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Passions: Clean Plate Club

So what if it makes him seem neurotic, insecure and intrusive: This chef won't rest until the diners at his restaurant finish every last bite

Clean plates don't lie. That's what I say when waiters at my restaurant, Blue Hill, ask me why I insist on examining every plate that returns to the kitchen with the slightest bit of food on it. The waiters think I'm intrusive. They also think I'm neurotic and insecure, but like most neurotic and insecure chefs, I don't quite agree. I tell them that a clean plate is proof of a perfect meal—a lesson I learned on a trip my father and I took to Nice in 1982, when I was 12 years old.

As our taxi passed the famed Hotel Negresco on the way to the Nice airport, my father (a businessman and passionate food lover) smacked his forehead. How, he wondered aloud, could he have neglected to take me to the restaurant there? The Chantecler, with the brilliant (and manic) chef Jacques Maximin at the stove, was one of the most celebrated restaurants in the world. My father yelled at our cab driver to stop. He jumped from the taxi, then motioned for the driver to join us.

As I sat between the two men, I quickly became aware of a cultural divide. My father told the waiter, "No menus; bring whatever comes out of the kitchen," rolling his fists quickly around each other like a turbine. To my left, my father represented the all-American assumption that memorable experiences are always in reach, like apples, and that one simply needs to be bold enough to grab them. He fidgeted and worried about missing the flight but beamed with pleasure as I swallowed my seafood ravioli with obvious joy—small, soft clouds of briny sweetness in impossibly thin pasta. To my right, the cab driver looked around the room in awe, blinking with bemusement at the vagaries of fate. He poked his nose within inches of his baby lamb loin. He smiled, took a bite, and savored its flavor. But he wasn't even halfway finished when my dad waved for the bill.

"He's still eating," I cried.

"We have to go now," my father replied. Anticipating a confrontation, I bolted for the men's room. I passed the swinging kitchen doors and caught a glimpse of chef Maximin bent over a plate ready to be sauced, eyes at the edge of the rim.

When I returned to the table, the cab driver had lowered his head again so that his lips nearly touched the dish. He dabbed his thick, crusty bread into what was left of the sauce, then looked up and nodded. The waiter removed the empty plate.

Plates cleared, check signed, my father jumped up to go and I followed. Just then, small bowls of sorbet arrived, palate cleansers. There must have been miscommunication about whether we wanted dessert.

"Thank you, but we're running very late," said my dad. The cab driver, who had remained seated, picked up his spoon and carefully, intently, began eating. My father ran back to the table.

"Unacceptable!" my father said, banging his forefinger on his watch. "The flight leaves in an hour." The cab driver wiped his mouth and feigned departure by putting his napkin down and swigging the last of his wine. My father retreated. The cab driver went back to the sorbet.

"No, no," my father said. "Time to leave." Again, the cab driver playacted, pushing his chair out slightly with one hand as if he were about to leave, but scooping sorbet into his mouth with the other.

I left to wait in the taxi, but I will not forget what I saw through the window of the Negresco. The cab driver kept looking around the dining room, as if to taste the place itself. Hovering over the bowl, he scraped the bottom rapidly until it was clean.

It was a picture of defiance, but that's not all. I recognized in the cab driver a deliberate, maybe innate, understanding of the care that goes into a meal. He did not have to see the chef laboring over the plate to know the meaning behind the food.

I wish all the diners at Blue Hill were like the cab driver. Is it arrogant of me to look for that kind of reverence? If there's food left uneaten on a plate, I want to know what went wrong. I know it's uncomfortable to confront the diner—I've done it myself. More excuses have accompanied a half-eaten salmon fillet on its return to the kitchen than I've ever even given for overcooking it on the way out. "Late lunch" and "Saving room for dessert" are popular. No excuse rings true to me. I look at plates the way people look at themselves in the mirror. Love handles gotten a little smaller? The diet and exercise are working. Plates empty? I've cooked the food well.

Not long ago an experience with a customer shook the foundation of this belief. A writer I admire greatly visited the restaurant for the first time. Unfortunately, our newest waiter, Craig, had been assigned to the writer's section.

"He's incredibly excited about the tasting menu. No restrictions, no time constraints, Puligny-Montrachet to start," Craig assured me as he handed in the order.

I began simply: marinated Maine sea scallops with mussel juice and olive oil. The plates returned five minutes later. The writer had barely touched the scallops; his companion had finished hers completely.

"You told me no restrictions," I yelled.

"That's what he said," Craig responded. "I'm clearing the plates and he tells me this is the only way he likes scallops."

"You misheard him."

"No, chef, I heard it clearly. He said it's a great dish."

I cooked their next course—a sea bass roasted with pink peppercorns and lemon thyme—with incredible care, leaving the writer's piece in the pan an extra minute. He clearly did not care for raw seafood. The plates returned with his fish essentially untouched, except for a half-inch bite from the corner; his date had again cleaned her plate.

Craig started trying to placate me right away: "No worries, chef, he's cool. Adored it. Saving room for dessert."

"Adored it?" Remembering this was Craig's first night, I forgot for a moment about the writer. My shock, my embarrassment really, was for a moment less about the writer than about our newest waiter, who must have been thinking I couldn't cook.

