Friday night, my wife and I went out to a local restaurant for a bite to eat after work. We sat at the bar, and I ordered a salad topped with smoked salmon.
When my salad came, I started to eat the lettuce, but I stopped when I looked down at the salmon. Most of it looked the way smoked salmon is supposed to look — sort of pinkish and shiny. But a third of every piece was sort of grayish-brown and dull, the way salmon looks when it has been sitting there so long that it's starting to turn into salmon jerky.
I stopped, gasped and turned to my wife. It was time to consider doing something I'd never done in my entire life: send something back to the kitchen.
Whenever I eat out, I try really hard not to think about what happens before I get my food. There are so many people back there, and each of them has a chance to do something wrong. For the most part, each of those people has hair, and once in a while, everyone sneezes. And I'm pretty certain that every one of them has to go to the bathroom almost every day. All it takes is one stray hair, an uncovered sneeze or a... I can't go on. I'm getting hives just thinking about it.
I'm not a neat freak or a germaphobe. In my own home, I'll eat stuff that may have seen its expiration date come and go. My theory is that if you can get anything up to a boil, even stuff that should have been thrown out a week ago, it probably can't hurt you anymore. You can still make a sandwich if you cut off the moldy part of the bread. It's other people's germs that give me the creeps. And restaurant kitchens are just packed to the gills with ... other people.
As if to confirm my worst fears, there are now all these shows out there where famous chefs do "makeovers" of failed restaurants. Most viewers focus on the "after" part: Will the new restaurant succeed? Will they reclaim their reputation as the best chowder house in Nantucket?
I obsess about the "before" part: Are you really telling me the kitchen was that dirty? They kept the sauce at room temperature? They didn't change the cooking oil? There's a dead what on the grease hood?
And that's why I never send anything back. As it is, I'm already so freaked out by unseen kitchen nightmares that I don't want to make any unseen enemies back there. My fear is that if you reject your food — and send your meal back to a hot, stressful kitchen, sending them the message that they did a bad job — they're not going to react well. They don't know you personally, but they already hate you for making their life harder. And if they hate you, they're going to take it out on you. They're all going to take turns licking your replacement salmon, or someone back there who just got yelled at and is a little hot under the starched white collar is going to spit in your food.
I called the bartender over and pointed out that some parts of my salmon looked OK, but other parts looked more like road kill. I was going to tell him it was OK, that I was no longer hungry, and that if he took it off my bill, we'd be cool. Really cool. But as soon as he saw my salmon, he whisked the plate away and darted for the kitchen. I tried to call after him, but he was gone.
We sat uncomfortably at the bar. We could've just slipped out the door, but we hadn't paid, and I'm pretty sure they would have chased us down. My wife has long known about my phobia of sending food back, so she just shook her head, biting her lip. A few minutes later, the bartender came back with a new plate in his hands and slid it wordlessly in front of me.
The salmon looked the way it was supposed to look. He smiled and turned away. After complaining, I was almost bound by law to eat my dinner.
I picked up my fork, picked at my plate and put a piece of the replacement salmon on my fork. As I raised it nervously to my mouth, my wife looked over at me, smiled and, with her eyebrows raised, leaned over and pretended (very realistically, I might add) to spit on my plate.
"Bon appetit!" she said.
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