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What’s Your Excuse?


FOOD FOR THOUGHT - June 14, 2006 - Mark R. Vogel - - Archive

Recently I went out to dinner with my fiancĂ© and my parents.  My father’s string beans were served rather hard and so he returned them to the waitress.  Moments later she reappeared stating that the chef said:  “That’s the way they’re coming in now”, (meaning from the supplier), and “there’s nothing they can do about it.”  I never heard such bovine fecal matter in my life.  Well, actually I have, that’s the point of this article, but anyway……..  We were all so flabbergasted that we just let the whole thing go.  Now it eats at me that I didn’t pick that bone with the chef.  (For those of you who may not know, there is little or no variation in the firmness of raw string beans from supplier to supplier and even if there was, no matter how tough they were, they can be cooked longer until tender). 

     Then the questions ran through my head.  Did the waitress actually return the string beans to the chef?  Maybe for reasons unbeknownst to us she wished to avoid confronting him and devised what she thought was a plausible excuse.  Or maybe the chef was too busy or lazy to cook them further and hence, proffered an excuse he thought the average customer would buy.  Or worse yet, the chef is deplorably incompetent and actually believes his own falsehood.  These things boggle my mind.

     Sometimes excuses spring from pure laziness.  One day I stopped and shopped at a well known supermarket.  I approached the seedy looking “butcher” in the meat department and asked if he had any ground sirloin.  He stated that it was illegal to sell ground sirloin in NJ.  I was so astounded by this blatant canard that I didn’t know what to say.  Even though I had purchased ground sirloin before I gave him the benefit of the doubt and contacted the state agency that oversees the sale of beef.  They thought I was crazy for even asking if the statement was true.  Clearly the guy did not want to be bothered with fetching a piece of sirloin, grinding it, and then having to clean the grinder.  That’s just one reason out of many I avoid that particular supermarket chain.  Although their antics do give me material for my column.

     Sometimes excuses are a direct manifestation of the person’s ignorance or below average acumen.  A chef I know was served undercooked potatoes in his potato salad.  When he told the server that the potatoes were hard the server quipped in a tone suggesting the chef was nuts:  “It’s a cold potato salad sir.”  Obviously the server couldn’t fathom that potatoes are first cooked before being chilled and fabricated into potato salad. 

     Sometimes it is the chef’s own culinary ignorance behind a preposterous excuse.  There is a well known, upscale restaurant that I frequent, one that has even received Wine Spectator awards for its wine list.  I know the chef and have been patronizing the establishment all my life.  One night my fiance’s vichyssoise was served lumpy, like curdled cream.  Vichyssoise is a potato and leek soup that when made properly, is creamy, delicious, and smooth as silk.  When I informed the chef that the soup was lumpy and not smooth, he retorted:  “How can it be smooth, it has potatoes in it?” I literally couldn’t believe my ears!  Although the texture of vichyssoise is partially a function of the type of potatoes you use and how you puree them, the primary means of producing a lump-free consistency is by filtering the soup through a sieve, particularly a very fine one known as a chinois.  It is beyond comprehension that this chef, a seasoned pro who has made so many magnificent dishes could not know this.  And he knows I’m a chef so it’s not like he thinks I’m Joe Schmo who won’t know better and will accept the inaccurate excuse.  Is it possible that this man can be an accomplished chef and not know such a basic technique?  It would be akin to a carpenter knowing how to build a house but not knowing how to plane a door.  How could that happen???

     Well there you have it folks.  Be it stupidity, laziness, or ignorance, every so often we will be served unsatisfactorily prepared food with an even more unsatisfactorily prepared reason to justify it.  Most of the time I seek to avoid confrontations and just let these situations go, but every so often you reach your limit.  One day I ordered pasta with clam sauce at a local tavern.  The pasta was loaded with grit.  Every bite tasted like they had sprinkled sand on the entire dish.  Clearly they had not washed the clams adequately.  I told the waitress who immediately started to give me a convoluted story about the types of clams they were and how they are cooked and how that causes them to be grittier, etc. etc. etc.  Realizing that she was endeavoring to not return my food with her shoddy excuse I abruptly interrupted her and barked: “Look.  I’m a chef.  That’s bull-****.  They just didn’t clean the clams!” She took back my food and adjusted the check without another word.  Sometimes you just have to say sorry, but you are NOT excused.


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