Is anything OK with your meal?
Our people, as we all know, love to do three things: eat, talk, and complain.
And boy, was the complaining to the fore on Sunday at Jewish Book Week 2013, when the Financial Times food writer - and sometime elegant restaurateur - Nicholas Lander took to the stage. With him was the restaurant owner Russell Norman, whose venture into Jewish-style eating with his deli, Mishkin's, has divided foodies. (Kosher foodies won't eat there because it's not kosher; other foodies reckon that it's not authentic enough.)
In Lander's book, The Art of the Restaurateur, detailing the highs and lows of the restaurant business, he said his first condition for running a restaurant was "a sense of humour". You couldn't do it without one, he opined, reckoning that the vast human hordes who troop through his restaurants must be both amused and amusing.
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. True, the Book Week talk was a lunchtime event without any actual lunch on offer (although I did spy at least one man carefully unwrapping his cellophaned sandwich in the back row), but almost to a man (and woman) the audience wanted to complain.
Winner, of course, raised this to an art form
What they didn't like about restaurants could have made a book in itself. The noise. The acoustics. The loud music. And don't forget the chairs that were always far too hard and never, ever padded enough. And don't let us get started on the hazards of tipping, over-enthusiastic waiters, what to do about sending food back, or even, as one woman fretfully declared: "The people who were laughing too loudly and enjoying themselves too much."
It did make me wonder quite why many of these complainers bothered going out to eat, if it were such a dismal experience. It was like being trapped inside a giant Michael Winner bubble (zichrono livracha) in which moan followed moan. Winner, of course, raised this complaining to an art form in his eponymous Sunday Times column, much of which concentrated on how close his table was to the kitchen or the coach party which had followed him into the restaurant.
The Times food critic Giles Coren, fondly recalling this last weekend, recorded Winner's eruption into food criticism in a torrent of asterisks: "And then into the dining room in the early Nineties burst Michael Winner: 'Call that a f***ing table? That's not a f***ing table, that's a sideboard with a knife and fork on it! Don't you know who I am? I'm Michael f***ing Winner, and I want that table over there, the big one for eight people. Yes, it's just me and the lovely Miss Seagrove, but I need room to spread out. I don't care who's sitting on it now. I don't care if it's the Queen of f***ing Sheba - who happens to be a very close personal friend of mine, just ask Marlon Brando - chuck her off or I'll have you fired. Now, what's this menu? I'm not eating this s***! Bring me a steak and kidney pie. And send someone round to Claridge's for a treacle pudding. I'm not eating yours, it's f***ing disgusting!'"
A good half of Lander and Norman's audience were devotees of this frothing school of behaviour - at least, according to what they said to Lander and Norman.
My bet is that most of the serial complainers bitching about the sheer unalloyed dreadfulness of eating out in high-end restaurants are pretty much pussycats when it comes to tucking their napkins in. They bow to the apparent superior knowledge of the sommelier, they are frightened of sending food back lest it re-arrive having been spat on (or worse), they eat mediocre meals and drink below average alcohol, and they think that paying an obscene amount of money for lunch or dinner somehow sanctifies the experience of dining out.
Much closer to the mark was Lander's re-telling of the Woody Allen story about the two old Jewish women eating in the Catskills. The food, they agreed with each other, was terrible. "And such small portions!"
Jenni Frazer is assistant editor of the JC