Restaurant Movies to Binge Watch

I needed to get my mind off the trash fire known as this election, so I’ve been watching movies.  I’ve recently taken refuge in films that appeal to at least some part of the restaurant milieu and felt, basically, why the hell not?  Have blog, will listicle.  In no particular order, here goes:

1. Dinner Rush is me, was me, and speaks to the dark 1990s pre-fame heavy drinking Anthony Bourdain in all service professionals.  From the perfection of its narrative arc, which covers one chaotic dinner shift at the restaurant (which also happened to be owned by the director – talk about no need for location scouting), the above-the-fray bartender, the crew’s polyamory, and demanding guests, I remember leaving the theater with a warm feeling.  It was similar to the warm feeling I got as a kid watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special, where they sang carols together at the end.  I also wanted a drink, a cigarette, and to call my bookie after I saw the movie, but that’s another story.

2. Big Night boils down to, Team Primo or Team Secondo?  As someone who’s spent most of his career in the front of the house, but who also knows enough about the back to have established bona fides with my chef friends, I’m firmly Team Secondo.  The figurative somersaults both brothers had to execute to save their restaurant spoke to me, particularly as a failed independent restauranteur myself.  But, sadly, without either Isabella Rosellini or Minnie Driver.

Quick story for the Team Primo people, especially those who, like me, loved the risotto scene at the beginning; close second, Chef Udo in Dinner Rush saying sausage and peppers were not on his menu.  I once worked at a seafood restaurant near Union Square, working every station from prep to pantry (cold apps, desserts) to sauté and grill.  We were a small crew, but we worked our asses off and believed in our chef’s vision for the place: namely, be a consistently good upscale fish shack.  Consequently, buerre blanc in its many and depredated forms was verboten.

Enter the Dowager Empress, whom I’ll call D for simplicity’s sake.  D was a Kip’s Bay divorcee in her 60s with a rat dwarf dog in a carrier, thick plastic framed glasses straight out of an episode of Rhoda, and firm ideas about what she did and didn’t like in food.  Among the more PG-rated bets the staff took were what 1970s pseudo-French “classic” D would ask for each Friday, when she dined at a table towards the back with her companion furball.  Our salmon dish had a pistachio crust, was seared on a screaming hot pan then finished in the oven, then served with a schmear of pesto and lemon-rosemary roasted fingerling potatoes.  Nope.  D wanted plainly grilled salmon (okay so far) with mashed potatoes (nope, and she did not like our parsnip puree either, so we had to break out the ricer) and haricots verts (double nope, but we did have Austrian winter peas that would suffice); finally, she wanted it with (gasp, choke) buerre blanc.  I would’ve been proud to serve a dish like this if, let’s say, I worked in a banquet hall serving 100 people at a time.  But an 80-seat neighborhood restaurant?  Thankfully, D and the server couldn’t hear the chef invite them to have carnal relations with themselves, then barrage the crew with orders: “Fire table 31!  Sam, get some grill marks on a salmon, then kill it in the oven.  Dan, you’re on mashed potatoes and veg.  Do any of you remember how to make fuckin’ buerre blanc from culinary school – you do? – awesome, new guy, you just volunteered, get wine from the bar.  Order 3 salmon, 2 filet med-rare, and 1 crab burger after that.”  And so it went.  We didn’t have to like it, but ultimately, like Primo and Secondo, we just had to execute as best we could.

3.The Blues Brothers makes the list for this scene, which distills the risks and rewards of working the front door of any high end restaurant with demanding guests.  Until I joined a company with a strict social media policy, I roasted staff and guests alike on Twitter with the hashtag #restauranting.

4. Eat Drink Man Woman and its American remake, Tortilla Soup, both of which I appreciate far more now as a parent, than I did as a single unattached man.  At first, I just enjoyed watching the loving care these films’ protagonists put into their food.  The quiet tension at the dinner table, things left unsaid, and love shown through food rather than verbally, could have been taken from the home of any old-school chef.  In my recent viewings, I saw Chefs Chu and Martin attempt to reach out to their grown daughters after being absent for most of their lives (an occupational hazard for those of us who work nights, weekends, and most major holidays), the chefs needing to lean on their daughters after being widowed, but not knowing how to ask for help; and so, like many older chefs, they express themselves the only way they know, with food.

