Dining Disasters and a Michelin-Starred Nightmare: True Restaurant Stories | Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street

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Episode 715
June 6, 2024
Originally aired on June 22, 2023

Dining Disasters and a Michelin-Starred Nightmare: True Restaurant Stories

Dining Disasters and a Michelin-Starred Nightmare: True Restaurant Stories

This week, we share stories from the world of fine dining. Maître d' Michael Cecchi-Azzolina has encounters with mobsters, fainting celebrities and unruly guests at New York’s top restaurants and reveals the secrets to great service. Writer Geraldine DeRuiter sits down for the world’s strangest Michelin-starred meal: She eats rancid cheese, slurps foam out of a ceramic mouth and is forced to watch the kitchen staff play extreme sports. Plus, historian Rebecca Spang uncovers the invention of the restaurant, Sara Moulton reveals the most baffling thing she ever witnessed in her career as a chef, and actors tell us how waiting tables unexpectedly helped their theater careers.

Questions in this episode

"What are some good dishes to make with squid ink?"

"Can I use the proofing setting on my oven interchangeably with a proofing mat?"

"My grandmother's recipe for rubber cookies calls for ammonia carbonate. How do I find that ingredient or work around it?"

Radio Fine Dining 1950s

Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street radio from PRX I'm your host Christopher Kimball. A maître d makes enemies with the wrong person at his bar.

Michael Cecchi Azzolina: Turns out, the guy that I tried to cut off was part of the Gotti crime family. And he on no uncertain terms came up to me and said, I don't know who you are, but you disrespected me. And I want to take care of you for that.

CK: A diner finds herself licking foam out of a ceramic mouth,

Geraldine DeRuiter: and it was put down and they said, this is the chef's kiss.

CK: And that chef publishes a manifesto on fine dining, which inexplicably has

Geraldine DeRuiter: three pictures of men on horses.

CK: That's coming up later in the hour, along with more tales of the ridiculous surprising and secret things that happen in restaurants. So, to start the show, let's go back to the beginning to the birth of dining as we know it. Right now, I'm joined by Rebecca Spang, a professor of history at Indiana University. Her book is The Invention of the Restaurant. Rebecca, welcome to Milk Street.

Rebecca Spang: Thank you for having me.

CK: So, the story we've all been told about restaurants in Paris, is the revolution, you know, 1789 there all these chefs who worked at Versailles or worked at some of these great houses, they had nowhere to go so they decided to open restaurants. And that was the birth of the French restaurant. You say otherwise? That's actually not a true story.

RS: I do say otherwise. When I started to do the research for my book, The invention of the restaurant, that was the story I thought I was going to tell. But the thing about doing historical research is you need to keep an open mind you always need to know what came before the thing you think you're researching. And I happened to discover that there were people opening establishments called restaurateurs rooms as early as the 1760s. So that didn't square with this story that had been handed down really, for 200 years about the French Revolution and the birth of the restaurant.

CK: So, restaurants that were started the 1760s are based on the concept of serving restorative food, I guess, is that right?

RS: Yes, that's right. So long before a restaurant is a place to eat, it's a thing to eat. Starting really in the 16th century, you can find recipes for restoratives. And the things that are most likely to be called restoratives are in other places called and I love, this waterless soups. So basically, it's the idea of sweating quite a bit of meat over very high heat so, it yields the juices. So really, the first restaurateurs are basically the great, great, great, great forefathers of the bone broth craze.

CK: So, describe the restaurant I mean, these are communal tables. What are they?

RS: No that's the crucial difference, right. So, an innkeeper or a tavern is going to have a table with 12 seats all the food goes on at once. The restaurants, they have individualized tables, they were decorated with various accoutrements that one wouldn't have found in ordinary tavern. So, the mirrors that we associate with French restaurants, but also things that sort of connected to the quasi-scientific claims being made by these restaurateurs, so thermometers and barometers on the walls as well.

CK: I guess the the thing I don't get is this, the 1790s economically or disaster, right? Trade collapses after the revolution. So, there's this transition from serving consummate to the beginnings of what we consider now a French restaurant, (right) How does that happen? Because it seems to me the place serving consummate, has very little in common with a place that we understand as a French restaurant.

RS: Right. So, the key thing that they have in common is the style of service. So, the content of the menu completely changes, but you still have individualized tables, you still can order your meal within a timeframe of what's considered dinner time. You don't all have to be there at once and sit down at a shared communal table. And there's a printed menu. So, we could say that the technology of the printed menu is infinitely adaptable. It could have three restoratives on it, or it could have 25 entre and what's going to happen during the revolution is that the cultural prestige associated with being delicate with being somebody who needed to be restored well, those are marked as particularly feminine qualities, and particularly aristocratic qualities. And the revolution is all about making Republican French men. So, restoration is out, hearty meals are in. And you're quite right to say that the economic collapse of France in the later 1790s meant that very, very, very few people had the the wealth to access these new restaurants that exist in the aftermath of the French Revolution. But that's how the transition happens.

