Would You Like Envy on the Side?


Chef Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea has a great piece in this week’s The Atlantic, focusing on diners’ envy of special dishes sent out by the kitchen.  In this case, the special dish wasn’t even any different than what the jilted diner received, it was just plated at the table rather than in the kitchen.  And she stormed off in tears as a result.

Now we’ll all agree that diners like to look at the dishes being served at other tables, and there will be times when it appears someone is getting special treatment.  And we feel bad, because we all want special treatment.  We want the chef to come out and talk to us.  We want to try something the chef “has been working on.”  We all want to feel special, and when we’re not the recipient of that treatment, it’s normal to be somewhat envious.

Do you expect special treatment?  Do you feel left out if someone at an adjacent table is obviously getting something that everyday customers don’t receive?  How about if the chef comes out and talks to them, but not you?

I know many restaurants try to make all of their diners feel extra special, but as evidenced in Achatz’s story, even a restaurant that excels at the omnibus VIP treatment can make some sensitive customers feel left out.

It’s funny, I love receiving special treatment, but more when I’m not the reason for that treatment.  If I’m with some friends dining at a restaurant where they “know me,” the friends expect I’ll get a special dish sent out or otherwise get the VIP experience.  I never expect anything out of the ordinary, and if I do receive it, I’m almost a bit embarrassed.  And frankly — and no, I’m not fishing for any type of sympathy here — that silly extra pressure actually makes me anxious.

But when I’m dining with someone else who is the reason for the special treatment — such as a chef — I love it!  No pressure, just fun.  And there’s something about that fraternity of chefs, where they take care of each other, that just makes more sense.  And if the don’t get that VIP care, then they just might have to dash away in tears.


14 Responses to Would You Like Envy on the Side?

  1. Robert says:

    The thing is, it has absolutely nothing to do with “special treatment” and everything to do with giving two tables the same experience. The only people who know it’s “special” are repeat diners – if you’re experiencing a restaurant or tasting menu or particular dish for the first time, for you, that is the default experience.

    Until, of course, the next table gets the same thing you ordered – but nicer.

    I read the Atlantic article and Achatz’s candor is refreshing. He simply says, they have to take care of their VIP guests. And I get that. But at the same time, it absolutely would irk me to sit next to a table, order the same item and pay the same price, and have them receive something better.

    What if the “extra” for VIP diners wasn’t visible? Say, for those special tables the Chef tasted and seasoned the dishes prior to sending them out while for all others, the sous chef seasoned them.

  2. Fuzzy says:

    Crazy. People are just crazy. I read the article, and had to shake my head.

    Why don’t we all eat the same pablum so that everyone on earth is a) fed, and b) shares exactly and only the same experience, that would be fair and human? Yeah.

    Why don’t we all work the same hours for the same pay no matter what “job” we’re in?

    Why don’t we all get the same LCD education?

    Why don’t we all live in the same houses all ticky-tacky and they all look just the same?

    Lowest common denominator politics – and that’s what this is – irk me a lot more than seeing someone else get pleasure from an experience (i typically enjoy seeing someone else get a treat).

    Arguments about whether they earned it or deserved it or if it is ok that they were just rewarded on a whim just reflect the ugliness that comes from envy and jealousy. There is a reason these are “deadly sins”.

    I would hate (there’s another) to live in a world where everyone gets the same all the time. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations has consequences ya know.

  3. Robert says:

    I like the idea that my $1 has the same value as someone else’s $1. Especially if I happen to be sitting next to them.

  4. Alan says:

    Robert – how do you actually know you’re paying the same price as the table next to you?

  5. Robert says:

    I don’t know – I can’t know, of course.

    If this is a problem, it’s one without a real solution most likely. Because I won’t dispute the idea that chefs know where their money is coming from and give preferential treatment to some diners. And in the abstract, I don’t really have a problem with that.

    But as a casual diner – one who enjoys high end dining, but does not tend to make himself a regular at a specifc place – I admit that it bothers me when I see other tables receive better service. And I do factor these things in when deciding whether or not to return to a place.

    Being made to feel welcome, that my visit is important to you, that I am treated as well as other customers, these are things I value.

    I was at Four Square over the weekend, and the chef came out and spoke to all the tables. Would I have been somewhat miffed had he spoken to all the tables but mine? Sure, why not? Would it have changed the meal in front of me? No, I suppose not.

    Restaurants do their best to make people happy. I’m not pointing fingers here or demanding changes. I’m just admitting that I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the same dish or experience for the same money. It may not always happen, but faulting people for being upset is silly. It makes some patrons feel their presence is worth less than others’, and right or wrong that makes an impact.

