Monday, August 15, 2016

Manners: Sound and Dining.

            From appetizers to desserts – in a constant state of learning first and then teaching to others after – being a Chef has become a state of being of both honor and elegance; a social behavior which I strongly try to pass along to the Cooks who have worked with me, as a precious inheritance.

          Imagine a professional Chef: impeccable white coat and hat, calm and never losing their temper – not a tyrant ready to yell at their Cooks, but instead prone to comprehend and teach with patience and love. This is someone who lives for the state of bliss that comes with creating amazing food.  A Chef is a guide in which an entire restaurant relies upon to conduct another perfect night, to make people satisfied and comfortable, and to remedy the stress and chaos behind the scenes which (hopefully) customers don’t ever see. We must also consider the endless hours of exhausting work already done before the restaurant opens for the day and is ready to perform for its customers. Then, the Chef continues for many more hours performing a show where even smallest mistakes can become cyclopean enemies; when too many mistakes are made, Chefs and Cooks could lose their jobs, for the chain reaction of failures that mistakes can generate. Failures can become the loss of customers, and the loss of customers is a constant threat to the longevity of a restaurant. So, most Chefs and Cooks take precious care of their cuisine, doing their best every day.

          A Chef has no room, nor the time, to show fear; he/she keeps pushing the kitchen to their very best, as a master Conductor will push The Orchestra to do their greatest performance. So does a Chef every day, day after day, week after week, for years, to create something that will amaze. The amazement is the unity of the people in the kitchen; it is the synchrony between people, timing, and cooking. Like instruments that need to play together in harmony to please our ears, so is the art of cooking – and the result of that complex and incredible work is the final dish served to the customer.

          Imagine being in a restaurant run by that kind of Chef. Imagine her/his creation for the night's special. It is there right in front of you, you ordered it:

        Cream of Candied Cherry Tomatoes topped with a Shell of Parmigiano Cheese and filled with House-Made Saffron Tagliolini Pasta, sauteed with a Pesto of Fresh Thyme and Slowly-Roasted Marinated Eggplant, finished with Toasted Pine Nuts and a Chiffonade of Mint Leaves.

          That beautiful plate is there in front of you. It smells delicious, you take a bite and suddenly feel moved: your senses awaken so much that you ask to speak with the Chef. That one single, beautiful bite left you desiring to thank and compliment the Chef for their art. And here the Chef comes to you through this beautiful restaurant, with soft lighting, candles on antique wooden tables, lovely music (not too loud to strain or overwhelm conversation), the light jingle of the cutlery all around, and delighted people smiling. Now imagine this culinary Guide, with kind manners – elegant, smooth, and secure – walking through the dining room to welcome and to thank you. Picture their pride: the reassuring smile properly belonging to one who knows they possess a power of creation that can seduce and conquer palates and hearts. The Chef, there, is about to approach you and then…

          A LOUD SLURPING, SUCKING noise destroys the beauty of the moment. Both the Chef and you – along with your company at the table – turn to find the source of this vulgar noise. A few tables away from yours, a man eating that same special plate as yours has become immortalized in an image that he would likely never post online. As many farm animals would slurp water on a hot Summer day, that man is there loudly sucking his poor pasta as if he were drinking it: head over his plate, lips in the shape of a suction cup, and with his fork clenched in his fist, facing down, ready to attack and kill that beauty in front of him for a second time. The Chef (turning crimson red) is about to pass out, noticing that the entire dining room has become suspended in time. For a moment, gazing in pain at the source of the noise, you inevitably think: “I just lost my appetite!”

          Fundamentally, it would be like a loud cell phone ringing while the orchestra is performing its most intense masterpiece.  How would the Conductor feel? How would the entire concert hall react? And a symphony and a meal are in many ways identical. There are many Chefs out there who put their heart into their food; cooking is their life, their passion, and their Love. To serve customers a dish, Chefs take hours of preparation before. What a customer eats is a masterpiece: after entire shifts of practicing, hours of trying and struggling with imperfections, and with the tormented fear of failing to reach a perfection.

          When those kind of Chefs cook, they perform a belief: which is the hope of giving birth to a vision that began from somewhere in their imagination, their memories, and their taste buds.  Preparing a meal and serving it to you is the "final harmony" – the last effort before the concert ends.  You are the audience, you are the receiver to whom Chefs are giving Love and a vision made real as food, for your pleasure. This is the final masterpiece that will make your eyes roll heavenward and will make you feel profoundly happy; it will allow you to travel through flavors like the notes of music… and it will make you want to go back for more.

          In exchange for being delighted customers, one's manner of eating is also a form of reverential respect; for fine cuisine is a unique talent not possessed by all. Making such a disturbing noise in a dining room full of other customers can be a sign of appreciation in some cultures. But in The United States, and nearly all European nations, it is not. And this is a simple thing to bother to know and practice. It is insulting chewing food with one's mouth open, with lips smacking and the clapping sound of tongue on palate. In Italy, it is considered one of the most disrespectful forms of social behavior: to the Chef, to the food you are eating, to the people that are forced to hear and see what they shouldn’t. And not just in a restaurant. When I was a child, my father would have taken away a meal from me and sent me with an empty stomach straight to my room if I had such bad manners and such low respect for what my mother had cooked with such a passion and care for her family.

          Learning the habits and customs of cultures in which we are a welcomed guest is the equivalent of respecting those cultures.

          Why we are asked to turn off our electronic devices in a room shared with other people? At a movie theater, a concert hall, a play, and even on the train, we are asked to whisper if we would even dare make/receive a phone call. And this is to not disturb others, of course. It is to respect the comfort of others, for sure, but this is really about manners, and manners are a social behavior.

          "Manners," from the Latin manus ("hand") and manuarious ("of the hands"), literally means “the way of using hands."  It is “A person's outward bearing or way of behavior toward others.”  All these rules apply to a state of being, in which even eating in public has its way of behavior.

          “Our manners are attractive when we regard other’s pleasure and not our own delight!” – from the book "Il Galateo: (in French known as Bon Ton) The Rules of Polite Behavior." The author of this enlightening book (published in 1558), which I will address more in further works, was a Florentine writer named Giovanni Della Casa.

               "In the last three chapters, the author writes about behavior in general: what you do should be appropriate and done with grace. A gentleman should never run, or walk too slowly. Della Casa brings us to behavior at the table, such as not scratching, not eating like a pig, not using a toothpick or sharing food. In Della Casa’s vision, slight slips of decorum become taboo."

             "Galateo" practically means "Etiquette."
            Some of the rules of the Etiquette have adapted or evolved inevitably to our modern time. But the fundamental rule which should be the basis of daily life style, remains. And it is the respect for others around us.

Artist A. Andrisani