CK: We haven't really talked about the food; we talked about the consommé or the simple soup or the restorative. But once that when, by the by what kind of food was being served at restaurants in the late 18th century in Paris?

RS: Well, a stereotypical Paris restaurant meal of say, the early 19th century would likely start with oysters, dozens of them. And then pretty much anything that you think of as a classic of French cuisine. So, veal kidney, yonder, there'd be some fish. There might be a roast, not much in the way of vegetables, not much in the way of salads, quite a few wines to order from, and various sweets for dessert.

CK: And so when did you get the Grand Vefour you know, the famous restaurant, Palace Royale, that kind of place was that more like 1820s by the time that really elegant, very high-end restaurants showed up?

RS: Well, so the Grand Vefour for that space had been a cafe from the 1780s. And it becomes the cafe Vefour for in the early 1790s. But certainly, there's been a cafe slash restaurant in that space for 230 years now.

CK: You know, I've been there. It's quite opulent. Yeah. And as you say, lots of mirrors.

RS: Yes, which I think, also is grist for my claim that restaurants are about individuals, right? So, you can see yourself in the restaurant. And also, of course, with the mirrors allow you to do is to surreptitiously watch everybody else.

CK: You write, the restaurant gave new significance to the individuals emotions, utterances and actions, and elaborated a whole new logic of sociability and conviviality. That sounds philosophical. So, so what do you mean by that?

RS: Right. So, what I mean is that there are institutions that exist in modern life that we take for granted. And we don't think about the ways that they are sort of structuring our behaviors. So, if you can think back all the way to before when there were cell phones, and how weird it would have been to see people walking down the street, talking about their lives, like, why, why are you having this very private conversation in public, and yet, we do it all the time now. So, the technology of the cell phone has changed how we think about what's a public space, and what's private. So, when I say that about restaurants, what I mean is the idea that a restaurant is a place where you go in and you sit down at your own table, and you order your own meal, and you're not necessarily in fact, quite rarely talking to the other people in the restaurant. So, it created this new sort of space, a public space to go be private. And that was really a very new thing in the 1780s.

CK: Well, I'm not going back for bouillon, so I'm definitely post revolution. (Okay) Rebecca. It's been a real pleasure. Thank you so much.

RS: It's been a pleasure, indeed. Thank you again.

CK: That was Rebecca Spang, author of The Invention of the Restaurant. Now it's time to answer some of your cooking questions with my co-host, Sara Moulton. Sara is of course the star of Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television. Also, author of Home Cooking 101. And as you may know, she used to be a chef at La Tulip. So, Sara, you must have had over the years a number of interesting experiences there was something that really stood out.

Sara Moulton: Oh, well, there's plenty but one of our specialties was fish au p____So it was fish that was cooked essentially fish in a bag. It was a beautiful piece of pristine I think with red snapper, you know that had been skinned and we had all these special poached vegetables that we would put on top and then some butter and some wine and you'd fold it perfectly. And little secret we blew air into it. Because then when you went to bake it, it puffed up even more along with the air, whatever germs we put in there. There were no germs. We cooked it at such a high temperature, but any rate, it was supposed to be served tableside. So, the waiter would have to rush it out in this bag that was all puffed up taken to the table and carved tableside and serve at any rate, one evening, the waiter came back, panicking, and he said, the guest is eating the parchment. So, we all had a conference and we decided it won't kill the guest. Let them eat the parchment. And that's what we did.

CK: And did he or she finish the parchment?

SM: I don't remember. You'd think I remembered that.

CK: Was the guest eating by him or herself or at a table?

SM: No, no we didn't want to embarrass them. I think they were like it four top or something. But yeah, that was a very difficult moment. Yeah. Oh, well. Now we should take a call.

CK: Okay, time for calls.

SM: Welcome to Milk Street Who's calling?

Caller: Hi, this is Steven Fernandez. I'm calling from Charleston, West Virginia.

SM: Hi, Steven, how can we help you today?

Caller: I had a question about an ingredient. I participate in a local mac and cheese contest every year run by one of our local speech therapists. No, and I'm kind of known for being the weird mac and cheese guy. So, I ended up always buying different ingredients. Eventually, I kind of scaled them down and determine what I really want to do, which led me to picking up a jar of squid ink and I was trying to figure out what I could do with it.

SM: And well first of all, we all know that when you add squid ink to a recipe and it's usually something starchy, which makes a lot of sense. It turns it a dark color a black really, which isn't terrible at all, but just it's a different color. It's a different look. You know a lot of people think it's fishy tasting, it's really not it's more of a sort of a nice salty, briny addition. And when you're going to add something salty and briny to a dish, it helps that the dish is somewhat bland. So that's why it made sense to add it to your mac and cheese. Did you by the way?

Caller: No, I ended up doing like a confit tomato. Brie sauce with chicken skins.

SM: Brie sauce with chicken skins?

Caller: Yeah.

