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How many times has this happened to you: You’re invited to a friend’s or relative’s home for dinner. You’re leery about what they’re making and/or who’s doing the cooking. The meal is served, it tastes like road kill, and then they ask if you like it. You marshal up your best feigned facial expression and tone of voice, and in a convincing display of political correctness proclaim: “Oh it’s wonderful, very good.” Then you start doing your encores: “How did you make it?” “You must give me the recipe.” In the car with your spouse on the way home you regurgitate the act almost as vehemently as you could have done so with the food. “That was horrible! What did she put in that sauce?”
I personally recall one dinner date with friends years ago. They made meatloaf. At first glance you might think, how much can you screw up meatloaf? Trust me, a lot. It was so bad I was literally incapable of choking it down out of politeness. So bad, that the anxiety of having to face their disappointment from my rejection of their food was less painful than the food itself. That’s how bad you can screw up meatloaf.
Some people take their culinary offerings very personally. They may feel hurt if their food is rebuffed. Unfortunately, foul tasting food can take as much time to prepare as good food. The cook might be particularly miffed by the amount of effort they put into the meal, only to be met by uninspired palates. Moreover, distaste for the food one slaved over can feel like giving someone a gift they don’t like. We are left feeling unappreciated or like we have failed the other in some way.
On a deeper level, one’s food can become an extension of one’s ego. Thus, if we reject someone’s cooking, they feel as if we are rejecting them. This is especially true of many professional chefs. Here the “rejection” strikes at their culinary skills, their livelihood, and one of their deepest passions, in addition to their sense of self.
One day I ordered Rigatoni Zingara at a local Italian eatery. It was absolutely horrible. I mean there was something very wrong with the dish. Either one of the ingredients had gone bad or some foreign substance accidentally got mixed into it. When I sent it back the chef was so incensed he threatened to call the police on me in order to force me to pay for it. A prudent chef would have tasted the food and queried his staff to assess if there was a problem with the ingredients or the preparation.
With a business as financially tenuous as a restaurant, you must always be on guard for fluctuations in your product and fabrication techniques. You can’t just assume the customer’s nuts and eschew quality control. Only psycho-chef would engage in a tirade and ignore the possibility that there was actually something wrong with the dish.
Sometimes though, there’s nothing wrong with the food. All cooks, from the amateur to the professional must remember that everyone’s taste is different. A chef is not a tailor. A tailor customizes your suit by fabricating it to your exact measurements and body profile. A chef cannot take a bio-chemical analysis of your taste buds and a psychological profile of your food sensitivities. A chef is more of an artist following his own innate creative proclivities. He can produce a masterpiece and there will still be some people who just don’t like the painting.
Finally, sometimes it’s the food recipient whose brain is a couple tacos short of a combo meal. One day I witnessed a man returning a ham sandwich at a fast food restaurant because there was some visible fat on the ham. He stated his diet restricted him from eating fat. Hello. Anybody home? If you can’t consume fat, why the hell are you ordering a ham sandwich, in a fast food restaurant of all places?
But the ultimate dread of people disliking your food, is that the fault lies squarely in your cooking skills. That the problem was not due to individual variation in taste or some quirk in the food rejecter but something you did. Yikes! What do you do then? I’ll tell you. You muster up the fortitude to put your ego on the shelf and you strive to learn what you did wrong and how to correct it. You don’t throw a tantrum like an emotionally-challenged-chef. You shrug off the fact that your puttanesca sauce wasn’t a hit and move on with life. That’s what you do.
And what if you’re one of the poor souls gagging on the grim food while the host is inquiring if you like it? What do you tell them? Well, the truth of course. Put on your best smile and cheerily reply: “I’ve never tasted anything like this!” Then ask them how they made it, and then change the topic.