Dumb Waiters

Anoted restaurant critic and cookbook author recounts a visit to one of Dallas's finer restaurants a decade or so ago. The menu listed fresh foie gras. At the time, this was, for American gourmets, a breakthrough more significant than the Apollo moon landings. Because raw meats could not be imported into the United States, for reasons that seem even sounder in light of the current news from Europe, and because no one in the United States had mastered the art of making waterfowl gorge themselves until they resembled feathered bowling balls, one had to travel to Europe, especially to France, to experience the special pleasures of foie gras.

Then, somewhere in the Catskill Mountains, within hailing distance of such establishments as Grossinger's, the Concord and the Sha-Wan-Ga Lodge -- where the art of overfeeding had been perfected on humans -- some brave, pioneering duck farmer broke the code. Fresh foie gras appeared in New York City at gourmet outlets such as Dean & DeLuca and subsequently became available to restaurant chefs all over the United States. But this was all news to the food writer at the time, and he asked the waitress whether the bird used for generating the foie gras was a duck or a goose and where, exactly, had the birds been raised.

"She went into the kitchen and then returned with the dish," the scribe recounts, "and essentially threw the thing in front of me. Then she announced that 'It's duck liver. It's from New York. And I'm not answering any more questions because I'm a vegetarian.' "

This, of course, raised a number of questions, chief among them: Why was a vegetarian working as a member of the waitstaff at a fine-dining restaurant where omnivorousness is the order of the day? And why did the restaurant hire a vegetarian? The latter question, asked in print by our scribe, resulted in a fatwa being declared against him by the shadowy but powerful network of vegetarian waiters. Thus, he shall remain nameless.

Restaurants that aspire to gourmet status rather than, to use a wonderful term developed in the old Soviet Union, "points of societal nourishment," need to hire waitstaff that can discuss the food being offered by the creative chefs in the kitchen. People do not go to three-star restaurants in Europe because they are hungry. Throughout the United States, this idea is catching on with diners, especially younger ones. When it comes to creating informed waitstaff in these restaurants, some do, some don't.

Cafe Annie [1728 Post Oak Boulevard, (713)840-1111] is a restaurant where dining-as-entertainment or food-as-art has been offered for close to two decades. The restaurant has won all sorts of awards, is one of the few Houston restaurants to routinely make it into the New York Times food sections, and is known for its knowledgeable staff. This is not fortuitous.

Chef and owner Robert Del Grande is happy to reveal how this comes about.

"The kitchen staff and the waitstaff, historically, don't like each other, so you always have to work to overcome that," he says. "In the back, we meet, taste the dishes, go into the products used to make them on a daily basis. It does take organization, and it takes commitment. I used to even cook dishes in front of the waitstaff so that they could see the steps involved and explain them to diners. If the waitstaff understands what goes into a dish and how it is done, they can readily inform diners who may want a substitution of one sauce for another or something else done specially. They won't agree to the substitution, then go back into the kitchen and find out the product needed to make the item is not in stock."

"Some restaurants don't prepare dishes for the staff to taste because they feel their food costs would go up excessively or because they think it saves time, but it is always a worthwhile investment," Del Grande continues. "People can memorize words, descriptions of dishes and wines, but when they taste them, when they have an immediate aesthetic reaction, they can share that enthusiasm with the customers…. I've been to restaurants where I've asked the waiter whether they have tried the special or even a regular menu item and been told they have not. How can they explain it to the customer, then?"

As a final observation, Del Grande says, "People may enjoy getting a feeling of suspense from a book or a movie, but I don't think anybody values suspense in food. The same happens when you order a bottle of wine. So you work to always reduce the amount of suspense."

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George Alexander