SM: Did you crisp them up?

Caller: Oh, yes. Yeah, they were kind of like a like a dusting.

SM: I approve of that I approve of that whole thing. How did it did you win?

Caller: Unfortunately, no, not this year.

SM: Well, you should have. Well anyway, just anything. So, pasta risotto rice, you know any ravioli any of those kinds of things would benefit from a little bit of squid ink because it would bring that counterbalance, I don't know Chris, what do you think?

CK: Yeah, I mean, you can make pasta. Obviously, risotto would make sense. As you said paella or other rice dishes. Yeah. You could just put it into mayonnaise or something just for the heck of it. Spread it on a sandwich or something or aioli or something. Fish Sandwich. I mean, that would be good. If you had a fried fish sandwich and had a black aioli with it. Is this a little tiny jar of this?

Caller: It’s a little tiny jar yeah.

CK: I think the mac and cheese would be good for Halloween though.

SM: Yeah, yes of course, absolutely.

Caller: I might do that.

CK: Some yellow cheddar, orange and black. Yeah, there you go.

SM: You sound like very adventurous cook, Stephen.

Caller: I try to be

CK: I guess I haven't lived because I haven't done the crisp chicken skins ground up.

SM: What a brilliant idea. That's brilliant. Yeah,

CK: You should have won. We’re all for you. Good luck for next year.

Caller: I appreciate it.

CK: All right.

Caller: Thank you. Bye. Bye.

SM: Bye.

CK: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: Hi, my name is Mary. I'm from Kalamazoo, Michigan.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: I was listening to one of your discussions on a previous broadcast. And it was talking about getting a good rice on breads and muffins. And I'm a relatively new bread baker. I was doing fairly good but then I could not get a good rise and in that broadcast. You I believe mentioned a cold house. And I think that describes me perfectly because we tend to have a house that 65 so what I was doing is I was using the proofing setting on my oven. And I'm still not getting a good rise whatsoever. So, I was struggling along until I heard your broadcast where you start talking about a proofing mat. What is better using proofing in the oven or the proofing mat?

CK: I would try the proofing mat and you just put the bowl any kind of bowl on top of it and it works really well. I would not trust a proofing setting on an oven because it's going to go up and down. In any thermostat. It's either on or off. So, when it gets below as level it'll turn on, then it will get hotter than the desired level and turn off. Right. That's how it works. (Okay) There's also for more money, a big box, it's a white plastic box, and it disassembles. And you can put, like two bowls in there. And that really works well. But it's a couple 100 bucks, I think the mat is well under $100. So that works. Well, in my experience, Sara?

SM: Dough will rise even with yeast in it, and even in the refrigerator, it's going to rise, it's just going to take a little longer. The thing about a slow rise as you develop more flavor. So maybe it's just a matter of waiting longer till it looks right.

Caller: I've got another question about the mat. And since you do use it, do you put like a little blanket around it so that the entire container stays warm?

CK: Like a tea cozy? Or bread cozy?

Caller: Yeah, yeah yeah

CK: You’ve just invented something. That's a good idea. You know what I did? I did put a kitchen towel over it. But what's going to happen is the bowl is going to slowly get a little warm. And it's just going to take the chill off. And as Sara said, she's right. It's just a question of time. But you may not want to sit there for six or eight hours.

Caller: Exactly. I want to thank you guys, because we drive around the countryside just so that we focus on just listening to you guys. So, you helped us.

CK: So, wow,

SM: Make our day here.

CK: Thank you.

Caller: Yeah, and we've discovered dirt roads we didn't even know we had let me tell you.

SM: Well, lovely

CK: That's a pleasure. Thank you so much.

SM: Yes, thank you, Mary.

Caller: Well, thank you guys. Thank you, guys.

SM: Take care

Caller: I appreciate it. Bye bye.

SM: Bye. Bye.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio if you have a kitchen question just give us a ring anytime. 855-426-9843 one more time 855-426-9843 or email us at questions at Milk Street Radio.com. Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: This is Jay.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: Over the years I have been trying to find this answer. When I was a kid, my grandma made these rubber cookies. And forever I've been trying to get the recipe I finally found the recipe from my mom gave the cookbook to my sister. And she found the recipe, but it entails ammonia carbonate. And you can't find that anymore. So, I'm wondering how we can go around that or how I can get around that.

CK: Yeah, when I was researching a project I did with Fannie Farmer recipes long time ago, about 1850 baking soda and baking powder came out. But before that there were other leaveners. Yeast actually was the original oven or ammonium carbonate, or Hartshorne was used, often used in cookies. I don't know what a rubber cookie is. But usually, you get a very crispy light texture when you use this particular leavener. So, you have no trouble using baking powder, baking soda. But I believe in the research I did that ammonium carbonate or Hartshorne did give you a very particular style of texture. Now you're going to tell me rubber cookies were dense and hard. What was it? What's a rubber cookie?

