Why does service sometimes feel magical and, on other occasions, seem positively animatronic? At what point does mechanical precision serve to sap the expression of genuine emotion? And how do bastions of hospitality ensure that their employees can truly connect with guests and make them feel unique?
Thoughts on the Chicago dining scene’s latest mocktroversy.
You revel in the fear you once felt when entering revered dining rooms. You treasure the technical errors, faux pas, and outright mortification inflicted upon those who stewarded your earliest gastronomic experiences. For the true test of hospitality staff is how handle those agonizing moments with aplomb, resisting the temptation to twist the knife and solidify a bad memory. Graciousness, on such an occasion, comes close to godliness.
Featuring: Alla Vita and a Bellemore Post-Mortem
The “Mickey Mouse factor” refers to the phenomenon in which children who are picky eaters at home are willing to try all sorts of new foods within Disney’s theme parks. If you extricate the concept from its theme park setting and apply it towards dining writ large, the mechanism actually proves quite enlightening.
Milk Bar, in its current, dysfunctional state, is nothing but a scourge to the American food system. It snares consumers with style over substance, fails to educate them in any manner of pastry appreciation, and, ultimately, leaves them high and dry with neither cake nor money. You hope you have given some voice and sense of permanence to the many complaints of consumers whom have been wronged by Tosi’s lust for profits.
Like children staring up at Rainforest Cafe’s artificial night sky (or shaking from the booms and quakes of its fake thunderstorms), Alinea’s customers are served an illusion. They are led to believe that a food’s trappings are valuable even when divorced from satisfying flavors, from nature, or from nostalgia. They are tricked into thinking that a restaurant which denies dining’s transcendent, human dimension has any value as a conjurer of culinary gibberish. They are, ultimately, suckers who are being sold a future where a restaurant’s quality grows with how “Instagrammable” the experience is.
The “enlightened” fine diner’s goal, when all is said and done, has little to do with fulfilling personal pleasure. Their goal should be an appreciation of an establishment’s distinction–relative to any other place in the world–through understanding what is done and why.
Reviewing restaurants with respect to “reality” rather than “hyperreality” means enveloping oneself in the insecurities of an audience that has little to no experience with “fine dining.” It means preserving the magic, educating the consumer when necessary, but never letting one’s cynicism infect the experience (let alone the political axes one has to grind). A critic should challenge their reader without ever blowing smoke up their ass.
In the age of airborne viral transmission, the relationship between “server” and “served” has never been more consequential and, ironically, impersonal.