When Envy is on the Menu

What happens when the people at the next table are offered something that seems better?


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.

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.



Baby steps, as they say: We often start slow, serving a new course to one or two tables a night. This allows us to get to know the nuances of the course from the operational standpoint. It is one thing to have a neat idea and make it once to prove it can be done. It is entirely another to produce the dish under strict time parameters and in the environment of busy restaurant while serving it to an audience that is unpredictable.

For instance, the introduction of the Hot Potato--Cold Potato back in October 2006 was comical. Inside a palm-sized paraffin wax bowl is a cold truffle-potato soup, suspended on a pin elevated above the bowl include: a hot potato sphere, Parmesan, butter, chive , and black truffle. The guest must pick the tiny bowl up and remove the pin, which releases the garnishes into the soup combining the contrasting tempertures just before eating. The bowls proved to be so difficult for the front of the house team to transport that we could only manage to get a handful to the table per service.

Once they did arrive, how in the world do we explain such a course to diners that had no background knowledge of the concept? The wax bowls were spilled, people crushed them in their hands, and even tried to eat them before we acclimated ourselves to the required systems making the dish a success. And ultimately have the ability to serve it to every person...every night. I won't even mention the pains the first cook that was responsible for making 100 tiny wax bowls a night went through.

[Curator's note: The author asked me to attest to the workability of the soup, which I've had. Like most everything at Alinea, it's an initially disorienting surprise, like a flash-card roller coaster: You brace yourself, it happens with a wild whoosh, and then--it was so good you want to do it all over again, right now . But, trained at the French Laundry, Grant is too clever; it's on to the next.]

At one point shortly after the dish first was served we had a guests write the restaurant in fury stating that we ruined their anniversary because they did not have the chance to eat the Hot Potato-Cold Potato they saw served to the table next to them.

What is the responsibility of the restaurant?

In the case of the mat plate there are certain material and operational obstacles we have not yet been able to overcome that limit the number we do execute in a given night. So far we have only been able to find the silicone in widths of 40 inches; while this will cover most of our tables, many are table are 48 inches square and a few are 60 inches round, making it impossible to offer this concept to people seated on them.

Since we introduced the idea, more than three weeks ago, we have pregressively been able to produce more each night. We think we have a source for larger sheets of silicone that will make it possible to accomplish it on all of our table sizes.

But an even more interesting problem has arisen from this concept...one that cannot be fixed by silicone dimensions or the acclimation of operations. Going beyond the idea of envy from lack of receiving an object is that of absence of access. Not a matter of if a guest gets the mat plate, but WHO plates it?

Is a course plated on the mat plate by me worth more than the exact same dish presented by the chef de cuisine or a sous chef?

What is the responsibility of the chef?