A short story for your enjoyment!
I had heard of this place hundreds of times – and my boss had been pushing me to get over there as soon as possible. But, to be honest, I didn’t have very high expectations for it. You’d have to put yourself in my shoes to understand.
I had been to countless restaurants. I had tasted the finest cuisine from all over and while I always walked away physically satisfied with the meal and a satisfactory review writing itself in my head, there was always something I could never put on paper. Something I had never tasted (or so I thought), something that was missing from almost everything I had put in my mouth since I began my career at a popular urban magazine reviewing food.
It was nothing against the chefs – they were masters. They were the Midas’s of the culinary world and I was honored to be in the presence of such genius. However, some element that could never, ever be taught was lacking in almost every one of them. One had to realize that element within oneself, not pick it up as an apprentice or student. It was inside.
My peers and readers refer to me as a harsh reviewer. The truth is… that’s not entirely true. For as long as I can remember giving food reviews, I have only given out four lukewarm reviews and five thumbs-down. And I have been in the reviewing business for a decade – with about two or three restaurants a month and a dedicated reader-base.
The only fact that I can think of that may initiate that kind of reference is that I have never, ever given a five out of five rating. Sure, I wield well-deserved fours around like I’m giving them away for free. But a four doesn’t mean much if everyone else got one.
I would absolutely love to give a five out of five. I have come inexplicably close sometimes, but something always stops me. I can remember distinct times where I have easily filled up a page raving about the restaurant, and at the very end where my rating comes in I hesitate for an hour between a four and a five. I wanted to give my first five so badly. That restaurant deserved it, I thought. I just couldn’t do it, though. I’d start writing a five and feel a wave of regret and uncertainty – enough to make me erase the number and put a four. What was wrong with me?
“You’re going to this place tomorrow,” Boss had said. “This place is very hot right now, and if you put our name up with theirs, we’re bound to double sales!” He’d said it with such a cheesy, motivational speaker-type voice that I almost gagged.
“I-I just don’t want to be disappointed, again, Boss,” I’d said wearily. At that point, I was at my peak of “harsh reviewing”; I kept rejecting the hottest restaurant around and telling my boss I was disappointed with the restaurants I was going to. I confused everyone and I almost lost my job. Just because I couldn’t explain what was missing.
“Disappointed?! C’mon. I already set the reservation. You know I’m not pressuring you to give a glowing review – I trust your judgment – however, we need to check this place out. It is our job to cover the area’s trends as a magazine, and we’d be failing our job description if we didn’t go to this place,” he said nobly, as if he were standing atop a mountain heroically and I was his trusty steed.
I had a sinking feeling that he was right, and I had an even deeper sinking feeling that, like all of the “trendy,” “innovative,” “creative,” and “electrifying” restaurants filled with master talent, I would find myself devouring a bowl of heavenly food and have to tolerate another one of my rating dilemmas. I didn’t think I could take another restaurant that my head knew was worthy but my food-loving soul found something minutely wrong with.
But a job’s a job. And I get paid. So, to the restaurant I’d go.
Whether the restaurant is high-end or not, I always dress up – crisp, ironed button-down, spotless dress-pants, shining black loafers (and a three-button jacket if the restaurant actually is high-end). I wear a thick silver watch on my left hand, making sure that I only spend my allotted sixty minutes at the restaurant – I’ve got to be fair to everyone.
I rolled up in my signature ride – a dinghy old red Jeep, a little banged up on the passenger door (fireworks gone wrong) and in need of a deep clean, but still a smooth ride. Despite my protests, Boss thought it would be cute to put the magazine’s logo on my back windshield; so most people knew who I was before I stepped out of the car.
I took the keys out of the ignition and slipped them in my pocket. Breathing deeply to calm my apprehension, I unlocked the door and opened it. A sweet autumn gust of wind hit me in the face right before I heard the sound of a voice. Not another reader, I think, please, not another reader here to complain. I’m not ready to explain anything now.
But it wasn’t a reader.
It was a Spanish accent.
“Hola, Mr. Finetti! Welcome to our place!”
It was the chef.
Outside the kitchen.
Outside the restaurant.
In the parking lot.
Well, that’s a first.
