A reader wrote in to the New York Times to describe a long ago experience at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, the place where Frank and Theresa Wright originated the famous Buffalo Wings. One night when he was dining there, he decided to have the spaghetti and meatballs. Not a good decision, because he found the spaghetti sauce bitter and slightly thin and said so. He was overheard by the staff who relayed his remark to the owner. She came storming out of the kitchen , brandishing a sauce covered wooden ladle, and demanded ” You think my sauce is thin ?!!” When the customer stood by his remark, she rapped him sharply on the noggin with the ladle , spraying his clothes with sauce, and yelled ” Get out!” He got out and didn’t venture back for ten years.
Reading this story reminded of the Soup Nazi who was popularized in a Seinfeld episode. The Soup Nazi was a soup slinger who was famous for the quality of his soup and notorious for insistence on strict adherence to his rules. Customers had to be ready with their choices and their money when they got to the head of the line and they were not to ask any questions. Transgressors were denied their soup and summarily ordered to leave. The Soup Nazi character was actually based on a real life character, Al Yeganeh. The publicity from the Seinfeld episode did him no harm and in fact increased his business though he had the temerity to demand an apology from Jerry Seinfeld when the comedy star later happened to visit the soup stand.
This in turn reminded me of a story about Ivan Orkin, the New Yorker who traveled to Japan and opened two highly regarded ramen noodle restaurants in Tokyo winning Rookie of the Year awards and leading one of his patrons to declare that THIS was the perfect bowl of Ramen. Orkin has since opened two restaurants in New York City and has gained some notoriety for ordering a bathroom bound patron back to her seat. According to the news story in the Times, Orkin said in self defense ” She got up right after the ramen hit the table.” (As everyone knows, the first commandment of ramen is that it must be eaten when it is piping hot.)
If it had not been for the quote in the Times, I might not have believed the story about Orkin’s behavior. My son who had been to a special event featuring a tasting menu by Orkin and got a chance to observe him at close quarters, says that Orkin is a laid back person and not the obsessive the story makes him out to be. Could be; he didn’t come across as high-flown from what I saw him in a TV episode of The Mind of a Chef. Maybe he had a bad day..
It is true, however, that many chefs are notoriously temperamental and thin-skinned. There are many reasons for this and, sometimes , they come together to create a “perfect storm” , a blow up. Working in a commercial kitchen is extremely hard work and success, when it comes, is often short-lived. Working as hard as they do to put together a dish, it must be galling to see it gulped down quickly by unappreciative diners. Chefs think of themselves as artistes and they do have an ego. They do not take criticism lightly, no matter whether it comes from restaurant critics , rivals or customers. Sometimes, their eccentricities add to their allure and result in increased popularity. A part of the public has a taste for masochism; it likes to be mistreated and insulted. Remember the waiters in old-time Jewish delis who insulted you as they took your order; this is in the same vein.
I am not one of those. As a paying customer, I expect to be treated with civility and consideration. Rather than experience the rudeness of people like the Soup Nazi , I’d never venture into his establishment. No soup is worth being treated like a naughty child. I also feel the word ” chef” has been devalued by overuse. A chef really knows food, respects it; someone who makes superior soups or comes up a recipe for Buffalo Wings is a cook; a good cook perhaps , but still a cook. I might overlook the transgressions of a chef, maybe , but a cook, never.