A week ago in this very publication, award-winning writer Ian Brown described a nauseating scene in which a contemptible jackass he is unfortunate enough to know sent back a dish of duck confit at a restaurant because "it wasn't salty enough."
He was writing about me.
I was obviously too drunk with arrogance to register Mr. Brown's deep embarrassment during our meal. But reading his account last weekend, for the first time I saw myself for the epicurean twit that I am.
That night at dinner, my son, Henry, ate a piece of braised chicken, from (I hate to admit) a pricey heritage bird, and said, "Mmm, Daddy! So yummy!" Clearly I had passed what Mr. Brown calls my "self-indulgent foodism" down to my two-year-old. I was about to correct Henry's behaviour with a two-hour time-out when my wife stopped me.
"What's wrong?" she said. After I shared the sordid tale, she thought for a moment and said, "What was so bad about the duck?"
Quite a bit, actually. Its lack of flavour was reminiscent of wallpaper glue, indicating that whoever prepared it didn't let the legs cure in spice rub long enough. It was similarly deficient in tenderness - confit of duck isn't generally something one has to saw through - which means the legs didn't braise for enough time in hot fat. I know this because I've made, and screwed up, duck confit on numerous occasions.
"So what are you upset about?" my wife asked.
Was it really so indulgent to send back a bungled dish I was being charged $26 for? Isn't the whole point of paying $26 (for a dish you could make at home for less than $10) is to be sure that it will be good, perhaps even excellent?
On the other hand, isn't sending a plate back to the kitchen only slightly less rude than spitting in a chef's face?
I put the question to a chef. Anthony Walsh, the corporate executive chef at Oliver and Bonacini and former head chef at Canoe and Auberge du Pommier, replied, "I completely welcome sending stuff back. I even do it myself. In this instance, it's totally called for and the restaurant is the better for it."
So if chefs don't mind, why did Mr. Brown feel such cringing shame? Is it a Canadian thing? Do we still prize decorum over pleasures of the flesh? Is this just another example of the pain and tedium we endure in the name of politeness?
I put this question to an American. Alan Richman, the food and wine critic for GQ, said, "You did the right thing, and they did the right thing." My only failure, according to Mr. Richman, is that I should have requested extra plates for my dining companions, so that they could share my replacement dish - wild boar - rather than sit there and watch me eat.
So, for anyone still inclined to favour repression over confrontation at restaurants, I have this to say: It's not healthy. The price of saying, "Yes, thank you, everything is just fine" to the waiter is simmering bitterness. I know: I'm still upset about an overcooked veal chop I was served at a country inn near the Elora Gorge in 1997.
It wasn't until 2002 that I finally mustered up the courage to send back an overly fishy piece of grilled mackerel. Since then, I've done it, at most, twice. And I have only good things to say about the restaurants that accommodated my over-privileged, self-indulgent foodism.
The other night, I returned to the scene of the crime and ordered - you guessed it - duck confit. This time, it was perfect. The skin was crispy and the meat was savoury and as tender as a newborn calf.
As I chewed, I thought about my friend Ian Brown. I pitied his Calvinistic anti-sensualism. I imagined all the bad restaurant meals he would dutifully suffer in the name of propriety.
Going through life that way doesn't feel good. It doesn't taste good, either.
Mark Schatzker is the author of Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef.
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