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Restaurateur Rohini Dey wants to break free of Stockholm syndrome dining

Rohini Dey

Rohini Dey

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Updated: December 21, 2012 6:08AM

As a restaurateur (who loves restaurants), it strikes me as dismal that much of upscale dining has descended into a hostage situation, with us as willing victims: emotionally abused, displaying gratitude towards our captors for morsels of hospitality.

Glaring signs are:

- Tolerating absurd language: Hushed, grave, pompous tones within the hallowed four walls of the restaurant uttered by funereally somber servers. Or the opposite spectrum of the pendulum — “the opening spiel,” where your server tackles you with a verbal zest that prevents any intervention. Once briefed on the specials, his favorites, the restaurant, the chef, suggested wines, tasting menus and the weather in Botswana, you’re left to peruse your menu. Wait till the dishes come: Now the verbal tap really gushes with minutiae on every swirl, drizzle and drop on the plate. Crowned with the proverbially bright “Enjoy!” at every possible juncture.

- Participating in the death-by-wine ceremony: Instantly depressing is being handed a tome on wines. Pretending to read through the multitude of musty choices that the restaurant has chosen, feigning being suitably impressed, making “knowledgeable” remarks. Going through the motions of swilling, tasting, inhaling. Acquiescing on the splendid wine choice made, all while feeling and looking — in reality — ludicrous. Only made worse by fielding an overly solicitous (a.k.a. aggressive) sommelier who makes your choice seem like a cheap compromise, unless you’ve singlehandedly surpassed his bottle-sales target for the evening.

- Fueling the “you may kiss the chef’s napkin ring” syndrome (credit: Frank Bruni, former New York Times food critic): Anything demanding obeisance to the “chef,” or how “chef” prefers you dine from the left to the right or top to bottom, while balancing perfect mini tomatoes on your nose. No, you may not request this be well done, or that be spiced more; “chef” recommends it be just so. When did we lose sight of the diner, the ultimate consumer — the guest — in favor of the chef? And at the end of the day — it’s a kitchen, it’s food, it’s a job! Most dishes are not insurmountably difficult to cook and replicate. Despite many exceptional chefs, being an astronaut or doctor arguably has always been technically and intellectually more demanding. Plus, the higher the celebrity level, odds are “chef” is not in the kitchen, because chef is busy keeping up with television appearances, book deals, and multiple outposts. It’s the kitchen team working day in day out. So why do we surrender to the chef-as-God saga?

- Approving the “green halo” on restaurant menus: Yes, I get it that every dish on the menu has been sourced from the neighbor’s garden, who sings to his plants and livestock on a daily basis while sustaining them on pure love. God forbid pesticide, fertilizer, steroids, antibiotics, genetic modification, air or sunlight enter this equation (anything that fueled the green revolution or large-scale farming globally, enabling billions to escape starvation). I’m all for knowing the ingredients of foods I buy and making my own consumption choices. I also think local, sustainable and organic sourcing is fantastic, tastes great and absolutely belongs in fine dining. BUT, let’s be very clear — it’s pricey, not much of it is feasible on a large-scale basis and it’s an indulgence of the affluent. Trade and division of labor on a global level would cease if we all went local — the ultimate protectionism. What would have happened if Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci thought local? Or if the Silk Route ended at your neighbor’s garden? So, can we remove the smug excruciatingly detailed prefix specifying which farm and hill every ingredient originated on the menu?

- Swallowing sanctimonious service: From vapid or snotty hostesses who are doing you a favor by allowing you entry and a table in exile when the room is clearly empty, to managers who flit from table to table inquiring meaninglessly “how is everything?” to the server who did not get you a drink within 10 minutes (for me, that’s when dining out begins) and who prolongs “water” service (still, sparkling or tap?) instead.

I’m not winning fans in my industry with my rants above. And my own restaurants are guilty of many of these charges, despite my valiant attempts to erase them. But, I still hope to triumph some day.

Until then, happy captive dining … and enjoy!!

Rohini Dey donated her fee for writing this column to MSEdG — Educate Girls Globally.

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