Reader Question: What to Think When a Night Goes Sideways

I recently received an email from a reader who wondered if I had seen a New York Times blog post about a sticky situation at a restaurant.

Short version of the story: Chef/Owner of an upscale Italian place in NYC’s TriBeCa neighborhood twice dressed-down an employee.  In full view of an awkward dining room, the chef’s volume was so high and tirade so vituperative and long that one guest, the author of the blog post, eventually went into the open kitchen to tell the chef that the yelling was ruining his experience.  Shortly thereafter, the chef went to guest’s table to apologize and explain that the yelling was in service of “maintaining quality.”  The guest dismissed this excuse because it was still “ruining [his] dinner.”  The party of four is asked/told to leave the restaurant.

The author of the blog post, Ron Lieber, went on to discuss the way he wished that he had handled the situation, the chef’s response when contacted for comment – no further apology was forthcoming – and asked about who was right, and how the readers would have behaved in either party’s shoes.

I’d really like to be unequivocally on Mr. Lieber’s side, but neither man has any claim to moral high ground.   The author stood up to a bully but only because that bully’s behavior had an impact on the author’s ability to enjoy a meal.  Yes, Mr. Lieber does belatedly acknowledge that the affair “conjured up the particular type of nausea that results from watching people yank their misbehaving kids around on the subway” but he does so almost as an aside to the repeated references to the fact that he “was paying to eat there” and that the abusive behavior was “ruining [his] dinner.”  Chef Forgione, for his part, was primarily angry because he felt disrespected in the presence of his employees.

When the essence of the debate pits “Please stop being emotionally abusive to your staff, it’s fucking with the taste of my fois gras” against “How dare you challenge my ability to emotionally abuse someone who depends upon me for his livelihood?” both parties share blame in the erosion of moral framework of restaurants in particular and society in general.

If we, as a society, cannot agree that this is emotional abuse and therefore categorically wrong* then my faith in our world is fundamentally misplaced.  When will we cease giving a pass to certain people because of their talent in culinary arts, or coaching football, or producing prodigious amounts of money?

Emotional terrorism is a poor excuse for leadership, ignoring it is to condone it, and celebrating it is nothing short of profane.  Abusive chefs aren’t charming, their tirades and assaults are not reasonable prices to be paid for their “genius,” and applauding or rewarding that behavior with more fame, more restaurants simply makes us all complicit in the whole sordid mess.

* potentially a reasonable case might be made for the intellectual and emotional manipulation in the armed services but I do not believe that it consistently rises to the point of abusive.


5 Responses to Reader Question: What to Think When a Night Goes Sideways

  1. Brando says:

    That sort of reminds me of the neighbor who complains about the child-beater because he’s not taking good care of his lawn.

    Of course, I wonder if there was another reason the author didn’t address the bullying behavior directly. Perhaps it wasn’t “bullying” so much as a justified yell (say, if the chef caught an employee stealing or putting something foul into a dish for a patron, and chewed him out) which the author didn’t object to but did ruin his dining experience. Or perhaps (more likely) the author felt the bullying wasn’t his business, but the disturbing of his meal was (figuring he didn’t know the background of the yelling, but did know that it was distracting). Of course, for most of us the natural reaction when seeing something unpleasant like that is to pretend we dont’ see it, even if we know we should say or do something.

  2. Foilwoman says:

    Wow. Please don’t totally mistreat another person in front of me, because I’m spending money here? That’s the highest moral ground this guy could stand on? Of course, the chef was an idiot. Criticisms of employees should be done as kindly as possible (no raised voices) and never in public. So, the chef is a bad manager with poor social skills. The customer? Yeah, a self-important jerk. Sure, his dining experience was ruined, but he could have just spoken up for the employee without highlighting his sense of entitlement. Unless, of course, he thinks there’s nothing wrong with the chef’s behavior except as it affected him. Sorry for the confusing pronouns.

  3. magnolia2010 says:

    yeesh. i’m with you on the whole emotional abuse thing. i’m a sports nut, and i am so tired of people saying that coaches like bill parcells and tom coughlin, who are nothing but raging bastards who seem to get joy out of cutting people down at every turn, are geniuses. i don’t think so. i’ve been lucky in my fan life to support teams who don’t hire people like that, but i’m sure someday it’ll happen that my favorite team is run by someone i deplore. what do you do, besides agitate for change? i wonder how things got this way. people celebrate jerks in sports, and in restaurants too apparently, for engaging in behavior that they’d sue their bosses for. weird.

  4. laloca says:

    i may have commented this before, but robert heinlein observed that there are two sure signs of a society in decay: a decline in the cleanliness of public restrooms, and an overall decline in common courtesy.

    we are in decay.

  5. Brad Pappas says:

    If only more people would hear this!

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