Caller: Toll House and Keebler has nothing on these. German cookies. They're like chewy. And the thing is, is that ammonia you can't get anymore, and they had to go to the pharmacy to get that. Even in the 80s.

CK: The texture is chewy, it's not very light and crispy, right?

Caller: Very chewy. Here's the thing. You boil water and sugar for a minute. And then you add three cups of flour with an egg, and then you put that powdered ammonia in, and then you beat it really well. And then you set in in a cool place for overnight. And then in the morning or overnight, you roll sin on a floured board, and you use like the old cookie cutters, you know, and then you bake in a hot oven, but you don't want to brown them. And then the trick is, is that it says to ripen in a tin, and I remember them putting them in bread tins. Right. But it's there's nothing like it.

CK: You can't get ammonium carbonate now, is that the problem?

Caller: You can't get that anymore. And I'm just trying to think that would be the closest way around that.

SM: Chris, can I interrupt for a second? (Sure). I believe it's also known as Baker's ammonia. And I know I've seen that online. You can find it in some Middle Eastern, you know, specialty shops.

Caller: Good or maybe there yeah

SM: because it sounds like it's worthwhile. It really does.

CK: I think modern leaveners are different. They're double acting like baking powder. So, it would react differently. You said let the dough rest overnight. Yeah, if you put baking powder in and let it rest overnight, it's going to be half depleted because it'll react to the liquid in the dough. Yeah, I think you would have to get this ingredient this leavener.

Caller: All right. Well, thank you so much.

CK: You're good to go. Thanks for calling.

Caller: All right, thank you so much.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio coming up. We hear Tales from the Life of a Maitre’D including $100 tips, celebrity clientele and threats from a mob boss that's coming up after the break.

April Dodd: Hi, this is April Dodd for Milk Street. In 2024 Milk Street is excited to be leading culinary tours in partnership with Culinary Backstreets to destinations like Istanbul, Oaxaca, Athens, and Mexico City you can learn more at 177 milkstreet.com/tours.

CK: This is Milk Street radio I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Right now, we're heading back into the world of restaurants for a visit with a famous maître d for more than 35 years Michael Ceccchi Azzolina has run front of house for many of New York's top restaurants including the Water Club, the River Cafe rolls, and Le Coucou. His memoir is called Your Table is Ready. Michael, welcome to Milk Street.

Michael Ceccchi Azzolina: Thanks, Chris. Great to be here.

CK: I will start with a quote from your book. “The restaurant industry is not just about truffles, and sweetbreads. It's also about sex, drugs and an array of misbehaviors perpetrated by both staff and guests”. So, I guess my question is, what is a restaurant? Is it a service? You know, is it performance art seems to be a lot more than I thought it was.

MA: I think it's an experience. I don't think you just go there for food. You go to maybe McDonald's for food, not for great experience, I don't think but I think to a restaurant where you going to dine with a staff there that's there to accommodate you. It's about the experience.

CK: So this may have helped you in your career, I guess. But you grew up in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, in the 60s, and it turned out that a lot of your extended family were actually in some cases, very directly connected to the mob. (Quite a few) so turns out that one of them was Uncle Joe, right?

MA: Yeah. Well, you know, in Italian families, you call extended friends, aunts and uncles sometimes. And this one Uncle Joe worked with, well, not with my mother, my mother worked in a real estate office. And in summers, I would be taken there because we couldn't afford summer camp. But every Friday this gentleman would come in and sit at a desk and first he’d come in and he grabbed my cheek and hey Mickie, good to see ya and he’d give me $1 bill. And he would take me around the corner to the 19th hole which was a bar that also served lunch. And it'd be five or six guys in fedora’s come up, they’d kiss each other on the cheek, and I thought he was giving them dollar bills also. Turned out I found out years later that Uncle Joe was actually Joe Colombo, the head of the Colombo crime family.

CK: Now one of the things I found so interesting is when you worked in the church, and you talked about how you work the crowd. Could you explain that because I think that actually may have been good training for being a maître d.

MA: Well, you're talking about being an altar boy (yeah, altar boy) Yeah, it's, you know, that was my first service job. You know, you serve mass and you go in there, and you polish the cruets it's and you lay up these tablecloths, and you knew that you were being watched in these beautiful white robes and all the old ladies in there would see him go about how cute he is, and how cute and you'd wind up, you know, helping them delivering groceries and you'd make extra money for that. And it was you were being tipped to do these errands from your guests that came into the church. So, I guess it was a beginning of the experience.

CK: So, you eventually started in the restaurant business Larousse. You've been in some great, amazing places Water Club, River Cafe. So, the first time you you were hired at a pretty high-end restaurant. Was that a huge learning experience for you or were you kind of ready for that?

MA: No, it was huge. It was huge. Like I started at Larousse because I wasn't making money at the theater next door and I had to make a living and the producing director said well, we can't pay you, but I'll get you a waiting job. And when that restaurant called closed my next job was directly at the Water Club, which became fine dining, I had no idea about this, I didn't know what existed. And I guess the big moment in my career was when I got chosen to go over to the River Cafe as a captain, and I felt like I'd made it that I was now in this world of fine dining, at one of the best restaurants in the city,

CK: You were an aspiring actor for a long time, I assume there's a fair amount of acting that goes into being a captain or a maître d.

