I couldn't believe what I was looking at. As I continued to read, I could feel the blood pulsing through my veins.
Very expensive. Didn't understand the food. Why did I pay $50 for a small piece of meat, red wine sauce, and "black truffle dust?" Small portions and over priced. Service was good tho. 1 Star.
I had been in the restaurant industry my whole life, so the occasional poor Yelp review was nothing new to me. But this? This was the first Yelp review in my first restaurant after opening night. This review was the first thing that anyone would see when they googled the name Enigma.
I had expected resistance on some level. After all, I had opened a high-end restaurant in a place where everyone still pan-fries every piece of meat they eat in butter, with seasoning being an afterthought. I offered Coq Au Vin in a place that thought it was a fancy French name for Coca-Cola. These people just didn't get it, and I was beginning to worry that they never would.
I buried my face in my hands, for the first time unsure of what to do next. I wondered if this is what other greats had felt like. I wonder if this sense of misunderstood madness was what drove Van Gough to cut off his own ear. It's a difficult thing to find yourself surrounded by people who cannot see beyond the simple black and white. These people just didn't get it. A part of me knew they wouldn't, but the larger part of me was confident that I could make them. That confidence, which had carried me through both the inception and construction phases, was beginning to fade in the light of my first review after the grand opening.
I busied myself cleaning the kitchen. I was meticulous about that. Every surface that touched food was cleaned, polished, and sanitized to my satisfaction. I couldn't breathe or function in a cluttered, dirty space. As I scrubbed the flattop I had just doused in white vinegar, I could not keep my mind from wandering back to that review. People really didn't understand artists. Most people probably wouldn't even view chefs as artists, but we were the embodiment of artistry. While Michelangelo used paint, and Bach used melodies, I used flavors. Every micro-herb delicately placed, every drop of oil, every swipe of sauce had its place. It was perfectly crafted with every detail carefully considered. The ratio of ingredients was positioned perfectly so that every bite was in perfect balance. In the same way that abstract art awakens your mind, exquisitely crafted food awakens your palate. Every bite reveals something new. The fat awakens the palate. The acid cuts through the richness of the fat. A hint of sweetness keeps the acid from becoming overwhelming. A touch of salt counteracts the sweetness. The bitter earthiness rounds the flavor profile out. Everything in balance, everything in harmony. That was what I created.
I knew in my heart that not everybody thinks about food as an experience. To most people it's a necessity, not a luxury, and that in itself is a shame. Eating food strictly for fuel is like examining art simply for a school credit. You overlook everything about it that makes it what it is. It's like examining humanity without taking into account a person's soul. That is what art represents, the soul of humanity. It is also a cultural bridge. Most of the people living here have never left. This town was their world. They never got to taste authentic chilaquiles in Mexico, or a perfectly cooked Chilean Seabass with miso butter in Southeast Asia.
It was pretty easy to discern this when I got questions like "What is duck confetti?" (unable to pronounce or understand "confit.")
Food was a way to expand your cultural understanding without ever leaving. Every culture has its own flavor profile that is representative of their heritage. Overtime those profiles have merged, and bled together in some truly unexpected and delightful ways. Taking and further bending and blending those cultures is a way to bring us all closer. To combine the best of all of humanity into a beautiful, finished product.
I stopped scrubbing for a second to wipe my eyes. I felt a bit silly in the moment, getting so emotional over a single bad review. I just couldn't understand the rationale for being so critical. Did they think this review was helpful? Did they do it because they thought they would get a coupon or something for free? I mean, to take the time out of your day to express a negative opinion on someone else's business is a personality trait I've never fully understood. Perhaps I'm the last of the "If you don't have nothin' nice to say, then don't say nothin'" archetypes. I just don't think the effects of their words ever really dawns on them. I was from here. I grew up poor. I had worked for years and years, 60-80 hour weeks, cut my fingers and burned my hands so badly I didn't even feel heat on my skin anymore. I had sacrificed weekends, holidays, relationships, birthdays and funerals for this dream. I had worked my way up from broke dishwasher, to respected chef. I could have chosen to open this restaurant in any town, any state, in any country, but I chose here. To bring something to my hometown that no one else could. To provide them with experiences they otherwise would never have the opportunity to enjoy, and this is what I was met with. I had put my blood sweat and tears into this place, and the payout was thus far, disheartening.
I stood in the middle of the kitchen, with beads of sweat lining up on my forehead. I scanned the space, desperately looking for something else to clean, something else to distract me, but there was nothing left. The kitchen was spotless. The stainless steel gleamed in the overhead lights. I walked over to the walk-in cooler, hopeful to find my distraction there. Every item was perfectly arranged, meats on the bottom, sauces and stocks were distributed into Cambros that had been labeled and covered with the correct color, date and time on the middle shelves, and fresh produce sat on the top. I shouldn't have been surprised, I put most of this in here myself, and I handpicked my staff. Attention to detail was one of my most compulsive qualities. I couldn't stand things being out of place. With a big sigh I closed the heavy metal door, removed my apron, and started a slow walk back to where it all began.
I sat down in the faux leather chair in the small office, and started blankly at the Login screen. I took a deep steadying breath as I typed in my password back in. Maybe the person who posted this had second thoughts, perhaps they had done the right thing and removed the negative review. I wanted to have faith in humanity, but recent events had put a damper on those expectations. As the screen lit up, I navigated my way back to Yelp. I was not expecting what I saw next...
22 new reviews! all of them five stars. They came from various other members of this small community. Each of them lauding the innovation, the technique, and the quality of what I provided. I took a deep sigh of relief. In that moment the angst was gone. It was replaced by an overwhelming sense of pride, and gratitude. I could feel my eyes watering. I needed this. I had leveraged myself financially and emotionally to make this restaurant work. I wanted something that connected me to the place I grew up in, the place that I had drifted from, and spent years avoiding. I wanted something that would make my parents proud. All of these things I desired served as great motivation, but they also formed a significant weight for me to carry. That one review, that brief moment where I felt that weight crushing down on me, was a sobering reminder of how far I have yet to go. But I appreciated these moments. The electric emotional highs and lows were a right of passage in the restaurant industry. It's the reason food-passionate people choose this industry. Not for the money, or the respect, or even the pride, but for this feeling that I held right now. An emotional high immediately after a crash. The upside of the constant internal tug of war, like a soldier who had not only survived the battle, but won. There is no more of a truly fulfilling feeling to hold in ones heart.
And just like that, my faith was renewed. It was a moment that served as an important life lesson. There are always five-star people scattered across this world, hidden, prepared to show up for you when you need them the most. Five-star people are abundant throughout this planet, even in this one-star town.
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Great story. "I wonder if this sense of misunderstood madness was what drove Van Gough to cut off his own ear." One of several lines I enjoyed. Your words and descriptions of food were exquisite.
I enjoyed your story and how you portrayed the catering industry. Your descriptions are good both of your cooking, kitchen and your emotions. I think your opening sentence does not give the oomph that the rest of the piece gives. (I make this mistake too!). Altogether a very good piece. Well done.