinking time). The chef will rush through your check and the food won’t be great quality: he doesn’t care about your dining experience, he wants the goddamn food off his pass so he can turn everything off and get a couple of pints inside him.

7) I don’t work in a soup kitchen. You want something extra, you pay for it. In none of the languages I speak does the word “discount” occur.

8) Should you have the good fortune to encounter the man (or woman. It’s rare, but becoming more and more common) who cooked your food, recall that “chef” is not just a job description. It’s also a title. “Oi mush” or “Yurr, mate” are both unacceptable. It’s “chef”. The whole sociolinguistics of “chef”, and who gets to be called that in a professional context and when is the subject for a completely different post, but as a general rule, if you don’t know me personally, I’d rather you as a customer address me as “chef” when I’m at work. And do try not to ask stupid questions. Last weekend, in the middle of my shift, I was wandering around in the Bear’s courtyard for a reason which will remain undisclosed, and someone asked me “are you a chef?” Not the chef, mark you, but a chef. Lacking as I do any kind of customer service skills, my response was along the lines of “what gives it away? The jacket, the apron or the bad attitude?” The young lad in question responded that he’d just dropped a glass on the floor and broken it. I clapped him on the shoulder, congratulated him and told him that I hoped that he’d made his night now. If you happen to see me, don’t tell me that you need condiments or cutlery, or that your pint is flat or any other such triviality. I am a chef. The minutiae are handled by the waiting staff.

In summary, we all know that this has been coming for a long while, and hopefully this has gotten it all off my chest. That said, however, the urge to throw something at the wall and shout “CUNTS!” really loudly remains overwhelming. Should you ever visit a certain pub in south-east Dorset and hear a strange mix of French and Welsh expletives coming from a kitchen, you’ll know that you’ve found me.

Bon appetit!

1) For non-classicists, or those who didn’t do Latin at school, both of these terms refer to public eateries. Roman cafés, if you will. Etymologically, both are interesting. Caupō, the root of caupona, is ultimately the source of the English word “cheap”, via a proto-Germanic borrowing of the Latin as *kaupaz “trader”, hence also German kaufen “to buy”. Popīna, like caupō, is actually a loanword into Latin, in this case from Oscan or Umbrian, branches of the Italic family which exhibited a soundchange of * to *p, much as Brittonic and Gaulish changed proto-Celtic * to *p: the corresponding Latin reflex was coquīna “kitchen”. If Oscan-Umbrian were P-Italic, then Latin was Q-Italic. Which is pretty cool.

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§ 2 Response to “Cena Trimalchionis”

  • Great stuff.

    I have never left a tip in a restaurant, I'm afraid.

  • Aaron Toivo says:

    The trouble is that there are restaurants where, within certain limits, you can indeed order off-menu things and the staff will accommodate. So long as you restrict it to ingredients the menu clearly shows them as having. I've particularly noticed this in certain Chinese restaurants (which makes sense because the cooking style is immensely flexible to start with); a decade back my friend James once ordered, at Greenwood Mandarin, a stir-fry of certain vegetables and tofu that the kitchen already had on hand, and they listened to his request and sure enough, fifteen minutes later, there it was. I was there at the time. But as a frequent customer he started ordering it often, it developed a name, and after several years of this the restaurant put it on the menu. It's still there. "Green Jade". Even longer ago, at House of Hong, my date ordered something based on a menu item, but with most of the ingredients replaced with other things that were also on the menu in other dishes. I recall the waitress did not look happy about it, but the meal arrived as ordered. (During the meal he spied a rat, and screamed at full volume. I did not date him again, nor have I ever returned to House of Hong.)

    Also I know of one pizza place where the menu explicitly states, if you want something on your pizza that isn't listed, they will run across the street to the supermarket and get it. How's that for customer service, eh.

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