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On The House: The Super Soigné

On the House is our regular column written by the owners and operators of the great food and beverage establishments of New York. Today, your proprietor is Mr. David Chang of Momofuku Noodle Bar and Momofuku Ssam Bar.

2006_09_onethehouseA.jpgSoigné. It’s about the only French word I understand.

You hear it repeatedly behind the scenes in certain restaurants?for servers, it basically means make sure that the guests have everything they need. For cooks, soigné = make it perfect.

When you have a really important diner – an influential food critic, a chef you admire, anyone the higher ups deem to be important – the soigné level rises to something absurd like “super soigné.” Anything short of culinary perfection means certain death for a cook.

Cooking for a soigné guest usually entails reserving the choicest foods; a center cut Cote de Boeuf, the fattest diver scallops, the best of the best of whatever’s on the menu.

A few years back, in one of the kitchens I worked in before Momofuku, a soigné ticket for a tasting menu popped up and the kitchen went to work on it. We started the table with an über-amuse plate that included bite-size portions of raw fish, foie gras and charcuterie. We followed it up with a tour de force of special canapés – dishes from other parts of the menu transformed into tiny, composed bites that looked like airbrushed food porn.

Two specially composed first courses followed: a simple salad garnished with truffles; a few perfect and precious fava bean agnolotti. My friend Dukie, who now cooks in Spain, got out these gorgeous diver sea scallops the size of hockey pucks, after they were basted with butter and made a beautiful golden brown the scallops looked even bigger and sexier. Those went out next. A tasting of gorgeous baby spring lamb five ways followed: tongue, kidney, roasted chop, braised shank, a crépinette of shoulder. All the food went out perfectly. Then we were done and pastry took over, crushing them with every dessert on the menu, petit fours, and a take-home bag of macaroons or something equally excessive.

Not bad, right? It’s good to be a VIP. But right before service was over, somebody realized that the servers had mixed up the soigné table with a regular table when they put the order in. That all this specially prepared and meticulously labored over food went out to the wrong table.

How amazing is that! We wondered how these people who got the royal treatment – unbeknownst to them or to us – must’ve been feeling. That little accident was the catalyst for the “money piece”.

The money piece was what Dukie and other cooks called the ticket we selected to secretly unload the soigné treatment on each night. There were a few stipulations in selection of the money piece:

1) We couldn’t do it during the crush from 7 to 9:30 pm, so it was usually towards the later portion of the service. (Though ordering a tasting menu at 10:59 when reservations close at 11 was grounds for immediate disqualification.)

2) Poor orders were not considered - no sauce on the side people, no special requests, no well-done meats. If they didn’t know how to eat, they weren’t going to appreciate what we were putting on their plates.

3) No assholes. No guests who thought they had more juice than they actually did.

4) And, just because you only have so many super-select cuts, it was usually a two-top. Remember that nothing makes a crew of cooks more unhappy than eight or more diners at a table.

Considering that neither of our restaurants are fine-dining places, we still practice the time-honored practice of the soigné table. We can’t help it: we are brainwashed with French.

Sometimes I call out a ticket and yell “super soigné” and I can read the withering contempt on Quino’s face, because it says what he doesn’t: “Hey asshole, what about every other guest eating at the restaurant?” And as usual Quino is right, every guest deserves the best. But sometimes you need that something special.

Which is why we are going to bring back the ‘money piece’. We might not do the whole fancy amuse and canapés thing (ok, maybe the canapés), but usually we just send out an extra course that the soigné table hasn’t ordered, or give them a new dish that we are experimenting with. But most of the time it’s still using the choicest products. Maybe we will throw in a couple of beers.

So next time you are dining out and you get soigné treatment for no known reason, don’t ask any questions. Just shut up and eat.

—D. Chang

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