The last time I was in New York City, I went upstate with my two friends, John and Eric, for the sole reason of having dinner at a famous culinary institute.
It was my idea. John and Eric are self-proclaimed “foodies,” guys who consider going to Zabar’s or Trader Joe’s a “night out on the town.” Whenever I come to New York, we always meet one night and they take me to some hot new restaurant. This usually means an establishment where the portions are small and the prices are exorbitant. I’m not much of a drinker, but they are, so by the end of the night, it is not uncommon for two bottles of wine to be consumed, and two bottles of wine at these pricey New York restaurants can cost as much as 1,375 pancakes at IHOP (don’t bother to check. I worked it on the iphone’s calculator.)
This well-known culinary institute is located two hours north of the city. The graduates of the school go on to work in the restaurant, catering, and hospitality fields. In order to give the students some real life restaurant experience, there are three fine dining establishments right on the school premises – a French restaurant, an Italian restaurant, and an American restaurant. Each can be very popular at different times of the year, and it is very difficult to get reservations to your first choice of restaurant. We were lucky enough to get a seating at the French restaurant.
Each of the school’s restaurants is overseen by professional chefs, but the students work in various roles. A round robin method of teaching ensures that to every student gets a taste of what it is like to work in a restaurant. One day, a student can be in the kitchen, and the next day he can be a waiter or a busboy. Because these restaurants are part of a teaching environment, the price for a fine meal here is much less than a comparable restaurant in the city. It is not inexpensive, but that you can hopefully manage to leave the premises with it costing more than $100 a person.
John drove us upstate in a rented car. As we pulled up to the culinary institute campus, we quickly noted that the school looked like any other east coast college. There were ivy-covered academic buildings and dorms for the students. The main center where the restaurants were located looked like a student union. Inside this main building were long hallways and photo displays of famous alumni. The hallways split into branches, leading to the different restaurants. From the hallway, everything seemed very “collegiate,” but once you walked through the door to one of the restaurant, and saw the elegant seating, the wine cellar, and the formal maître de, you were transported to a five star restaurant.
Our table was ready at the French restaurant. There was only one seating per evening. Jackets and ties were required. I forgot to bring a sports jacket from LA, so I borrowed one of Eric’s tight, ill-fitting tweed jacket, which made me feeling like a very preppy sausage.
Our meal consisted of several courses. The food was rich, very French, and very good, but to be honest, I have no recollection of what I ordered or ate during the meal. The truly memorable part of the meal was the service. It was at a level that I had never experienced. Our doting waiter was Carlos, a senior at the school. There were at also three assistants at our beck and call, all wearing black pants and white shirts, who hovered around us like helicopter parents. I’m sure each of these assistant’s positions had a specific name, but I recall them as “the guy who constantly refilled our glasses,” “the guy who brushed the crumbs off of the white tablecloth in between courses,” and “the girl who exchanged our silverware at least seven times.”
We also had a sommelier, who looked all of twenty-one years old, but spoke in that affected, pompous tone of a mini-Tim Gunn. After the sommelier suggested the best bottle of wine to complement our dishes, we asked him how he learned about wine at an age when most kids are drinking Miller Light. He replied that he was always fascinated by wine, but doesn’t drink much of it when he goes home. He preferred a “good martini.” I thought this young sommelier was an asshole.
As we enjoyed our meal, John and Eric congratulated me on my excellent idea of coming to this restaurant. We were getting a lot of food and drink for our buck. We could eat well, but not be bankrupt for the rest of the month. When Carlos brought us bottles of the culinary institute’s own “pure well water” when we asked for glasses of water, we politely refused, and requested tap water instead. I noticed the tinge of disappointment at that moment on Carlos’s face, as if we didn’t deserve to be served by him.
I didn’t feel quite at home in this restaurant. Although the staff worked hard, the constant attention and attitude was anxiety-producing. Who were all these young Top Chef-wannabees? Were the students being brainwashed by the school into looking down at their own patrons? Or was this just youthful enthusiasm, much like I sneered at my parents when I was newly-minted freshman in college and, during my Christmas break home, learned that they had never read Plato’s Symposium, or even cared to.