MA: It's a show, you know, you set up the dining room and the lights are up and everyone's running around, and you know, you're setting your stage. And then it's time to open and the lights come down, the music comes up. And these people walk in the door, its theater, and the best captains or the best waiters, they're entertaining you to a certain degree, you know, they're not just presenting your food to you and telling you what's in the soup that night, someone I worked with was a singer, and his waiting skills were terrible. But when his station was falling apart, people get angry, he would just stop and break into song. And people would love him and forget that he screwed up their order or didn't give them a drink. And one of the best captains was was at the River Cafe. And he looked like a movie star. And he had this big smile. And he ran around the dining room like Fred Astaire, and he was the most sought-after captain in the restaurant, because it was the theater.

CK: You talk about in the book, that there was a lot of drugs and a lot of sex in the restaurants you worked at. I missed all that. So, so I mean, I was restaurants too. But like, where was the sex happening? Where are the drugs happening? Is this this all back in the men's room or under the table or what?

MA: Look, back then we had a guy in the kitchen at the Water Club, who was the guard manger and regularly passing you know, grams of coke through the past to people buying it. You know, guys would come in and palm you a $100 bill wrapped around to gram a coke, they would order bottles of champagne, come have a glass with us. So, you're part of the party, you're part of the entertainment. Again, you're part of the experience. And in a restaurant when you have easy access to alcohol and drugs and a lot of beautiful people running around. Well, obviously sex is going to happen. And did it, yeah. I mean, restaurant bathrooms have been places where people had sex for years. And they still do.

CK: I assume that part of your success was the ability to size people up quickly to figure out how to give them a good evening, right?

MA: Yeah. And I think the great Maître D's they know how to curate the dining room, know how to put this celebrity there next to that regular there who's not going to bother that celebrity, and you know, you want to have a feeling that the entire room is full of that exact same energy from one end to the other. Now look, a lot of times busier restaurants, you have one table available, and that's what you're getting. But at the beginning of the night, when you know who is coming in, you try and lay it out exactly where people are going to go.

CK: So, what's what's the deal with reservations. I remember back in the 70s, I used to go to a restaurant in New Haven, Connecticut. And there were two lines, there was the line out the front and then all these people in Cadillac’s would park in the back of the restaurant and go in the back door. And it's like, they didn't wait for a table. You know, I don't think many of them had a reservation. (So, it must have been my uncle’s). It was right. It's like I wasn't I was definitely not on the top of that list. So, I assume that restaurants always keep at least a table or two open for a last-minute celebrity. How does that work?

MA: Yeah. You got to keep a couple of tables up your sleeve. So, if you get that last minute call over and Meryl Streep is you know is around the corner. If you can help it, you're not going to say no to Meryl Streep, because one because she's Meryl Streep, but also people like to see that Meryl Streep is eating in the same restaurant that they are. So, you try to keep one or two tables open. Like at Le Coucou, I always had six or seven tables that only I could book. And I would hold those for regulars, celebrities, friends of the owner, friends of the chef you know the things that we needed to get in.

CK: So, you've had some some pretty exciting evenings. A woman walks in and passes out. But there was a lot more to the story than that, right?

MA: Oh, yeah. It was an, it was one of those hot summer days in Manhattan and it was Larousse restaurant on 42nd Street. And I'm setting up the dining room polishing a glass, all of a sudden, the door bursts open and this woman comes in and collapses on the floor. I was like, oh my god, I ran over, you know, kind of get you something. It's just she's had water water. So, I get her some water and suddenly about 20 people come rushing in the door, go over to this woman and they lift her up and suddenly they pull off a wig. And I realize it was Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie who was out filming on the street and wearing all this makeup and costumes and wigs that just had basically heatstroke and come into the restaurant for air conditioning and water collapsed. And, and it was Dustin Hoffman who came back a week later with his wife for dinner and to thank me.

CK: You know, that was the part of the story I just loved that he came back for dinner and thanked you. I mean now and you also had a famous run in with fat Anthony of the Gotti family. That didn't work out too well.

MA: Yeah, he was a mobster came in I didn't know he's a mobster, a guy comes in restaurant late at night goes to the bar, and he's drunk valet comes running in, hey, this guy won't give me his car keys, he left his car in the middle of the door here, we got to get them out of there. So, we got to cut them off. And turns out, the guy that I tried to cut off was part of the Gotti crime family. And I insulted him. And he on no uncertain terms came up to me and said, I don't know who you are. But you try not to serve me a drink, and you disrespected me. And I want to take care of you for that. And it's scared the daylights out of me. Because from growing up, I know these guys, you don't disrespect them. And eventually, we had to have a sit down from two different families. A regular customer of mine was in one family, with someone who's in the Gotti family just to pave things over. But for a good month, I was looking behind me every single day waiting for someone to hit me in the head.

