Photo by Heather Sperling
It happened on course eight of the woman's 25-course meal. Two courses prior she had enjoyed a "conventionally" plated version of a Maryland soft shell crab dish. As she and her husband continued on the progression of their Tour menu, she observed something happening at a nearby table that upset her.
A gray mat was delivered; the guest unrolled it, and Alinea's chef de cuisine walked into the small dining room with trays of mise en place . He plated the same soft shell crab dish she had eaten two courses before on the table surface while the diners he was chatting with smiled and took photos of the event. He finished and returned to the bustling kitchen. She began to cry, got up from the table, and briskly walked to the bathroom. They cut their meal short and left soon thereafter.
When I talk to people in the kitchen after their meal, people frequently tell me they made a special trip to Chicago just to eat at Alinea. Of course I find this completely flattering. They call two months before to the date they want to dine and plan their trip around the event. One can hardly blame them for expecting the maximum experience, given the commitment that they have vested.
Alinea's food by nature is tedious, experimental, and exploratory. A new idea has to be worked out and refined before we can produce it for the masses.
But what does the maximum experience require? As it turns out, this was the main reason we created the Tour menu to begin with. When I was at the French Laundry it was common for the kitchen to give selected guests extra courses. Perhaps they were repeat diners, people in the industry, or friends of the chef. Of the 12 meals I had there, nine were in the 17- to 20-course range, and they ranked as the best I had ever had. Not that the typical nine-course menu they offer is lesser, but it is...after all...less.
On occasion a front-of-the-house member would come back to the kitchen and mention that a table adjacent to a "VIP" table was jealous that they did not receive a particular course. "I didn't see that listed on the menu," they would tell the captain. What do you say at that point?
Sorry sir, you are not special enough to enjoy that creation?
It is a tough spot. The chef and the restaurant has a certain responsibility to "take care of" its valued guests, that is just the way the world works. But at the level we are striving for we also have the accountability to make everyone feel special.
What are the realistic expectations of the diner?
So when I arrived at Trio in 2001, I suggested that we make that "VIP" experience available to everyone who was interested in it. The Tour menu was created. It was the entire repertoire of the kitchen. Twenty to 30 courses in length, it was the "kitchen sink".
By making it available to everyone we had covered our own butts. If a table noticed a neighboring table receiving a course they did not, it was for the simple reason the elected to not order the menu that the course was on. But more importantly, we now made our "best possible" experience available to everyone. This worked...most of the time.