Spilling the beans
WHO doesn’t love a good exposé? Restaurant Babylon offers to reveal the goings-on in the kitchens and dining rooms of top-rated restaurants.
Journalist/writer Imogen Edward-Jones finds out little known secrets of the restaurant world: little morsels of information diners should know before they step into a top rated restaurant. She uncovers some gems – from how restaurateurs excessively mark-up cheap wine (which more people tend to order) to how head chefs use the same spoon to sample each plate before it goes out of the kitchen (Yes! The horror! The same spoon, without so much as wiping it!).
Oh, wait ... there is more. Most chefs use the “lick and stick” technique when dressing their dishes. You know the piece of parsley that sits pretty on the goats cheese? Chances are it’s in place because the chef licked it and stuck it there.
To get these secrets, Edward-Jones says she interviewed some of America’s top restaurant owners, chefs, sommeliers and kitchen staff, many of whom were willing to spill the beans on the unsavoury practices in restaurants.
This isn’t Edward-Jones’ first industry expose. Her previous books include Hotel Babylon (24 hours at a top London hotel, which kicked off a BBC TV series of the same name that aired from 2006 to 2009), Wedding Babylon (the excesses of the wedding industry), Beach Babylon (about the beach resort industry), Air Babylon (travel industry), Pop Babylon (a year in the life of a boy band) and Fashion Babylon (the life and times of a small fashion house in London).
In Restaurant Babylon, Edward-Jones reveals all in the form of a story about made-up characters who are all based on real-life people. Names and situations may have been changed, she explains in the prologue, but the stories are all true.
The main character is a restaurateur who owns three eateries: Le Restaurant (a one Michelin-star restaurant), La Table (an upmarket brasserie) and Le Bar, a cocktail venue. The book is divided into chapters that mark the passing hours in a single day of the said restaurateur, beginning with Chapter One at the crack of dawn. This is the format Imogen-Edwards has taken in most of her other books in the Babylon series.
Because everything happens in a single day, the accounts in Restaurant Babylon feel particularly horrifying – apart from the nagger he wakes up with, our protagonist has to deal with a nasty online review (which is expertly buried by the restaurateur’s public relations maven whose office comes up with a few hundred – false – “positive” reviews that overshadow the one bad review), an elderly customer who dies during lunch (at the table, amidst a full service!), another who gets a blow job under the dining table, the unexpected arrival of a food critic while the kitchen staff are immersed in a bloody (yes, there’s a knife involved, and blood) brawl in the back, a threat from a competitor, a sabotage attempt by a neighbouring restaurant, drugs (a commis, aka junior chef, freaks out while cutting cauliflower – he’s had some drugs which he found in the pocket of his chef’s jacket or something like that), sex in the linen closet, a raid by the British Border Agency (illegal immigrant workers in the house!), a disaster with the restaurant’s drainage system (you will want to read about this in full) ... seriously, it’s a world of sex, drugs and soup.
Of course, Restaurant Babylon isn’t the first expose of the multi-billion dollar food industry. Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which came out more than a decade ago, famously shocked the world with the inside story of the wild and shocking exploits of the culinary trade.
Does Restaurant Babylon deliver further?
Well, if anything, Restaurant Babylon perpetuates Bourdain’s story. Years have passed but things haven’t really changed that much, it seems. Well, maybe a little. Kitchen staff no longer tolerate inhumanely long working hours: as Immogen-Jones’ protagonist relates, “The old double shift, seven in the morning till midnight, six days a week ... is unsurprisingly not that popular with the new sort of softer, gentler, metro-chefs who are coming through.”
But, generally, in the high-pressure culinary world, tempers flare, disaster always looms, and customers always pay.
Apart from luridly shocking tales, Restaurant Babylon leaves us a little better prepared as patrons with tips such as these (to mention just a few): Always, always check your bill as even top restaurants are known to add extra items; be wary of “restaurant specials” as they sometimes comprise dishes or ingredients the restaurants are desperate to get rid of; and make an effort to look nice when you go to a fancy restaurant or you may run the risk of being seated in the worst table amidst the loud, unsightly customers an establishment wishes to hide away from the public eye.