Hospitality Rules: Be good to those serving you

Enjoying skillfully prepared food is one of my life’s great pleasures. Whether I am in someone’s home, a greasy spoon diner, BBQ pit, or a Michelin starred restaurant, people’s pride and joy in sharing food connects me to a gracious practice of hospitality – an ancient tradition with obligations expected and enjoyed by both host and guest.

People who really know me understand that I love fine dining, but I love great food in any setting. CK’s Coffee Shops comprise a now smaller chain of 24-hour diners in Memphis serving up breakfast, burgers and steaks from the grill 365 days a year. I consider their omelette one of the best in Memphis.

CK omelettes may be ordered plain, with cheese, or with ham and cheese. The CK omelette isn’t fancy but is one of the fluffiest omelettes I’ve eaten. The small skillet they use with curved edges allows the omelette to puff up like a soufflé.

Within the last year, I paid a visit to CK’s and ordered my usual ham and cheese omelette. After placing my order, I noticed that my server approached another employee sitting at the end of the counter enjoying a much-earned break during her shift. After a quiet conversation with my server, that employee stood and moved to the gas stove to prepare my omelette. I figured out that the employee on break possessed the best omelette-making skills on her shift. She gave the best she had to offer me as her guest. I made sure my gratuity acknowledged that she shortened her break to make me a fabulous omelette.

Hospitality happens in both directions. To be a good host, one must offer the best that one can. To be a good guest one must accept someone’s best offering with gratefulness. While this sounds simple, the guest-host relationship sometimes runs aground when expectations exceed limits. A visit to a fine dining restaurant in Italy two years ago demonstrates the point.

We traveled to Alba in the heart of the Piemonte in time for the truffle harvest in the fall of 2015. We reserved a table for four to include our traveling companions Christy Cain and Christy Tweddle at Piazza Duomo headed by Chef Enrico Crippa. Just after sunset, we approached the town center in darkness inside a twisting maze of narrow streets until our GPS brought the car into an open piazza with a towering cathedral illuminated by moonlight. We entered the restaurant from an alley through a steel door to the second floor where we would spend the rest of the evening.

Our visit marked the culinary apex of our Italian journey – the only three-star Michelin restaurant (later named #15 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017). We looked forward to drinking some of the finest wines and eating creatively prepared foods from the region. Three separate fixed menus transfixed us (one with truffles in each course), but we ordered a la carte for dinner.

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Paul ordered a beautiful signature dish called the Salad 21-31-41-51, named for the number of fresh, local greens available each season in the region. I ordered the Eggs and Egg Salad: mixed greens with caviar and grated cured egg yolk. The Christies ordered Veal Tartar with White Truffle and Tuna Carpaccio. The wait staff brought a knob of white truffle under a glass dome and sliced fresh peels on our plates. We enjoyed passing the works of art on our plates to each other to sample a few bites. With more courses to come, pure joy poured over us – until the interruption came.

“Bring me a tomato for my salad! I should be able to have a tomato.” One of two women with Russian accents argued in English with their server at the table across from us.

Their server explained that the kitchen had no fresh tomatoes since they were out of season in October. He spoke calmly and graciously to them as he shared the pride that Chef Crippa and his staff feel in preparing dishes with the freshest seasonal ingredients.

The Russians, as we came to call them, pouted loudly as their server left the table. As they worked themselves into another confrontation with their server, other customers in the dining room began to notice them too.

“Bring me a green apple,” one of the women demanded.

Their server politely informed that the kitchen did not have green apples.  The Russians continued to press him, “I am the customer. I am paying you. You should bring me what I want. I want a green apple.”

The server declined this new request. One of the Russians demanded to speak to a manager.

By this point, the entire dining room could not ignore the spectacle of these two women. When first observed, the women appeared to be hip, attractive, and stylish. Those qualities disappeared behind their grimaced faces and poor attitudes which made them too ugly to bear.

The maître d’ appeared. The more vocal of the women shared her unreasonable demands again until the manager offered, “This restaurant is not just for you. Others are here to enjoy what we have to offer. We are not a grocery store.”

“How dare you say that to me! I am the customer. I should be able to get what I want. You should apologize!”

All other conversations ceased as the side-eye of every diner in the room flashed like lasers at the two women. The maître d’ squared his shoulders, held his head high, smiled, and said, “I apologize for you.”

For you. Not to you. For you.

Maybe the maître d’ misspoke.  Perhaps his English response to the women meant something different to him, but I didn’t think so. The maître d’ looked straight at the woman when he apologized for her but intended the message for others in the room enduring these boorish women.

The maître d’ returned to his duties. Within a few minutes, the server brought the two women their bill which they hastily paid. The two women stood and turned toward the door. Before they reached the exit, our table began clapping our hands in applause followed by nearly everyone in the dining room – just in time for the two tactless and indignant women to hear our relief on their departure.

Our joy returned. We continued our courses and delighted in desserts of various chocolate confections. With the devil in her eye, Christy Cain also asked to speak to the maître d’. When he appeared, Christy shared that she really enjoyed her food but jokingly asked for a green apple to finish out the meal. We couldn’t hold back our laughter any longer. Christy complimented the staff for the way they responded to the petulant boors.

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The staff of Piazza Duomo lavished us with thoughtful kindness. Upon learning that Milan lay ahead of us in our trip, one of the servers brought a handwritten list of restaurants and bars he recommended. Another server took the time to fulfill Christy’s last request of them: a drawing of a green apple. Good humor restored order and cheer to the dining room

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Our experience at Piazza Duomo teaches an important lesson. Each restaurant specializes in making certain kinds of food. When the promise of that food falls below stated expectations, the customer should complain. But if a restaurant serves the best they have to offer and the customer doesn’t like it, it’s the customer’s problem, not the restaurant’s. If a guest does not care for the ordered dish, it’s not the chef’s fault. The customer is NOT always right. Dining at a new restaurant involves a certain amount of adventure. Not everyone enjoys every kind of food. No one forces anyone to eat at a restaurant. If you dine at a new establishment, be ready to experience something different than the food you normally eat. The people that prepare your food work hard to make it the best they can. A guest owes a host respect for that effort.

Making unreasonable demands of hospitality from one’s host breaks an ancient bond between guest and host. This holds true whether one dines at CK’s Coffee Shop in Memphis or a three-star Michelin restaurant in Italy.

Be grateful and cheerful to those who serve you.

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