We are living in an age of food obsessed travel which sees no sign of abating. For so many, food has become the number one reason to travel to another country, particularly a destination renowned for its cuisine.
This is also an age where so much is written about food, restaurants, the stories behind them, and, of course, the chefs. The age of the “Celebrity Chef” began long ago and thankfully appears to have calmed somewhat, with chefs now automatically part of the zeitgeist, but still very prominent in wider food circles.
With most major world newspapers featuring regular food sections that include stories on restaurants and the team behind them, chefs are now photographed in quirky shoots with their key ingredients, in specialised photo pictorials, becoming recognisable by face as well as name. They endorse brands and appear in multiple media avenues.
Food lovers now speak as much about the chef as they do the restaurant.
All of this knowledge of restaurants has led to a natural expectation at top rated establishments that the chef will be there, visible to customers, directing the kitchen, inspecting every dish as it leaves the pass, and ensuring the stamp of the restaurant is equal for every diner.
Of course, this isn’t always possible. Many times, you wouldn’t even know. And that is how it should be. But this knowledge we now have, particularly through social media, has led to awareness of when the chef is not in residence.
It’s when expectations are not met, and the cracks start to show that present a problem, even to the point of damaging the brand. Luckily, I can count on one hand when this has happened to me.
There is one time that warrants a mention and is the reason for me considering this article. In Sydney recently, my friends and I attended a much heralded seafood restaurant for dinner. The restaurant and its chef are darlings of social media and food publications. The restaurant is hotter that hot, getting raves internationally from some legendary names in food.
In the week of our booking, we were aware that the chef was out of the country on holiday. We even discussed this and considered our options. We decided to go, expecting no issues, of course.
Having dined at the restaurant several times before, our expectations were high. Every dinner we had enjoyed there was exceptional. Well, the issues did come this night and they came in succession.
Three of us dined. We shared some tasty appetisers before receiving our main courses, eagerly awaiting our individual fish dishes, pan fried and grilled. When the plates arrived, everything looked great. First tastes were good, as we slowly began to enjoy the amalgamated flavours and excellent cuts of fish the restaurant is renowned for.
One of my dining companions stopped mid-chew and realised something was wrong. On inspection of his fish fillet, he cut into it more deeply with his knife and realised it was completely uncooked through the entire centre. Raw. Unable to be cut at all.
To our surprise, there were excuses made to the undercooking. We were told this was how it was meant to be. It took some argument on our part to explain that it was actually inedible.
Back to the kitchen the fish went, without much apology. Then, it was my turn. Being somewhat suspicious, after a first taste and feeling a little unsure, I flipped my fish over, to reveal the entire underside completely uncooked. Again, raw. Cold. Unable to be cut with a knife.
Shocked, I drew this to our server’s attention. This time, no excuses could be made. She was apologetic and after returning the dish to the kitchen came back to let us know how embarrassed the kitchen was. The dish returned after being cooked properly, and it was fine, but after the double mishap and the timing of our meals being so disrupted, it was very hard for us to enjoy them.
Truth is, the food, even without these problems, was not up to par, a pale shadow of what it should have been. With our knowledge of the chef being away, we were upset. We were watching a kitchen in disarray.
Responsibility of consistent quality is purely with the chef. Always. Through all the glowing reviews and the media spotlight on him, the basic expectations of a proud restaurant were completely unfulfilled, either through a lack of training of the cooking brigade (inexcusable) or just plain inexperience.
It was clear to us that focus needed to be taken away from the chef and more time was required for the kitchen to operate on an even keel. When the chef’s away, the establishment needs to run like a well-oiled engine.
We considered emailing but declined, writing it off as an unfortunate experience. We did wonder if chef may have been told about what happened. Perhaps. We did, of course, have the two offending dishes removed from the bill. We will return to the restaurant, as it remains a favourite. Let’s just hope the chef doesn’t take too many holidays.