CK: Could have been worse a lot worse (Yeah) Have you ever thrown people out of a restaurant or have chefs at your restaurant told people not to come back?

MA: Oh, yeah, yeah, no, more than once, one night through some out of a restaurant because he took his shirt off and would not put the shirt back on. And I said, okay, you got to leave, I'm going to throw him out. And he sucker punched me and knocked me across a bunch of tables. And another guy was just horrible to the waiters. Awful, awful, awful. He would take his ketchup and mustard and dump it on the table and expect the service to clean it up and finally, yeah, you get fed up and say, you know, you’ve got to go. You know, there's the ethos of the customer's always right, but it's not true. The customer deserves to be treated with as much respect and care and patience as possible. But when the behavior is egregiously bad, there's no reason for them to be in a restaurant.

CK: Could you describe the perfect evening for you? I mean, you know, you have to juggle 30 things at one time. But it which reminds me a lot of you were an actor of being an actor on a good night. What is a great night like for you?

MA: Yeah, a great night is when you're completely sold out. And there's maybe 10 - 15 guests that you really, really liked that are coming in. And the kitchens on because you knew at the pre-shift meeting, they made some specials that were great. And then things just happened like clockwork, and you have time. If you're the maître d, you have time to spend with those 10 or 15 people that are coming in. And what I've always done if I, you know, I'll sit down for a little bit, I'll have, you know, a sip of a glass of wine with some people, and I can really work the room and spend time and not only with people I know, but people I don't know, because I really really love to get to know the guests. And sometimes people will strike up a conversation with you. Next thing you know, they're the next regulars. And that's, that's the perfect night for me.

CK: So, I hear you're actually about to open a restaurant. (Yeah) There's something missing in the world of restaurants you think you can add to?

MA: No, I can't add to it. Oh, maybe I can add to it. And hopefully this is what was being egotistical. But I am opening a restaurant, and I'm opening a restaurant, not so much because I love restaurants. Because I love again the experience of restaurants. I love going out to dinner, and having a martini in a very comfortable restaurant where the light is right. And I could, you know, have a great conversation with my wife, my family, my friends. And I love creating that environment. I love having people come in and be able to celebrate something or just come in for dinner, and really stepping out of their life for an hour and a half or two hours and getting this experience where you're feeding them. I really feel that my I'm not fulfilling my life without having that in my life.

CK: So, I guess you just answered my first question, which is what is a restaurant? Yeah, it's not just about the food. It's not just about the service. It's about now the experience. Yeah,

MA: Yeah. Look, we're social beings you know, we need to see other people. We need to know that there's life going on around us. You know, restaurants provide that. And they're so important to the fabric of our lives.

CK: Michael, thanks so much, and the best of luck in your new venture.

MA: I appreciate that. It's been my pleasure. Thank you, Christopher.

CK: That was Michael Cecchi Azzolina author of Your Table is Ready Tales of a New York City maître d. Michael got started in the restaurant industry while pursuing an acting career. And that's of course true of a lot of actors. We talked to some of them, and they agree there's a lot of theater to be found in restaurant work.

Adrienne Walker (actor): It was kind of like an audition. Like when you go into an audition, you want to seem confident. You want to give the impression that hey, you want to work with me, right? I want to work with you in a lot of situations we’re something or becoming what we think people need in that moment. And I think servers have to do that all the time.

CK: That was Adrienne Walker, who made her Broadway debut in 2016 as Nala in The Lion King, but a year before that her waitressing background came in handy. When she was in a Super Bowl commercial for McDonald's.

AW: They implanted me into a McDonald's in downtown Chicago as an employee, all the cameras were hidden, and I was supposed to interact with customers and get them to pay with something other than money. So, having so much experience interfacing with people that made it easier.

CK: Some actors also told us they might be studying you to develop a character. Drew Talbert has 2 million followers on TikTok, where he does sketch comedy based on things that happened to him as a waiter,

Drew Talbert: Is there anything else I can bring you tonight? The winning lottery ticket. If I had that you think I'd be working here, right? Got to watch this one huh. For decades now, I'm listening to the same joke. Oh, we hated it holding up the empty plate. You know, I mean, I can't tell you how many times I've heard that. And every time the customer says it, you laugh. And as an actor, you try to do it in a believable way. So, I just got pretty good at giving a really hearty laugh. I also studied this the best way to do it, how you kind of go up on the laugh as you walk away to get away from a talkative person, you know? Okay, all right. I just kind of head out.

CK: Another actor we talked to Kimberly Doreen Burns also found that waitressing was a big help to her theater career. She worked at a popular spot in midtown Manhattan, so she could be in the heart of the theater scene. She'll never forget the night that one couple sat down in her section.