I worked with a chef who never had a kind word for anyone in either the front or back of the house, save the owner.  If Chef questioned your parentage, insulted your intelligence and/or manhood, or threatened to rip out your eyes and skull-fuck you when you messed up an order, that meant he liked you.  Whenever Chef’s wife called the restaurant, his responses were invariably monosyllabic (yeah, no, hmm, oh), the calls seldom lasting more than about thirty seconds.  Then on Christmas Eve, she brought their kids for dinner, and every member of the team nudged each other: did you slip a mickey in Chef’s coffee or something?  This isn’t the same ornery cuss we’ve worked with.  This chef allowed his son to take over the sauté station for a bit, teaching the boy how to flip the contents of a pan and catch them again.  This chef expedited the busy first part of dinner with one infant daughter in his arms, his older daughter next to him and calling orders to the cooks like her old man.  And, because Christmas is for miracles, we saw him smile.  The whole scene would’ve been heart-rending if his smile weren’t so damn scary.

5. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover.  Heyy, Helen Mirren.  How you doin’?  I mean, she’s still striking, and this film was made almost 30 years ago.  It also boasts two of my favorite actors, Michael Gambon and Ciarán Hinds, long before they became Lyndon Johnson and Julius Caesar, respectively.  I worked for an Albert Spica, though not nearly as sadistic or thuggish; his nightly retinue of wannabe Mafiosi, tough guys who’d probably weep at the first sign of blood, and brainless sycophants, reminded me of several scenes from this film.  What gets conveyed in the earlier restaurant scenes, if stylistically, is the pride the staff takes in hospitality.  When any restaurant runs well, there is a buzzing.  That buzzing is hospitality, making sure guests’ needs are fulfilled, hopefully in as seamless a manner as possible and without guests’ noticing many overt acts of service.  As much as I gripe about this business, that buzzing of hospitality is the dopamine that keeps me hooked.

6. Tampopo and The Ramen Girl will jog any restaurant pro’s memory to the time when they underwent some painstaking apprenticeship, whether as a stage or extern in a kitchen, or a busboy hoping to be promoted to waiter.  At this stage of my career, I’ve become Goro or Maezumi, than Tampopo or Abby, training every front-of-house position from busboy to manager, but the sentiment is the same.  You take pleasure, and no small pride, seeing that neophyte succeed.  Tampopo also has a ridiculously young Ken Watanabe as a sidekick, which I hardly appreciated until my last viewing.  Watch for the noodles.  Stay for the sappy ending of the Brittany Murphy film.

7. No list like this could be complete without Ratatouille, the Pixar classic of the cooking rat.  Another film about striving in the restaurant business, with the added benefit of the late, great Peter O’Toole as a restaurant critic.  And Sheriff Cobb Brian Dennehy as Remy’s father.  When a Korean child turns one year old, a doljabi is the main attraction towards the end of the birthday fete.  A number of items are laid out in front of the child, and the first item the child grabs may guide the child’s destiny.  The items vary, but often include a string for long life, a judge’s mallet, a book, money, or a hammer.  When my son turned one, and because I have a warped sense of humor, I borrowed a serving spoon from the banquet hall and added that to the other items.  When it came time for my son’s doljabi, with both grandmothers waving $20 bills at him in the hopes that he’d be rich someday, he proved to be a chip off the old block and took the spoon.  His grandmothers looked crestfallen.  I smiled with quiet pride until my wife smacked me in the arm.  And wouldn’t you know, my son’s favorite pastime – besides Minecraft, duh – is helping me cook dinner on my days off.

And now for some of the least favorite, both in terms of realism and general watchability.  With that said, however, these are also films I’ll readily admit to hate-watching, but like a date with an ex, I’ll feel bad about myself the next day.