I slid from the driver’s seat onto the gravel parking lot and hurried over to shake the hospitable little man’s hand.
“Evening, Chef Guarto,” I said, pausing to take in his smirk, and added, “Did I pronounce that right?”
“You are close, my good man! But that is alright.” The heat from the kitchen seemed to have penetrated his soul and fashioned him a permanently warm personality. He chuckled and continued, “It is really gwartoh, but I’ll accept plain ‘chef’.” Chef smiled and I nodded. “Come! Let us eat!” I followed him inside, all trace of apprehension forgotten.
“Now, Mr. Finetti, I have our appetizer already in the oven, so it will be a few minutes. S’alright?”
“No problem! That is just fine; I need to organize my papers anyway. Thank you,” I said, opening a notebook and searching for a pencil. It smelled wonderful in there.
Chef threw his hands up and said, “You are very welcome, sir!” Then he sat in the booth across from me and ordered us both waters from an attractive young waitress who looked eager to serve the great Chef Guarto.
At first, I was confused. Was he going to watch me eat? That would be almost as awkward as the time the owner sat two tables away and watched me eat (from which, he wrestled only a two and a half out of five rating).
Chef noticed my confusion and spoke up. “Oh, you do not want me to stay? I can leave if this is uncomfortable.” He stood and started gathering his silverware and napkin. It might have been a little uncomfortable at any other place. It was different from any other reviewing experience I’d ever had. And different was what I wanted, right?
Then I realized: this man was not going to watch me eat; he was going to eat with me. He was sharing the experience. He was going to keep me company. I had a feeling no one eats alone at his restaurant; no one is unwelcomed. That is why this place is so popular right now: everyone wants to feel welcome.
“Hey, hey, no, Chef! Please,” I took his silverware and set it back up again, “you can stay! I was just a little surprised.”
“No one ever sit with you before?”
I frowned at the lonely sounding question. And gave the lonely sounding answer, “Nope. I am usually left alone.”
“That is not hospitality! People do not come out to be lonely! They come out,” Chef winked, “and pay good money, to have an enjoyable evening! And eating is a social affair, yes?” I nodded, “So, this is nonsense, I will keep you company.”
I smiled. The unexpected is always refreshing.
Two meals and a hearty conversation with Chef later, I was satisfied. I didn’t even think about my review. I was about to glaze over after our in-depth conversation about his favorite spice (he can’t choose only one) but he caught me. “Do not forget dessert,” he said with a wink. The same young waitress gracefully snapped up with a tray topped with two bowls. I recognized the scent wafting from the bowls. I’d had that dish at least three times before. I groaned into a food reviewer, the pressure of the upcoming rating growing back. I felt disappointment coming on. And Chef knew it.
Unlike other restaurateurs, however, he did not scramble to win back my approval (and a good review). He stood up, personally introduced the bowl to my place and asked in a wise voice, “Please, Mr. Finetti, do not make any assumptions. At least, not yet.” I took a swig of water, clearing my palette, attempting to clear my head, too, and lifted a spoonful of the strawberry colored creamy dessert to my lips.
My review was printed two days later.
Restaurant Review: Guarto’s Place
My mother once said to me, “Boy, tell me: when you’re older, you want a wife?”
I said, “Yes, eventually.”
She said, “Doesn’t matter who she is, what she looks like, or even if she’s a ‘she’ at all, bring her to this house, feed her this dish right here, and you will have yourself a wife.”
That same dish was served to me for dessert from Chef Guarto himself.
And I used to loathe it served to me.
Because every variation I tasted did not taste like the wife-securing recipe my mother made in my childhood. It was always missing something. Not an ingredient, but a feeling.
However – and in the reviewing business, there is always a ‘however’ – after a spoonful of Guarto’s dessert, I almost proposed to the chef right there.
Then I kicked myself, thanked him for the meal and immense hospitality, got in my Jeep, and wondered what on earth I was going to say for this review.
This kind of place doesn’t really need too many words, though, and if you’re a dedicated reader, you’ll see why.
P.S. I know you’re wondering which dessert I was talking about. But, unless you’re my mother or the chefs at Guarto’s Place, you will never know. That kind of experience is best kept to oneself.
Besides, I’ve told you too much. Get over there and eat something already.