One of the busboys, probably the most down to earth one of the staff, told us that this was the last meal of the semester, and that they were being graded by their teacher as they served the meal. We learned that the stern, white haired maître de was also the class teacher. He carefully watched his class from his position in front of the room, making notes on a tiny notepad. The girl who constantly changed our silverware went from bubbly to pale and frightened as the teacher marked something in his book. Did she bend over on the wrong side as she exchanged our forks – to the right of each guest, rather than the left? Despite the elegance of the décor and the excellent food, being a guinea pig in a five star culinary laboratory was about as restful as a chaotic Passover Seder at my aunt’s home.
Finally, the bill arrived. As Carlos handed us the billfold containing the bill, he gave a small disclaimer.
“On the bill, there is a 20% gratuity added. It is purely voluntary,” he said. “The gratuity is not for me, but for our school’s scholarship fund to help other students in need. If you would rather not leave this gratuity, please tell me, and I will bring the maître de over to take it off the bill. As for the service, especially my role in your meal, I hope it was all exemplary.”
As Carlos walked away, John, Eric, and I discussed the situation.
“What you think he meant by that statement — “I hope my service was exemplary,” asked Eric.
“I think he wants a tip.” said John.
“A tip for the scholarship fun AND a tip for him?! We’re not going to give TWO TIPS!” I muttered, my cheapness showing its colors. After all, the whole reason we drove two hours upstate was to save money!
“Neil’s right,” said Eric. “Let’s not give the gratuity to the scholarship fund.”
“I agree,” said John. “You tell him, Neil.”
“Me?!” I shouted, startling the well-heeled couple at the next table. “Me?” I said again, this time in a persistent whisper.
I imagined the entire scenario of what would happen. I would tell Carlos that we didn’t want to leave a gratuity to the scholarship fund. He would sneer at me and head to the front to fetch the maître de . Heads would turn as the eagle-eyed maître de would leave his perch and strut over to our table.
“Can I help you?” he would ask.
I would be forced to repeat my statement about not wanting to leave a gratuity to the scholarship fund for needy students. An evil grin would form on Carlos’ face as he enjoyed my humiliation. The maitre de would take the billfold and head back to the front to take off the charge. As he walked, he would hold the check in the air, attracting the attention of each patron at every table he passed. They would all turn towards me, knowing EXACTLY what had just happened. They would shake their heads in pity and disgust, as if they had just seen me urinate in my wine glass.
“I’m not telling Carlos,” I told my friends. “I get nervous just handing a two-for-one coupon to a server at the Olive Garden. You do it, John.”
John paused for a second and then refused.
“I’m not going to have the maître de walk all the way here in front of everyone to take off the gratuity.”
Clearly, John’s vision of the scenario was similar to my own horrific one.
We all sighed. We would give the “voluntary” gratuity for the scholarship fund.
“What about Carlos?” asked Eric.
We looked towards the kitchen door. Carlos was standing there like a statue, his hands folded, waiting, clad in black pants and perfectly ironed white shirt, his chin held high, dreaming of a time when he would own his own restaurant, a day when he could stop acting nice and could openly torment his staff and his customers like an American-born Gordon Ramsey. As a senior at the culinary institute, this would be the last time serving a meal as a student. Now he was on his way into the real world. Would he be a sous chef on Park Avenue or a server at Burger King in Bayonne, New Jersey? Who knew?
“We have to give him a tip,” said John. “What kind of message would we be giving him about his future career if we stiffed him on his last meal?”
Eric agreed. I was the only hold-out.
“He’s a student!” I protested. “This is part of his learning. It’s a school. Did anyone ever tip you for turning in a well-written English Lit paper on Charles Dickens?”
I was outvoted.
Next week, I’m going to be in New York. I’m sure I’ll meet up with John and Eric. We’ll have dinner at some fancy new restaurant that was written about in the New York Times. I’m sure it will be expensive. But I doubt it will be half as expensive as our last outing — to the culinary institute two hours away, considering the car rental, the gas, the meal, and the 45% tip.