Hell Phone

The Edwardian humorist H.H. Munro, who wrote under the pen name Saki, created in his short story "The Chaplet" the first depiction of a conflict that would stain many pages of 20th-century history. We are not writing here of class warfare or ethnic rivalry or national politics pursued by other means. Those are the traditional, immemorial activities of the witless. We are writing of the tension between a chef of real talent and the distractions thrown by modern society at his audience of diners. In the story, chef Aristide Saucourt is seen introducing a new creation to the diners of the Grand Sybaris Hotel. The elegant, painstakingly prepared dish is called Canetons à la mode d'Amblève, and just as it is served, the hotel orchestra launches into a popular tune, "The Chaplet." Chef Saucourt must watch his dish "grow cold in total neglect, or suffer the almost worse indignity of perfunctory pecking and listless munching."

Dining room orchestras are most likely to be encountered nowadays in a Merchant-Ivory costume drama. Today a chef must compete with a different diabolical instrument: the cellular telephone.

A writer for My Table magazine, the local bimonthly, recently described a physical confrontation that took place in Benjy Levit's Dish restaurant [2300 Westheimer, (713)528-2050] over the issue of cell phone use. As Levit recalls it, "The basis of the dispute, even though it was a busy night, was that one table overheard a conversation at another table. They raised an objection and were told to mind their own business.There was some water splashed."

Fortunately, despite Governor Bush's open invitation for all Texans to, as the expression in The Sopranos has it, "come heavy," the dispute did not end with an exchange of gunfire.

"It did raise the question," Levit reports, "of if we needed to establish a policy. But we didn't, because most people are sensible about cell phone use, and will go into the bar or elsewhere if they have to have a conversation."

No other Houston restaurants contacted have instituted a policy regarding cell phones at present, not even the very correct Tony's [1801 Post Oak Boulevard, (713)622-6778]. This is not to say that many restaurant people do not have an opinion on the subject. At another Houston equivalent of Munro's fictional Grand Sybaris Hotel, Mark's [1658 Westheimer, (713)523-3800], hostess Melissa Smith observed, "I wish we did" have a policy against cell phones. "I think it is the rudest thing. I think cell phones should be turned off when you go into any fine-dining restaurant."

A few miles west, a branch of a famous New York City restaurant, The Palm [6100 Westheimer, (713)977-2544], dispenses steaks and large lobsters to an upmarket crowd. Even though a certain amount of NYC-like hub and bub is programmed into The Palm's operating style, assistant general manager Jim Pileski says of cell phone use, "I personally discourage it. If I walk by someone who is getting a call, I try to embarrass them. But we don't have any house rule about it."

In Manhattan, the human tendency toward sensible behavior often receives an encouraging nudge from restaurateurs. Mark Maynard-Parisi, the general manager of the Union Square Cafe, was at ground zero when the anti-cell-phone movement began in New York. "About a year ago," Maynard-Parisi explains, "Danny Meyers, the owner of the Union Square Cafe and three other restaurants in New York, wrote about the cell phone issue in his monthly newsletter for customers. It was picked up by the press, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal.We don't have a policy per se; we don't like to have policies with a big "P.' We would not remove someone from the restaurant. We do have a sign that says, "As a courtesy to fellow diners, we ask that you refrain from using your cell phone in the dining room.' In New York, several restaurants have a printed message on their menus."

Maynard-Parisi does grant that the technology is so new that there has not been time to develop a consensual ethic regarding its use. In the meantime, restaurateurs and chefs will have to develop their own methods for dealing with uncivil cell phone behavior.

In Munro's short story, the great Saucourt confronts the leader of the hotel orchestra, who dismisses his objection curtly before launching into an encore performance of "The Chaplet." The two ultimate paragraphs go on to relate the consequence of that musician's choice.

""Noh! You play thot never again,' shouted the chef, and the next moment he flung himself violently upon the loathed being who had supplanted him in the world's esteem. A large metal tureen, filled to the brim with steaming soup, had just been placed on a side table in readiness for a late party of diners; before the waitstaff or the guests had time to realize what was happening, Aristide had dragged his struggling victim up to the table and plunged his head deep down into the almost boiling contents of the tureen. At the other end of the room, the diners were still spasmodically applauding in view of an encore.

"Whether the leader of the orchestra died from drowning by soup, or from the shock to his professional vanity, or was scalded to death, the doctors were never wholly able to agree. Monsieur Aristide Saucourt, who now lives in complete retirement, always inclined to the drowning theory."

Life, of course, does not always imitate art. That is both a tragedy and a solace.

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George Alexander