"My Compliments to the Chef..."

The phrase never did have much currency in this country, where the customer is usually more impressed by the waiters than the food. The chef was simply the kitchen employee who executed the order given him by the waiter and hence of little or no standing in the transaction. Besides, the ordinary restaurant meal would make sending compliments to the chef seem to verge on the lunatic, and even more important, there would be no chef in the kitchen anyhow to receive these well-intended, albeit somewhat pompous, words.

Kitchen work today is often quite chefless: a young man presses the control buttons of a radar range, from which various prefrozen entrees are removed, piping hot, and borne away by the waiters. It takes only a minute or two in the range, so that the waiters get high marks for wonderfully prompt service, even though everything is “cooked to order.” These latter words are perhaps fairly truthful, since obviously nothing would go into the radar range except what had been ordered by the customer. The chef — if that is the right name for the functionary running the assembly plant far away from the restaurant and its customers — is out in Nirvana, Ohio, in charge of a prefabricating crew that puts together the radar-range dinners. He is in effect an administrative person, working according to the book and causing so many ounces of meat to be covered with a prescribed amount of sauce (gravy) and combined with (a) potatoes or (b) noodles or (c) rice, in automatically measured quantities.

All the ingredients of the radarrange meal are supplied in the first instance by subcontractors. Because the wage scale diminishes as the number of employees increases, most of the people actually doing the work are engaged in such primary operations as preparing the raw materials for the chef. Anyone who has ever seen the carrots and potatoes being tossed around in a machine and given the equivalent of scraping or peeling while being washed at the same time will know that even this phase of prefabrication is largely a machine operation. So, if one of the production line workers happens to nod, and some resulting rubbery embarrassment turns up in the Riz de Veau Financiere, the point at which the complaint should be lodged in this far-flung operation can be hard to find. There is certainly no Cordon Bleu in the restaurant to ponder the lapse as he puts together a Gateau St. Honore while his wife is inscribing the next day’s purple-ink menu and the daughters are at work on the asparagus. The cake now comes from St. Honore Products, Incorporated, a division of Amalgamated Pastries; the asparagus is preprepared, from Freezrite; and the purple-ink menus are supplied by a job printer to all members of the Radar-Range Haute Cuisine Association. (They all get the same menus since they all serve the same meals. “Sorry, Mossoo, but the bifteck is out.”)

If there is no longer much sense in offering compliments to the chef, it may become equally futile to offer complaints to the dealer. The “warranty” on certain elements of a new automobile has already caused prickly relationships between manufacturers, dealers, and customers because of the delays in reimbursing dealers for replacement parts and, more grievously, the complexity of determining who will pay and how much for the labor involved. As one who has just paid $61 for a short afternoon’s “labor” on an old car,

I doubt that even the Big Three can stand the fiscal wear and tear implicit in this item. Dealers, meanwhile, are reported to be prudently increasing the price of the new car or paring down the trade-in offer in search of protection against warranty outlays.

Among all the new specialists and subcontractors who stand between producer and consumer, the fanciest are the people who have taken over the installation and repair of air conditioners. They are strictly on their own, responsible to neither the dealer, the manufacturer, nor indeed anyone else. The customer is serene in the “warranty” covering his unit for a year or more, sometimes as long as five. Parts will be replaced without charge, and all he will have to pay is “labor.”

But instead of supplying a new part, the “service” agency repairs the old one, and the only charge is for “labor” — not covered by the warranty. The representative of the manufacturer, if he can be found, expresses amazement at the high cost of the “labor.” The serviceman in turn is skeptical of the warranty. “It really don’t amount to anything,” says he.

Compliments might go to him for his candor, but somewhat as in the case of the prefabricated output of the radar range, the grounds for throwing bouquets to any point at all in the air-conditioning chain of command seem to me fairly resistible.