1.  Spanglish

2. No Reservations

3. Burnt

4. Simply Irresistible




To My Horrible No Good Very Bad Server

The night before this happened, and because we have wonderful luck with restaurants when we travel, we had another wonderful service experience.  I didn’t write an email to this restaurant, but if I had, this is what I would have written.

Dear Ristorante Italiano (note: the names have been changed to protect the innocent),

Your restaurant was billed as a charming, traditional trattoria outside Narragansett, with good reviews on Open Table and Yelp, so we decided to give it a try.  We were also staying nearby, and wanted something closer than Newport; wine math is, the tolls both ways on the Pell Bridge could buy me one more glass of wine.

We were a party of 5: 3 adults and 2 children.  Normally, not a difficult table to serve, since parties with children rarely linger in fine-dining establishments.  Mind if I call you Amy?  Because you looked like a young Amy Schumer, and I’ve mentally blocked your real name.  You started off on the wrong foot by taking about 5 minutes (yes, I’m a career restaurant geek who times such things) to get to us.  I could see that you were busy.  I was doing your job when you were presumably still in diapers, so I get it.  With that said, however, couldn’t any of your three peers, none of whom had as many tables as you, have assisted?  Just a hello, here’s some ice water, Amy will be with you shortly?  They even made eye contact as I did the “where’s our server” fighter-pilot-scan-the-skies thing.  The only times I’ve seen this happen is when the server’s peers don’t like him or her very much … oh, wait.

I don’t know about your manager, whom I didn’t see leaving the hostess’s side during our stay, as if the hostess would melt if he wandered more than two steps away from her.  I would have greeted the table myself, possibly even gotten them started with a drink and app order, but that’s me.  I run restaurants as if they’re an extension of the dining room in my house, which is why I’ve always called them guests, not customers.  “Customers” reduces the interaction to something cold and transactional, not welcoming.  If I had to guess, we were customers that evening, not guests.

You were serving three other tables besides us, two deuces and a four top.  Ten covers – well, fifteen, if you count us – can be a challenge for a veteran waiter, let alone a younger one who may or may not have yet learned how to prioritize tasks during a semi-busy shift.  You were perfectly sweet when you finally greeted us – but then you recited the specials before we could even order Shirley Temples for my kids, talking over me when I said we were ready to order.  I saw your frozen smile when you realized my wife and I speak unaccented English.  Please learn to hide that better going forward, it will stand you in good stead in your restaurant career.  I ordered the drinks for the kids, some onion soup right away for them, and a bottle of house chardonnay.  I also gave you our entree order, since I didn’t want another lag.  You thanked me without making eye contact, and left.

Here’s where things started to go south.  My kids were exhausted, as it had been a long day of driving, sightseeing, and swimming.  My daughter started fading immediately, leaning against her grandmother.  My son had caught a summer cold, which had been exacerbated by his time in the pool earlier; since it’s summer, the restaurant was air conditioned (with apologies to Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff) so cold our bone marrow froze.  He put on my mother-in-law’s windbreaker and shivered while we sat at the table unattended.

We didn’t see you for another ten minutes after you dropped off the Shirley Temples.  Yes, I timed it again.  Your other tables received warm, detailed service – the kind that I was silly enough to expect.  Your busboy, who looked all of twelve years old, apologized when I asked him to get you.  “I don’t know where she is, sir.”  This, too, was odd, since five of your restaurant could fill the one I currently run, and I don’t generally have issues tracking my team members down.

I saw you looking through the cooler next to the kitchen for a bottle of wine.  I know very well what I ordered, what the label and foil look like, and have visited that winery in Sonoma; I even saw your hand touch the correct bottle, but move along.  Ordering one of your two house chardonnays would seem to be binary (they either ordered this one, or that one); I therefore don’t understand why it took another six minutes to find, then serve, the wine.  My daughter was asleep by this point.  My mother-in-law had taken her to the car, and told us to just get her food wrapped to go.  I had to pass this along during one of the few times you refilled our wine glasses, and ask you to speed up the meal for our kids’ sake.  I don’t mind pouring my own wine, but if you bill yourself as a fine dining restaurant –  indeed, one of the best in New England – I shouldn’t have to.

