A word to restaurateurs: I do not want to be told when I am being moved from the bar to the dining room that “we’re running to a really tight schedule tonight”. I love cooking at home, and I love eating out, but when I’m out I have no desire to be taken backstage.
Fine dining is to a certain extent the cultivation of illusions, but it all depends what illusions you enjoy. Foodie culture is based on the illusion that you or I could actually be a chef, if only we had the time to source pork bellies from a farm in the Southern Highlands where piglets have to have their names put down on a waiting list two years before they are weaned. Matey glimpses behind the curtain fit in well with this culture, which finds its dismal epitome in MasterChef.
But I don’t want to pretend that I am a chef, I want to pretend that I have a chef, and a country house which has the best servants in the world. My ideal of good service involves a politeness so discreet and silent that one doesn’t even notice the existence of the politeness, let alone the waiters. I don’t care if they are running to a tight schedule or if the kitchen’s on fire or if the chef has just been knifed by the sommelier; all that is none of my business.
Let me tell you of a dining experience which will illustrate exactly what I mean. It took place at a small restaurant, the location of which is known only to myself and a small circle of like-minded gourmands, many of whom have since moved overseas or passed away. Over the preprandial sherry and toasted cheese, we talked candidly of our dissatisfaction with life, the general decline of standards in all things and of our own personal misfortunes and grievances, and took it in turns to enlarge upon the ideal mode in which to live one’s life. It was on the following day that the first of that remarkable series of successful speculations in real estate to which I owe my present comfort was to bear fruit. Not long after that, as my wealth increased, I was granted the leisure to re-examine my prospects and to embark upon an unexpected career change which led to the discovery of my true vocation. After decades of long and deeply satisfying labours, I arrived in a state of tranquil retirement, spending my time at my retreat in the rural hinterland, visited by friends of old and my many descendants, devoting myself to a life of contemplation, horticulture and the study of Ancient Greek. It was on a particularly calm and mellow evening in late autumn, when I sat before the fire and seemed to see figured in its ever-changing flames the appearances of faces from the past and future, a waiter appeared at my side and asked suavely, “And would Sir like to look at the dessert menu?”
Now that’s what I call good service.