Dear Chef Cesar Ramirez,
Congratulations on earning two Michelin stars for Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare. That so new a restaurant (you opened in May 2009), attached to so informal a venue (it’s part of a supermarket) in so exotic a borough (you are the first two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Brooklyn) only proves your culinary mettle is, indeed, extraordinary.
On the occasion of my wife’s birthday, we recently were lucky enough to book a table, or, since there’s only one 18-seat extension of your stainless steel counter occupying the entire storefront space, two seats at your table. This itself was a small miracle and not one likely to be repeated. Of course, even if we managed to score a reservation, the prohibitive (for us) cost of the meal, $135 per person without wine (it’s BYOB), means that this was our one Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare moment. We arrived on time—at 6:30 precisely—and eagerly and stepped in from the rain.
I applaud the informality and the intimacy of your kitchen, the rows of shiny copper pots that hang above you like a suite of harvest moons, the soft-spokeness of the waitress who served us and all the other guests. She was kind enough to take pictures of the ostentatious Australian foursome beside us even though the menu welcomed us to “enjoy food free of distraction” and requested “no pictures or notes are taken and cell phones be used outside.” She didn’t even object to one solo diner spending the entirety of her night texting. Carefully you labored and ardently we watched. We studied the menu in anticipation and waited eagerly to be led from darkness into light. Nine courses were listed and scarcely more than nine words to describe them: Cod, Sea Bream, Lobster, Tofu, Branzino, Gnudi, Wagyu Beef, Cheese and Dessert. It was like a teenager’s response to the perennial parental question: How’s your day? “Fine.” What did you do? “Nothin’.”
But first we worked our way through unlisted amuses. Looming above the counter, you mumbled something about “pumpkin soup, tangerine and yogurt” as a small shot glass was set before us. It was good. The hint of citrus cut through the sweetness of the pumpkin and the mote of sourness imbued by the yogurt. The next amuse bouche arrived after much intent peering into tiny containers and plucking of things with steel cooking chopsticks by you and two sous chefs. It was wild horse mackerel with lime vinaigrette, a small raw sliver of fish and the silver skin peeking from the bowl in front of us.
Oh at this point I should mention I was taking notes in a small black Moleskine notebook under the counter. It wasn’t because I was reviewing your restaurant
(I, like most reviewers, refrain from taking notes during such meals). It was precisely because I had looked forward so ardently to this meal and felt myself so lucky to be there, I didn’t want to forget what I ate. None of the amuses were on the menu and, as noted, what was on the menu was only nominally described.
The meal progressed and soon we were in the brambles of the monosyllabic entrées. Cod and Sea Bream were exceptional, the lobster was disappointing but what you so modestly called tofu was the standout. Fresh tofu and King crab blended together with matsutake mushrooms and dashi sauce. It was topped, and I think this is a Brooklyn first, with a bit of gold leaf.
As I finished the tofu, you approached me. I turned around in my stool, happy to chat, to congratulate you on the triumphs of what we had eaten, happy for a whole range of chef-to-patron interactions. But it wasn’t to be. You leaned in close so I could see every sweaty pore on your shaved head and said, loudly and furiously, “I don’t know where you fucking cook, but you’ll never replicate this. I’ve been watching you disrespect my kitchen all night. You’ll never be able to do what I do.”
It took me a moment to realize you were talking about my note taking. It didn’t register initially because you hadn’t seemed to object when the first two of your three rules were disregarded. Plus, what the fuck?
In that brief interval, my wife interjected, “He doesn’t cook.” It’s true. I’m no good at it.
“I’m sorry, Chef,” I said, shaken. “I didn’t mean to disrespect your kitchen.”
“Why are you taking notes?” you demanded. “That’s some sneaky shit.”
“Well, I’m loving this food and I don’t want to forget it and Ana and I won’t be able to come back and…” “Why not?” “Um,” said Ana, “because we can’t afford it.”
I apologized a couple of times more. You said don’t worry about it and at some point later in the night, as you were walking behind me, you gave me a double squeeze on the shoulder that non-verbally said, “It’s cool.”
I read it that way but Ana—not used to being yelled at in front of an entire restaurant—couldn’t shake the feeling and spent the rest of the meal cresting into tears. We couldn’t make eye contact with that waitress who narc’d us out, we couldn’t make eye contact with you, we couldn’t make eye contact with the Australians who at this point wouldn’t make eye contact with us. And though all we did was stare at the small plates as they continued their sadistically endless procession, all I remember beside “Wagyu Steak, Cheese, Dessert” is desperately wanting to leave.
Here are my complaints against you and let them also stand as an indictment against your kind:
I understand the extreme narcissism of your endeavor. The balance of power between a chef and his customer has always been vexed and is now changing. Nearly every element of Chef’s Table is calculated to tilt the power in your direction. This starts with the name—the lack of preposition makes it all the more possessive—and extends to the restaurant layout, where we are but extensions of your stainless steel psyche. This narcissism, expressed in culinary terms, is why people come to your restaurant and is why, in part, your restaurant has gained renown. In fact, if you bowed to the whims of your public, you would be divesting yourself of your greatest asset. But it should never extend to discourtesy, nor should it obscure the transactional reality of what you do. We are customers, paying for a service. You, though vaunted and valued, are a vendor. This in no way demeans what you’re doing at Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare. It is simply stating an obvious reality. When you open your restaurant in your kitchen, it ceases to be completely “your kitchen.” It is a place of business, with all the complicated compromises that brings.
You have many rules at Chef’s Table. Some are fair and some aren’t. Who can object to the disruptive documentation and rampant flashes of diners snapping everything set before them? Who doesn’t want to have a meal uninterrupted by the cellular cacophony? But prohibiting notes is unfair, unwise and arrogant. Notes— discretely taken—disturb no one. For the mnemonically challenged among us, they are a necessary record of what it was exactly that we spent $300 on. Surely you, young and informal, can understand this impulse.
But you don’t or you seem too mired in peevishness to offer any quarter. “Wagyu Beef, Cheese, Dessert,” you grumble. More gallingly, you seem to assume the only reason a patron might take notes is to gank your recipes. What a hubristic and absurd position! You’re not Golem, we are not hobbits, two stars is not The Ring.
But far more seriously, you bespoil Brooklyn Fare in your conflation of service with subservience. Thusly, you take it as a point of pride to be imperious to your customer. In this you are not alone. Some diners, viz. the Australians, those roving haute cuisine Bedouins on an endless Le Bernadin, Per Se, Masa, Blue Hill circuit, can afford to eat well all the time. For them this surliness is refreshing and the meal, though pricey, isn’t precious. I am aware, as well, of a certain Brooklyn tendency to offer very expensive food to well-off hipsters who assuage the guilt of outgrowing the socio-economic status affiliated with their aesthetic by seeking out restaurants cloaked in informality. But I still think the majority of your patrons aren’t restaurant sadomasochists. They prefer not to be yelled at, not to go limp at your command, conform to your fiats or endure your abuse. For some, most perhaps, Chef’s Table is not so much dinner but in itself a special occasion to be enjoyed, not to be berated.
As a Brooklynite, I hope your two stars expand into a burning Brooklyn galaxy. But as they do, I hope other chefs don’t fail as you have failed. Besotted by your own brilliance, you’ve forgotten the customer. Bewitched by your myth, you believe it. You feel yourself in a vacuum, the solipsist, the sun, the star, the all. This of course is foolish and wrong. Though, in the end, you were right about one thing: I didn’t need notes after all to remember my meal at Chef’s Table.