One of the advantages of an open kitchen like yours is that people can ooh and ah every time a saute cook screws up flames his pan because he added too much oil to a screaming hot pan over high heat.  As you should hopefully know by now, this bit of showmanship only results in food that tastes like burnt cooking oil.  One of the drawbacks is that people like me can see something eerily similar to an onion soup crock appear in the chef’s window, then watch it lie there dying because no one is running it to the table.  When a guest asks you to speed up their meal, the assumption is that items will be served soon after they are ready, regardless of course grouping or progression.  There is often a perfectly good reason for this, like perchance a sick child, or one who fell asleep.

In any event, the kids’ soups were served with the adults’ salad and prosciutto appetizer, not as they were ready.  The prosciutto, wrapped around cheese that was supposed to be mozzarella but tasted suspiciously like Fontina, tasted like it had been dipped in salt.  Not your fault, but if you’re serving a dish, my expectation is that you’ve at least made a cursory visual check before bringing it out.  Might I, then, remind you of the differences in color and consistency between mozzarella and Fontina?  Or how salad greens should look when properly dressed, as opposed to wilting under the weight of enough dressing for three defensive linemen?  My son’s soup was starting to go cold, the cheese on top burned not toasted, but at least you remembered to wrap up my daughter’s soup and my mother-in-law’s food.  Were you perhaps waiting for an emergency delivery of to-go containers?

The calamari and bucatina carbonara came out quickly thereafter, and only my wife’s intercession stopped me from unleashing the last few paragraphs to you verbally.  I made eye contact and lied through my teeth when you checked on us.  Oh, we’re great, thank you for finally asking.  When I learned to make carbonara from an unstable Roman who drank a pint of vodka every shift, he told me that cooks who add heavy cream to carbonara should be excommunicated.  Harsh, I know, but that’s just as unforgivable as adding heavy cream to buerre blanc, thereby making Georges Escoffier roll in his grave.  The pancetta was … crunchy?  I expected crispy, but not crunchy like the cook had par-cooked the pancetta until it crumbled.  The bucatini sat in a rapidly congealing sauce that, rather than having been bound with raw egg yolk, contained an inhumane amount of – care to venture a guess? – heavy cream.  The calamari was passable.  Neither good nor bad, perfectly forgettable, which is probably a good thing, considering everything else.

I wasn’t going to belabor you with the technical aspects of the service, but YOLO.  No serving utensil, much less small plates, for a couple sharing an app.  No soup spoon for rolling long pasta.  Not even a soup spoon for a seven year old actually having soup, until we asked both you and one other server.  Water glasses left empty until we asked a busboy.  Table never crumbed until I brushed crumbs off the tablecloth myself.  One of the few things you did correctly was not offer us dessert menus, knowing (at least, I hoped you did by then) that we had to make a hasty exit.  I reckon that, for this, I should be grateful.

Our check was the only thing that came to the table with any alacrity.  I’m still not sure why you looked so nervous when you dropped the check.  I left you 20% because I refuse to be “that Asian guy,” and know full well that many Asian immigrants seem allergic to tipping.  I also remember wondering “WTF?” if a table left me 15% or less.  I can only wish you looked nervous because of a guilty conscience, but I strongly doubt it.

As we left, you were talking with the bartender.  Not even a thank you, or a good night.  Just literally turning your back to me like I’m some sort of bug.  We were not acknowledged by either the manager or hostess, who hadn’t left their spots at the front, and were still deep in whatever superficial conversation a man my age might have with a flirtatious teenage girl.

Despite all this, Amy, I wish you well.  You may well be a larger fish in the smaller pond of greater Newport.  You might also be your manager’s favorite, though from my experience at one of your tables, God only knows why.  Best of luck translating any of this, along with an apparent attitude that your fecal matter is not odoriferous, to anything resembling success in a larger restaurant market.

Best regards,