Very Important Person(?)

 

Rye, herb emulsion, spinach

What exactly happens when VIPs are noted on the reservation sheet? or called to the line when calling out a ticket?

Normally, it’s a lot less than you think. And if the kitchen is really good, practically life goes on as if nothing happened.

Those handshakes, that name-dropping, that dreaded line, “well, we’re foodies, so…” may work a hand-full of times, but more often than not, it’ll just make you feel as if you’re special in your own head, whether the restaurant does anything about it or not. Its possible that if you’ve affected the kitchen enough, it’ll be the chef that cooks your dish and plates it up because he’s the one that wants to handle it.  More often than not, the chef will look and touch up your plate for 15 seconds instead of 10. Possibly, you’ll get that cool plate that we only have one of (because, well, it costs like $150 per piece). If we like you (semi-regulars), you’ll probably get a dish or two off the menu that you didn’t order, and if we really like you (regulars), you’ll get a dish that isn’t on the menu.

If you’re a cook, we’ll gauge it depending on how many beers you brought us.

This, however true and the majority of cases, is not true in all cases.

I was told something once at when I was working in Napa, that (unfortunately) will forever hold true. Sometimes you just have to impress the right people that will make business better. In the end, the restaurant business is a business, and whether it be a food critic, a blogger, or just someone with a big-ass camera that may or may not post pictures of the food on the internet, some days you have to play the game to make sure business is good. In high end restaurants, because profits are so thin and cost of labor and good raw product is so high, I’d be willing to guess that all the chefs know exactly what their local food critic looks like (and now everyone knows what S. Irene Virbila of the LA Times looks like. Ouch. ) and most of them regularly keep up with certain blogs. And whether we like to admit it or not, we are nervous about stars and ratings and numbers and that damned tire guide. With the internet running amok these days, it’s almost like a job criteria to do so. I remember back in the day we VIP’d a table because it sounded like this guy had a French accent and well, the tire guide was descending upon us.

It turns out he was just a college student from Italy who wanted some good wine, so he came up to Napa and just happened across our restaurant.

At least he had a good meal.

I’m writing this not because I have repressed frustration towards VIPs (only some of them (just kidding)), but because at AOC, and with Karen at both Kiin Kiin and Relae, handling VIPs just feels so different. If feels like a part of the system. The most we’ve done at AOC was to add a couple of amuses and to give someone a new dish that Chef happened to be working on that day. Of course inherently, we probably set aside a few garnishes and proteins that are the biggest and prettiest, but the kitchen be damned if it affected any other diner’s dinner. I’ve worked in kitchens before where having a VIP completely threw off a normal service and though it’s pretty hard to admit, but the restaurant at those times catered to one table, and the rest of them, whether it be a lot or a little, suffered.

Which is why it’s energizing here, how we treat these Important Persons. For the last week and a half, I’ve been working all the snacks and helping out the hot section. When an exceptionally important person came in, Chef told me that “these VIPs are extra important.” And who plated the snack? Me. The stage. The lowest on the totum pole. Just like every other snack that went out that night. At Relae the other night the wife of the chef of the “world’s best restaurant” came to eat with another pretty well known internet blogger… big Important Person table, and who plated their first and last plates? My wife. Again, a stage.  Of course the head chefs are checking our work, but they realize if you’re good enough to plate for one person, you’re good enough to plate for them all.

I know there are many restaurants that handle customers like this (like they’re all VIPs), but it’s great to know that the some of the best ones know that every person should be treated the same way.

On Being a VIP.

There are very few people in this world that I don’t care to serve in restaurants. Ones that try to scam the system (opening the bottle of wine before they get to the BYO restaurant so they won’t get the service charge? Come on.) is one. People who try to get VIP treatment without actually caring for the restaurant is the other.

If you really care *that* much about being important, there are two sure-fire ways to make sure your table gets VIP’ed:

1. Be a regular. Spend your money at the restaurant and be polite and get to know the staff. There is one guy that comes to AOC nearly once a week. He loves the bread, and as such, we serve him the bread pretty much every course. He also gets to try all the new dishes. And if he comes in close to closing time, even if we’re all cleaned up, we’ll serve him.

2. Work in the industry. There are few people we like to serve more than other cooks, waitstaff, and chefs. Why? We know how much (or little) money you make, how many hours your work, and also because we know that you notice the little things. Like if a sauce is sitting on the plate for too long, or if the dough was kneaded a minute short. Most of the time we don’t care what these bloggers or Yelpers say, but we like feedback from our peers. Plus people in the industry know the industry card: bringing beers for the cooks. Why? because we all know who’s cooking the food, and if you make the people cooking the food like you, then you’re bound to get something a little extra.

There have times that Karen and I know that when we walk into an establishment, they know who we are and that our table has probably been noted of some sort for some reason or another. The only thing I can say to that end is that the only rules I have for being a VIP is to: 1) not expect anything extra 2) enjoy yourself and stop trying to notice all those little restaurant things we are accustomed to noticing and 3) pay full price for what you ordered. If they for some reason discount your table, tip the remainder for what you would’ve paid. If for some reason one day I decide to ask for an extended menu, you can bet I’ll want to pay for it.

While we love good word of mouth, the best way you can support your favorite restaurant is by spending your money there for what they gave you.

On Treating VIPs.

This is not to say that VIPing a table is a bad thing. Again, some days you just have to play the cards that need to be played. Fortunately for some restaurants, their staffing and style of service (ie, taking only so many reservations + no walk-ins + only serving tasting menus = knowing what to prep = getting time to create dishes for VIPs) means managing VIPs is much easier. There are many restaurants in this world that have be funds and the manpower and the willpower to completely style out certain people. But there are questions:

Do you want to serve these people food that they might describe to other people who probably won’t ever be able to get the same dishes that they got?

If you’re not a restaurant that can normally handle doing new menus for VIPs, do you want other customers to suffer for the sake of the press?

What in the world do other guests think of the table that’s spacious and gets twice the quality of food that they get?

It’s a personal struggle of mine, as well I’m sure many other cooks, to figure out how to treat different people different ways. Again, there is a game to be played. But how should you play it? How exactly should I treat influential people, bloggers, family, regulars, and co-workers when they come to our tables?

I, for one, have no answer. I know what I want to do (I want to stop with the bullshit, for those who are wondering), but that’s not really what happens all the time. It’s one of those questions I’m sure has no answer. However, I hope that in some period of time, I will finally come to grips with who I am as a cook, what I want to be and do when I eventually become a chef. I will feel comfortable with what boundaries I want to leave alone or push, and I’ll know exactly what it is in the food that I put on the plate that sets it apart from what other people are doing. I think only then will every plate be “very important”, and hopefully then, there won’t be a line between Very Important Person and just Person.

 

rye, herb emulsion, spinach. VIP.

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About Justin

We cook, and bake at Oxheart Restaurant in Houston, TX. www.oxhearthouston.com
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