I came in after Laura, Meredith, and our niece were already seated, after I’d parked the car. A white-haired man in a chef’s coat was fidgeting over the reservations book at the entrance, and, without looking up, he addressed me, “Mr. Clayton?” Meredith had made the reservation; I didn’t correct him. “There are three beautiful ladies waiting for you.”
I don’t love that. My niece is in college and my daughter is in junior high.
Moments after I’ve joined them, the man asks if I would like a cocktail or a glass of wine. I pause to observe the tonic water, soda, and still water the others are drinking and then decline a drink. His shoulders stoop and he exhales an exasperated sigh. And right then I know who he is. He is Angry Chef.
Angry Chef is the persona of Francesco, the hot-tempered Venetian who ran the kitchen of the only restaurant I ever worked in, an aspiring fine dining outfit in Riverside, California that closed about a year after I quit. Angry Chef was serially disappointed in his diners’ failure to enjoy his cooking and his restaurant the way he thought they should, and he vented that frustration at the small wait staff. He might roll his eyes at you for entering an order that replaced the shrimp in a Spaghetti Pascatore with chicken, or breathlessly ask you to account for why, after years of training and experience, he should be expected to prepare for a lunchtime patron a plate of steamed broccoli covered in Bolognese sauce. His customers were beneath him, and he was miserable. He got fired two days before Christmas for screaming an expletive at another waiter and I in plain view of the dining room.
Angry Chef was a nightmare of a colleague. I felt sorry for him.
Restaurants operate on a cliff’s edge, and I suspect that one of the things that keeps chefs and owners going is true conviction about the power in their product and their craft. They want people to experience the transcendence of a decadent meal. They are driven by an artist’s zeal for perfection, a zeal that can’t account for a picky 10 year-old or gluten allergy or the dry party at table 43.
I give Angry Chef a wide berth. I can feel his disappointment with me, though I know it’s not really about me. It’s about the death-by-a-million-papercuts grating of commerce upon craft and the gulf that separates the business he’s trying to run under these conditions from the vision he started with. Someday I’ll return by myself, and then I will order a glass of Cote du Rhône to go with the Duck a l’Orange, then finish it all off with sorbet and espresso. And then I’ll pat Angry Chef on the back as I leave.