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 meala 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 joysmall, 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.