Kimberly Doreen Burns: I served them for an hour and a half, you know, chicken, chardonnay, the whole thing. And finally, the gentleman at the table you just asked me said so you're an actor, you know, what are you working on now? And that's always like a horrifying question in New York, because most of the time the answer is nothing. Can I get you anything else, sir, you know, for dinner. But I decided to open up to this man. And I said, well, I was supposed to be doing this show. I said I was very excited about it. And it got cancelled because the funding fell through. And after the conversation was over, he gave me his business card. And he said, have your director, give me a call and then like a week later, I got an email from our director that this couple that I had met, had come up with the money and the show was back on. So, my waitressing job actually saved this magical production.

CK: That show was a theatrical adaptation of the movie Sideways. And Kimberly's character was a waitress. Coming up more dinner theater, Geraldine DeRuiter sits down for a Michelin starred meal. But all she gets is a strange night of performance art. That's up after the break. I'm Christopher Kimball you're listening to Milk Street Radio. A few years ago, blogger Geraldine DeRuiter splurged on a tasting menu at Bros in Lecce Italy. But it was not the meal she expected.

Geraldine DeRuiter: There is something to be said about a truly disastrous meal, a meal forever indelible in your memory, because it's so uniquely bad it can only be deemed an achievement. The sort of meal where everyone involved was definitely trying to do something. It's just not entirely clear what .I'm not talking about a meal that's poorly cooked or a server who might be planning your murder. That sort of thing only happens in the fat lump of the bell curve of bad. I'm talking about the long tail stuff. The sort of meal that make you feel as though the fabric of reality is unraveling. This is how I've come to regard our dinner at Bros, Lecce’s only Michelin starred restaurant. It wasn't dinner. It was dinner theater. We headed to the restaurant with high hopes eight of us in total led into a cement cell of a room. The decor had the shakiness of an underground bunker where one would expect to be interrogated for the disappearance of an ambassador's child. What followed was a 27-course meal. It spanned four and a half hours and made me feel like I was a character in a Dickensian novel, because there was nothing even close to an actual meal being served. Some courses were slivers of edible paper, some were shot glasses of vinegar, we got 12 kinds of foam, something that I can only describe as an oyster loaf that tasted like Newark Airport, and a teaspoon of savory ice cream that was olive flavored. I thought it was going to be pistachio. We kept waiting for someone to bring us anything that resembled dinner until the exact moment when we realized it would never come. It was when our friend Lisa tried to order another bottle of wine. Would you like red or white? The server asked. What are we having for the main? The main madam, we're about to move on to dessert.

CK: That was Geraldine DeRuiter reading an excerpt from her essay Bros. Lecce, we eat at the worst Michelin starred restaurant ever. She joins us now to share more about this disastrous meal. Geraldine welcome to Milk Street.

Geraldine DeRuiter: Hi, thank you so much for having me.

CK: So, when did you first get a hint that this was going to be a terrible experience was this before any of the food showed up? Or was this after a few courses?

GR: I mean, there was this bizarreness throughout. It felt almost like a pastiche of every send up that you've ever heard about fine dining. The thing that I've found that people have likened the experience to is the film The Menu, one of the characters, I guess the chef approaches her and says how are you enjoying the food? And she goes, what food you haven't fed us. And so, it wasn't really until the meat molecules. Yeah, the meat droplet course, where it all fell apart.

CK: And what what is a meat molecule? What is it?


GR: It was drops of jelly that were beef flavored? Or maybe meat flavored? They didn't actually describe what meat, but they have they put the plates out. And then they came around and they swirl the sauce on each of the plates. And I was like, oh my gosh, tableside service. Okay, they are going to come by and place a protein on that sauce. And someone came by and my hand to God, he had an eyedropper and he squeezed, I would say, between 10 and 14 drops onto the sauce. And he said this has been infused with meat molecules. And then he left.

CK: One of the dishes I remember you wrote about was the rancid ricotta. Maybe you could just read what you wrote about that.

GR: Yeah. Oh boy. I'm going to have some flashbacks here. But on the rare occasion, where they did offer an explanation for a dish, it did not help. These are made with rancid ricotta the server said a tiny fried cheese ball in front of each of us. I'm sorry. Did you say rancid? You mean fermented? Aged? No. rancid. Okay. I said an Italian. But I think that something might be lost in translation. Because it can't be raunchio he clarified.

CK: He wasn't giving an inch.

GR: I know. I tried to I was like come on fermented, which actually it is. I think fermented is the way you would describe it.

CK: There was another one unbelievably called the chef's kiss. That seemed like the real horror of the evening. Could you read your description of it?

GR: This is the dish, right? Another course a citrus foam was served in a plaster cast of the chef's mouth. We weren't given utensils. We were told to lick it out of the chef's mouth in a scene that I'm pretty sure was stolen from an Eastern European horror film.

CK: And did you put your mouth up to it.

GR: I mean, there was no alternative. And I was so hungry. So, at this point, yeah, I was, I was willing to do things for calories Chris. Right things I'm not proud of I was willing to make out with a ramekin of a mouth, the chef's mouth, yes. Which is such an exploration of ego that I could write an essay on that alone, that you are making your diners, lick food out of your own mouth.