"When was the last time you ate something perfectly cooked, Craig, like that piece of center-cut bass?" I asked. "Something that was your ideal—tastefully seasoned and thoughtfully plated, something so delicious you were amazed to be eating it—and then halfway through this wonder of a dish you threw up your arms and said: No more! Too good! The best damn bass I've ever had, and I'm throwing away half!"

Three more courses, I said to myself, no more than three—all of them perfect. I batted a pencil against my temple: trout, foie, steak. Hot smoked trout to start, fish that I'd picked out myself that morning. Pink, wholesome and beautiful to look at—a component I thought could have been missing from the first two courses. Emboldened, I declared the trout impossible to be left uneaten.

And then it was. The fish resembled a cartoon image of a piece of cheese with the corner nibbled off by a mouse. Otherwise the plate was undisturbed; the fillet's flesh seemed to blush at me. This took effort: It was as if, in a shocking role reversal, the writer had carefully considered how the dish should look when it returned to me.

"Really loved the smokiness," Craig told me.

Confused, I feigned calm as the kitchen swirled around me. "Okay, foie gras, sautéed, with pineapple," I said, to no one in particular. Who could refuse velvety foie gras with sweet fruit?

Craig returned with the plates of foie gras, one empty, one nearly identical to how it looked leaving me. "He said he wants to speak to you about the foie gras," Craig said cryptically as he left the kitchen. And then I saw him. The writer was standing in the kitchen. I went over to shake his hand. He grabbed it, then wrapped his arms around me in a bear hug. I realized that all this rooting around trying to figure the guy out was ridiculous. Letting me go, he pointed at me: "That was the best foie gras of my life, man."

The writer returns to the restaurant every few weeks. I've tried giving him a vegetable tasting menu. I've tried a long menu with extremely small portions, and a two-course tasting with mountains of food. I've tried grilling, deep-frying and cedar planking. He eats the exact same amount with admirable consistency.

So I've learned that a person's appetite is not necessarily proportionate to my cooking abilities. Or have I? There's no glory in offending a chef, so when I go out to eat I clean my plate—sometimes in less conventional ways. I recently traveled to London for the first time to cater a dinner party and had all of Saturday to myself before my late-night flight home. There were several restaurants I wanted try, so I ate two lunches. I was stuffed, but I still wanted to make it to my 5:30 reservation at Richard Corrigan at Lindsay House.

I was looking for fresh ideas and bold flavors. Instead, I found tuxedoed waiters offering tasting menus that included dishes like a game terrine with three inches of aspic. As the maitre d' led me to my table, I remembered that a new restaurant, Sketch, had just opened to incredible reviews—and that it was on the way to the airport. I couldn't think of an excuse not to be seated, though, so I decided to get what I could from the experience.

When I saw a pigeon and foie gras appetizer on the menu, I felt compelled to order it. A dish like that was a strong statement, I thought, and could be a chef's way of saying, You can trust me not to overwhelm you. But the dish was flat and gratuitously fatty. I stared at my plate. If I finished everything on it quickly, I would still have time to get to Sketch.

I wrapped the leftovers in my napkin and stuffed it into my bag. I used my roll to mop up the sauce. I might not have enjoyed the food, but why ruin the chef's night too? I know the heat, the exhausting hours, the frustration and mindless repetition of what chefs do. I am loath to inflict any more pain on another chef, even a bad one.

I got up to use the phone. Sketch had an open table; I promised to be there in 45 minutes. I sat back down to an enormous lamb loin, cooked extremely rare and looking thoroughly tough. It was. I played with the potato cake and eyed the waiters. No one in sight, the loin and most of the potato cake went into the bag. And when the waiter approached to clear the plate I stopped him suddenly. Giving in to an impulse, I grabbed the bread and wiped the sauce from the plate.

I shot across town. Sketch is restaurant-as-performance-art, with buzzing neon signs, flickering video installations and a pair of hostesses each six-and-a-half feet tall. I barely looked up. The menu was fascinating. There were spices and cooking techniques I had never heard of. But I had only 30 minutes to eat.

"Look," I explained to the waiter, "I've got a flight to catch, and I don't know when I'll be in London again. I hate to pressure the kitchen, but I want to try several dishes and, in the interests of time, I'd like to have them all come out together."

"All at once?" asked the waiter with pursed lips.

"That's right, yes," I said. "The artichoke with marinated and pickled vegetables, the foie gras and charcuterie, the lobster and the sea bass with conch fritters. And the check." I sounded just like my father, I thought.

The meal was incredible. Each dish was full of flavor and intricately prepared. With the exception of the chunks of charcuterie—which again went into my carry-on bag—I happily cleaned all the plates and raced to make my plane.

"Bag check," the airport security guard said. I went to a side table, where she unzipped my carry-on and started to open it. That's when it hit me. The food—the lamb loin, the pigeon and foie gras, the charcuterie—all of it was loosely wrapped in sauce-soaked napkins, sitting on top of my clothes. "I don't really know how to explain this," I said.

I am my father, rushing around grabbing at experiences and trying to fit everything in. But I'm the French cab driver, too, who knew how to savor a meal. There is a lot of satisfaction in the business of cooking, but there are few real pleasures. One of them is having the plates from a table of six return entirely empty. When the waiters reluctantly hold them up for inspection, it's as if I can see my reflection.

Dan Barber, an F&W Best New Chef 2002, is chef and co-owner of Blue Hill in Manhattan.

Published July 2003
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