Views on tipping, duck tongues and fixing rare burgers

September 21, 2005|By ROB KASPER

RENOWNED CHEF THOMAS Keller believes a flat service charge of 20 percent is a more efficient way to compensate his restaurant staff than tipping.

Food scientist Harold McGee occasionally dips a chuck steak in boiling water to sterilize the surfaces before grinding it into a hamburger that he cooks, very rare, for his father.

The duck tongues of San Francisco's Chinatown aren't as tender as those found on New York's Mott Street, says longtime food writer and former restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton.

And an ideal beverage to sip with Chinese food is brandy mixed with 7UP. The brandy cleanses the palate, according to the San Francisco Chronicle's Lynne Char Bennett, and the 7UP "adds a touch of sweetness to balance the saltiness and strong umami of the soy sauce."

Who knew?

Those are a few tips from the top, insights gleaned from spending time with folks atop the food-and-fine-dining pyramid. I picked them up in San Francisco during a meeting of the Association of Food Journalists.

As is the custom with associations, whenever two or more of their members are gathered together in the name of professional development, experts appear before them giving talks and taking questions.

Carpenters in a convention might be lectured by Home Improvement's Tim Allen. We, the nation's eating press, heard from the likes of Keller, whose restaurants - the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se in New York - are known for their three-hour, $300 dining experiences.

At both these temples of cuisine, a service charge of close to 20 percent is included in the customer's bill. Instead of cash that ends up in the pockets of the waiters, Keller views the money from a more communal perspective.

It is shared with both the wait staff at the "front of the house" and with the kitchen staff in "the back of the house." This share-the-wealth approach has been employed for several years at his California restaurant and was put into practice this month in New York. It results, Keller says, in a coordinated team effort at pleasing the customer.

Sheraton, a former restaurant critic for The New York Times, was not buying this argument. She told the chef that tipping was the only weapon customers have against bad service.

Keller countered that eliminating bad service was his job, not the customer's. Moreover, he said, the service charge was not mandatory. Customers unhappy with the service could pay less than 20 percent.

Sheraton wondered aloud whether customers knew that the charge was optional. She conceded that restaurant owners like Keller, at the pinnacle of the dining world, keep a sharp eye on service. But she doubted that such vigilance was common in less-expensive restaurants.

Sheraton, I learned, was not shy about offering her opinions. She grew up in Brooklyn, has lived with her husband in the same Greenwich Village brownstone for the past 60 years and is now, at 79, a grandmother who possesses a direct, confident big-city style.

Asked for her assessment of the duck tongues, one of the dishes served to the group at a 10-course formal Chinese banquet eaten at Yank Sing Restaurant in downtown San Francisco, Sheraton said she had had better ones.

I was pleased with myself for merely swallowing a duck tongue, but Sheraton said the duck tongues found on Mott Street in New York were less chewy than those she sampled in San Francisco. You can take the girl out of New York, I figured, but you can't take the New York out of the girl.

The idea of sterilizing the surfaces of chuck steak by dropping it in boiling water came from McGee, a scientist who has delved into the chemistry of cooking. McGee spoke to the food journalists at the Ferry Building, which houses a lively collection of restaurants and stalls on San Francisco's waterfront.

When questioned by food editors about food-safety practices in the home kitchen, McGee, an admitted adventuresome home cook, told of the pact he had worked out with his father, who likes his hamburger very rare but often got ill after eating it cooked that way in a restaurant.

Now when McGee's father has a taste for a rare burger, McGee makes it for him at home. He drops a piece of chuck steak into a pot of boiling water, letting it sit in the water for 30 seconds. This, McGee reasons, kills bacteria on the surface of the meat.

Then he grinds the meat, forms it into a hamburger patty and cooks it to his father's taste. So far this has worked well, he said. His father gets a rare burger and does not get sick.

There is a distinct feeling, an aura to life in Northern California, that is different from life in Baltimore. I felt it when Sonoma County native Laura Chenel talked about the sense of connection she felt when she met her first goats. In the late 1970s, Chenel founded the American goat-cheese movement.

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