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April 4, 2008

“I’ll have the Duck à l’Orange. Go light on the sauce, would you?” The waiter, forgetting to jot this down, scrutinized my denim jacket. The cuffs were fraying, a bit gauche I’ll admit, and several buttons were missing. Still, the fabric was pristine—a tribute to the fashion-savvy celebrity crowds that could care less what the dress code is at the world’s finest restaurants. The only ones, of course, they care to frequent.

I wasn’t sure if my stiff penguin of a server, posing an accent bordering on high-society British, had actually heard my request. It seemed odd that the heart and soul of a dish—in my case, the absurdly rich orange sauce that drowns out a duck—would be eased off the plate. Most devotees of true French cuisine would lick the oozing gravy out of the porcelain grooves, if it weren’t so completely lacking in manners. But I wanted duck—simple, delicately prepared, luscious duck. No need for embellishments.

“As you wish, sir,” were the server’s begrudging words of acceptance. He whipped his service towel around his right arm, turned on a point in his heel, and waddled away to the recesses of the kitchen. It was no picnic for him, I’m sure, to tell the chef to hold back on the sauce. Basting in ego, chefs are not ones to be told to change their dishes.

Not so much anymore. The clientele is the focus—as it has always been, at least to some extent. But while respect once greeted the host, regardless of who made the reservation, it now quivers in a corner with gourmands of means who have no claim to fame. Actors and politicians come with agendas, and little of it has any at all to do with the food. See and be seen, then out the door, on to another red carpet.

And if slack-jawed waiters, their lives buried in the meticulous rigor of French culinary classicism, must bear the brunt of casual celebs, wining and dining in jeans and t-shirts, what does the world do with celebrity chefs? Fiery men and women dot the culinary landscape, all adress in chef coats…or? Bobby Flay, no longer the martinet of the kitchen, sports casual khakis and cotton sports shirts as he prods an entire flank of beef on his backyard grill. This is the persona television gives us—the everyday chef, capable of the same meals that appear in high-falutin’ French restaurants. You can do it too, they tell us, dishing up roasted corn salsa and garlic-laden guacamole with four different kinds of meat.

Which is why, I suppose, we’re tempted to douse our awe of the French kitchen with a bit of television realism. This can all be done at home, and why dress up to do it? Why endure the stuffy service and impossible French menu? No need to appall chefs with requests that turn egos into firestorms, and no bother paying tips.

Yes, celebrities get away with the casual approach to fine dining, but they do it because they have money to flaunt. Most of us don’t have the option, and are too scared by the script and choreography of high-end restaurants, to indulge very often in expensive restaurant food. Even if we had the money, it would seem somehow…horribly awkward.

Which is why we brashly dress down, telling the doyen(ne)s of the kitchen that we can accomplish equal feats at home, and we needn’t come to a restaurant to be awed. It puts us in a position of power, and perhaps is more enjoyable than the food itself.

If only we had the money to dine out in mufti more often.

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