CK: So here you are having wasted is really an understatement. Four hours of your life and almost $2,000. So, you're at the end of this trial? Yes. Then what happens?

GR: They had a stand up. And they said, if you would please leave the restaurant. And I was like, yes, we're leaving. Thank you know, they walked us across the street to another studio, where they had a video of the kitchen team playing extreme sports, or on a huge TV screen. I don't know why. And there was a gentleman who was cutting a huge wedge of their vegan cheese. And I'm like, okay, we're going to get to eat that. And he proceeds to cut wafer thin slices. And I'm like, Oh, God. So that was our fake exit. We thought that was our real exit. It was not so then another hour and a half later, they hand us all balloons, (what?) balloons with Bros written on it. And they're like, oh, don't you want a Polaroid with the shelf. I was like, what? And then we walked out and put all of our balloons into a dumpster, went back to the little place we had rented and talked about the absurdity of the evening.

CK: So, your review of that night went viral. The chef, of course took note of it. And he came out with a pretty odd statement in defense of his cooking. Maybe you could describe what he said.

GR: Yeah, so the chef sent a manifesto, and it had three pictures of men on horses. And the first one was just a stock art image. And it's a drawing of a man on a horse. The second one is a painting by Jacques Louis David. It's quite famous. It's Napoleon crossing the Alps. So, it's this very grandiose painting of Napoleon riding a horse. And the third one is this sort of postmodern abstract painting of what is supposedly it's entitled A Man on the Horse.

CK: I love he says, you quote this, but what is art? What is food? What's the chef? What's the client? What is good taste? What looks beautiful? And then my favorite? What is a man on a horse?

GR: Yeah. Which I have been told by a former employee of the restaurant that he did not actually write that. That was a glowing response by someone who had eaten at the restaurant. But yeah, it was this absurdist response.

CK: It's one thing to have a big ego. We all know chefs who do Yeah. But this goes not a step farther. This goes many steps farther, where it is into the realm of total absurdity. (Yes). So, you thought about this a lot. Obviously, it's occupying months of your life. So, was this just someone trying to, you know, do performance art, married to food, and just lost his or her way? Or do you think something else was going on here?

GR: I have thought about this a lot. And I don't know that I have a definitive answer. But I think that he is very far removed from one of the key elements of what it is to run a restaurant. His entire argument is that food is art. And I disagree with that, in that I think food is a lot more complicated than art. I think that if you create a piece of art, and someone hates it, then you as an artist have still succeeded, right in some way because you've provoked a reaction. But if you are a chef, you not only have to incorporate artistic elements into your food, you have to make it appealing to the diner. (That's a good point.) So, I think that he has completely disregarded that fact.

CK: It seems to me that what's happened is diners because he he has gotten some good reviews. diners are willing to go along with chefs who act like generals out of control who don't care about the diners and and keep getting good feedback. So, they just want to see how far they can push it right? You know, the emperor has no clothes. (Oh, absolutely) You know, I think a lot about the Japanese system of mentorship and French to where there is perfection or an artistry but it's in the service of creating something that people will like as you said, right. So, I think food is art as long as the art is connected to creating the best food you can.


GR: Absolutely and creating something that you know in the end will be consumed by someone and it'll make them happy.

CK: Geraldine, you're a great writer. Really fun review and I wish you all the best.

GR: Thank you and thank you so much for having me on the show.

CK: That was writer Geraldine DeRuiter. Her blog is the everywhere trust.com. In response to DeRuiter’s viral blog post, the restaurant owner responded, what is art? What is food? What is the chef and my favorite? What is a man on a horse? food on a plate is not abstract. It tells the story of the craftsmanship of the cook who put it there. Eat it, don't discuss it. Enjoy it don't fiddle faddle with thoughts of Rembrandt or Verdi. Even one of the most celebrated chefs of all time, Paul Bocuse, famously viewed himself as blue collar, rather than as an elite artist. It's your lunch, it's your joy. It's not the Metropolitan. That's it for today. You can find all of our episodes at Milk Street radio.com or wherever you get your podcasts. You can learn more about Milk Street and 177 Milk Street.com. There you can become a member and get full access to every recipe access to all of our live stream cooking classes, free standard shipping for the Milk Street store and more. You can also find us on Facebook at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street on Instagram and Twitter at 177 Milk Street. We'll be back next week with more food stories and kitchen questions and thanks as always for listening.

Christopher Campbell's Milk Street radio is produced by Milk Street in association with GBH co-founder Melissa Baldino, executive producer Annie Sensabaugh, senior editor Melissa Allison, producer Sarah Clapp, Associate Producer Caroline Davis with production help from Debby Paddock. Additional editing by Sidney Lewis, audio mixing by Jay Allison and Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The music by Toubab Krewe additional music by George Brandl Egloff. Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is distributed by PRX.