“Is all your pasta homemade?” my customer, an obvious foodie type, asks.
“No sir,” I reply truthfully, “Some, not all.”
“What’s homemade?” the man asks with a trace of exasperation, “I only eat homemade pasta.”
I want to tell my customer he’s been infected with a virulent strain of Food Network marketing bullshit. Homemade? That term implies our prep kitchen’s someone’s domicile or legal residence. Unless you count the strung out waiter we let sleep on the dry goods room floor a few years back – the Bistro’s nobody’s home. What the customer should be asking is if our pasta’s prepared fresh daily on the premises. Sigh. It’s a little thing, but it matters.
“All our raviolis are homemade sir,” I reply, “As is our gnocchi and pappardelle.”
“Is your spaghetti homemade?”
“No sir. We use dry pasta for penne and spaghetti dishes.”
“Why aren’t those homemade?” the man asks.
“Making pasta’s labor intensive sir.” I explain, “And we’re not the kind of place wants to charge $25 for a plate of Spaghetti Pomodoro.”
The man nods slowly. To his credit he’s absorbing my tableside pedantry very well.
“Maybe that explains why the pasta at Fetish Toscana’s so expensive,” he mutters to his companions.
Actually most of the pasta at Fetish Toscana isn’t homemade. They’re just a fancier place with higher overhead. Pasta, if it’s the dry variety, costs pennies to make, so the profit margin’s huge. The boys at Fetish have to milk that pasta profit center to pay for all the sexy bathroom plumbing and still have money left over for cocaine. They’ll be out of business in a year.
“The chef tells me that dry pasta is better for some dishes,” I say, breaking the small silence, “Holds the sauce better.”
“Thank you for your honesty waiter,” the man says smiling, “I must say it’s refreshing.”
I amuse myself by wondering if the guy’d appreciate my pointing out his toupee’s off center. No, that might be too refreshing.
“You’re welcome sir,” I reply instead. “And I hope you try our raviolis. They’re outstanding.”
“I will. Thanks,” the man says cheerily. With my luck he’s a food critic.
The table orders a nice bottle of wine. I go down to the cellar to get it. On my way I pass the prep kitchen. Felipe’s there making his sublime ravioli. He’s been doing this for over thirty years. He’s a master. Fluvio stole him from another restaurant. It was an inspired bit of thievery.
Felipe is from Central America. Separated from his wife and kids by economics and thousands of miles, he lives in his Queens apartment with a bunch of other guys. When he’s done with work he’ll splash on some cologne, change into a fresh pair of jeans, and head over to the dance halls where, for a couple of bucks a turn, he can hold a pretty girl and remember he’s a man. Maybe he’ll have a beer or two. Maybe not. He might just crawl into bed. He’s worked a fourteen hour day. The prep kitchen might as well be his home.
I watch Felipe for a few moments. He doesn’t notice me. He’s too busy.
I consider how this business has costs customer’s never see on the bill. People get squeezed between those margins. But then again, who wants to know about the loneliness and sweat that goes into the food they eat? The customers here rave about Felipe’s pasta – but they’d probably feel nervous if they were alone with him on an elevator.
I take my bottle of wine upstairs. I can’t think about this stuff tonight. It’s like remembering how a slaughterhouse works every time I order a steak. There will always be costs. Dry pasta versus fresh? Organic versus conventional? Legal versus illegal workers?
Constantly thinking about this stuff will snap you like a twig. I see it everyday. I have to remind myself that all my customers want to do is eat. I forget that sometimes.
But it’s nice when people have a clue what goes into their food.
It’s a little thing, but it matters.