This month, Gourmet presents “Behind the Stove,” a series of restaurant stories told from the vantage point of industry pros. The New York edition may be the most gripping of the lot. Chef Dan Barber (of Blue Hill) writes about the elemental panic that overtakes his restaurant when it becomes clear that William Grimes of the New York Times is in the house.
Grimes is a double threat: not just a restaurant critic, but a critic whose imperial style (parodied here in 2000, by yours truly) makes his reviews ring out with wrenching authority.
Therefore, when Grimes visits a three-week-old restaurant, you’d expect the staff to run around in a haze of fear and panic. Barber’s account does not disappoint. Far from playing it cool, the chef peels back the professional facade to reveal the mayhem that a Timesman’s appearance can provoke:
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Manuel, the meat cook, shake his head and wince. Grabbing at the scraps of what remains of the pork belly a few shreds impossible to serve at anything other than the staff meal he makes eye contact with me sorrowfully, like a surgeon having just lost a close one. ‘Goddamn,’ I say. ‘Goddamn, no way,’ I say, raising my voice, but Manuel stares down at the dried-out pieces and shakes his head. There’s nothing more he can do.
I want to cry. Manuel is asking me to tell the only reviewer who really matters that tonight at Blue Hill where there are six entrees on the menu and about as many customers in the dining room we’re sorry. We’re sorry not only that we’ve run out of the best dish on the menu and one you’d undoubtedly write glowingly about but in addition, we’ve forgotten ‘in the rush of things’ to let you know it’s not available.
Anyone who has worked in the restaurant industry understands that a certain amount of primal fear is a fact of life, but Barber does more than simply acknowledge this: He elegantly spills his guts, confessing the sometimes ridiculous lengths a new place will go to in order to make a good impression.