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The old rules no longer apply

I have a bumper sticker that says, “I am too dumb for a smartphone.” The truth of the matter is that I like being out of touch (it is amazing how few people really need you when they have to call you), and I don’t want to pay a $50 fee for each of the five phones on my plan. But what I can’t but help realize is that smartphones are changing the basic lessons we as chefs were taught about fine dining. For instance:

1. “You are only as good as your last meal.” How many times have chefs heard that? How many times have you said that? I was recently sitting down having dinner at a friend’s restaurant and the people next to me were reading reviews of the very same dish they were eating. One even said, “Well Fred W. said this tortellini salad was really good. I guess they are just having an off night in the kitchen. Mine isn’t that great.” The customer was believing the online reviews over his own senses.

2. “Fine dining is more than just the food. It is about the entire experience.” I was always taught, and teach my students at JobTrain, that as chefs we need to know what is happening in the front of the house. Bad service and a bad attitude can ruin the best of food. The converse of that is also true—great attentive service bolsters the taste of a lackluster meal. Of course, all of that might be out the window thanks to smart phones.

My wife and I recently went to dinner at our favorite Northern Italian restaurant. The chef there does a wonderful job. We have been served by Michelangelo, our favorite waiter, whom I have known for about 10 years. Sitting next to us was a woman in her mid-20s who could very well be a Victoria’s Secret model—absolutely stunning in every regard. Every guy in the room was checking her out, that is every guy over about 45 (the younger guys were all on their smart phones.) Her companion was straight off the cover of GQ. Even my wife was casting not-so-subtle glances in his direction. They had an expensive bottle of wine in the middle of the table. He was eating the carpaccio, she was having the grilled polenta appetizer. Neither was aware the other was there. Both of them were staring starry-eyed at their own phones. I commented to Michelangelo about this. “Chef,” he said, “it makes me cry. The food is so good here, the wine they have is so good, they are both so beautiful, and they don’t notice any of it.”

3. “Tourists want a view.” My wife and I have been on the Napa Valley Wine Train twice. I know that a lot of chefs look down on this sort of thing but I must say that I was quite impressed both times. The service is beyond compare, the scenery on a summer’s evening is amazing and the food is very good. The train cars are circa 1920s and it is like being on the Orient Express without anyone being shot or stabbed. On our first trip we sat by a couple in their mid-60s. They never looked out the window, never looked at the food, never looked at their wine glasses. They were (probably because of their age) actually talking to each other, though. What were they talking about? The game they were playing against each other on their phones!

4. “You eat with your eyes.” Last summer I went to a fundraiser. The festivities included a live auction and the spotters were three of the San Francisco 49er cheerleaders. Standing about six feet from our table was the only blonde of the three. The gentleman next to me at the table was on his smart phone. He holds it up for me to see: it is the official picture of the blonde cheerleader next to us. “I think she is better looking in the picture,” he told me when I asked him why he was looking at his phone. The real woman was standing a few feet away in the flesh, but he preferred the view.

So, why do I relate all of these experiences? The point is that we as chefs have to realize that for many of our customers, and certainly for the next generation of guests, what we have been taught to do to get and keep customers is no longer valid. We must develop ways to compete, or at least coexist, with this new technology. Otherwise, we will all be as obsolete as the dumb flip phone in my pocket.

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