    And for the record: I think the example in the actual essay is a poor one. So, most of the tables in the restaurant can accomodate tableside service for a particular dish, but a few do not. I think, as high-end diners, we’re past the point of thinking the experience begins and ends with what is on the plate. Restaurants do table-side presentations because they are elegant and impressive (at least when done correctly).

    To say a dish which is typically plated tableside is the same experience if it is not served that way, to me seems disingenuous. Many restaurants strive to make their service more than just the food – an experience, a show even. Three hour tasting menus are about more than a plate of food.

  6. Varmint says:

    In the end, it’s pretty easy to get VIP service: become a regular. And then interact with the staff and the chef. If they get to know you, then they’ll take extra care of you. This is no secret, of course.

  7. burgeoningfoodie says:

    What I want to know is how do you begin interacting with the chef and staff? I would venture to guess that it seems a little less tangible to people who would like to befriend a chef, but maybe held in awe or not sure exactly how to start a conversation with staff or chef.

  8. burgeoningfoodie says:

    And I should add not to befriend a chef just for perks, but because you sincerely enjoy their food and are interested not just in the chef but lifestyle in general and thought behind dishes.

  9. Varmint says:

    It’s pretty easy for most chef-driven/owned restaurants, where the chef comes out occasionally to meet and greet the customers. If you’re a regular, they’ll eventually notice your presence. Or tell your waitstaff that you’d really like them to inform the chef how much you enjoyed your meal/dish. The chefs actually like to hear that stuff. Chefs are people, just like you, me and everyone else in this world.

  10. Varmint says:

    And I admit that it’s been pretty easy for me to get to meet chefs because of this blog, but I certainly don’t write as a means to meet chefs. That would be pretty sad, quite honestly.

  11. Mittany says:

    I think this has a lot to do with self-image – and income.

    I’m pretty passionate about food. Bad food (poor preparation; sub par ingredients) drive me insane. Amazing food (great technique, first class ingredients) leave me speechless. However, although my friends think I know a lot, I don’t. That’s not me waffling, or downplaying my knowledge. That’s me comparing what I know against those who know more.

    In my case, although I’d love to talk to the chefs – I’m not a regular (income) and I don’t want to sound like a plebe (self-image).

    If I saved up – and went somewhere like Alinea (or several notable restaurants here in the Triangle) I’d be loath to interact with the staff (wouldn’t want to seem …. (insert adjective) and yet, I’d also be disappointed that I didn’t have the gumption to speak up.

    I wouldn’t end up in tears … but I would be envious of someone seated next to me had something “a little bit different” (and therefore) than me.

    You’re right – it’s fun to look at the other dinner’s meals. If I see something spectacular that I didn’t order, it’s easy to justify, “Oh! Wow! Doesn’t that look good? Just can’t afford to order it.” I don’t feel like I’ve been slighted. My circumstances dictate my decisions. So in that case – if someone paid for table-side service, I’d feel no slight.

    However – “seating in Siberia” also stinks. Just because I can’t afford to show up once a month (or a week) doesn’t mean I’m any less passionate or knowledgeable. It just reinforces the idea the kitchen gives their best to those who pay more (frequently). And THAT isn’t what I want my dining experience to be. Although it makes sense. I give my best customers better treatment – because they make my work-day better.

    ps: sorry for the long comment.

  12. burgeoningfoodie says:

    Yeah I just wouldn’t know what to say and wouldn’t want to come across sounding like a pseudo-intellect even if I know some things. I guess I wouldn’t know what to ask or say to strike it up with the staff or chef. The first that would come to mind would be wanting to know their history and what inspired them to either create this establishment or a certain dish. I could never work in the environment or the hours, but I find the ingenuity to create very interesting.

  13. Fuzzy's Wife says:

    You’ve got to be kidding me. People need to focus on whether they are having a great dining experience and not worry about what people at other tables are doing. Your life will be much more pleasant if you drop the inane comparisons, especially if you are clueless as to whether you’re actually comparing apples to apples. Are you satisfied with what you got and the service you received? Great! That’s what should matter; not what someone two tables away is doing.

    The crazy woman who cried at the restaurant and left early ruined her own experience by her own choice. That’s nuts!

  14. VaNC says:

    How to meet people that work at your favorite restaurants:

    1. Eat at the bar and be annoyingly chatty
    2. Show up at special dinners the restaurant has
    3. Ask questions about your meal
    4. Go there alot.

    These are ways I have met chefs and other staff, not meaning to….it just kinda happens.

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