The Wisdom of Restaurants

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Whenever I am in search of a solid foundation of wisdom upon which to build the structure of my life, I don’t look to religion or philosophy.  I tend, instead, to evoke the moral principles and pragmatic understanding that I have gained from several years of working in restaurants, as well as the many more that I’ve spent patronizing them.  Restaurants are very important institutions to me and, if you ask me, far more attuned to essential universal truths than any church or academic ivory tower.

It is from serving tables, for example, that I first learned how truly petty and miserable some specimens of humanity can be, with all manner of arrogance and snobbery on nightly display.  (The percentage of truly obnoxious patrons is relatively small, perhaps, but they are far from rare.) But, from my seasoned co-workers, I thankfully learned the simple but profound dignity that derives from maintaining grace under pressure, and the adrenaline rush of surviving, night after night, the onslaught of whatever adversities come your way, including poor pay, understaffing, long hours, sore feet, and unreasonable demands.

As a diner, I am continually reminded of the value of practicing restraint and self-control.  Every now and then, for instance, I make sure to order the Greek salad instead of the hot-buttered bacon sandwich.  And I try to avoid the sorts of restaurant deals where you get the meal for free if you finish the whole thing.

Another understanding I’ve gained from dining out is an appreciation of culinary craftsmanship and passion, and the fact that they will always outshine what is merely modish or chic.  For this reason, I try hard to avoid the sorts of restaurants that serve ridiculously trendy or pretentious dishes.  Miniature scallops suspended in wobbly towers of foam formed from gelatin and puffer fish bile.  Quail eggs powdered with dried reindeer blood.  They are not for me.  If you’re looking for food that truly nourishes the body and the soul, I would suggest you’re much more likely to find it in those small, out-of-the-way mom-and-pop eateries where recipes and skills have been refined over generations, whether the cuisine is Italian, Greek, Taiwanese, Pakistani, Malaysian, or French.

But maybe the most important realization I’ve gleaned from a lifelong love of restaurants is the sheer creature comfort that good food can provide, especially when it is being created and served by people who love what they do and have the range of skills it takes to do it well.  Some of the fondest recollections I have relate to restaurant meals.  A cheeseburger and beer eaten in a diner in Saskatchewan after being stranded in a snowstorm.  A plate of pasta smothered in tomato sauce in Jesi, Italy.  A bowl seafood chowder eaten at a communal table in a log cabin in Iceland.  A slice of the best deep dish pizza in Chicago.  The food, the service, the people I shared it with, the buzz of life going on around me: these sorts of things are what life is about.

To consume enough calories to survive is a basic human need.  To enjoy a forkful of pork tonkatsu, or rogan josh, or tiramisu in an inviting atmosphere, with good companionship, is to experience a moment of true, communal pleasure.  Perhaps one that will be remembered for a long, long time.