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.