I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard, during the years I was a server, a customer gripe: "If your employer would pay you a decent wage, I wouldn't have to leave a tip."
My response: "But they don't, Blanche. And they're not going to as long as they can get customers to subsidize our salaries and the National Restaurant Association to aggressively fight a rise in the tipped minimum wage."
That shut them up pretty quickly.
Saru Jayaraman, author of Behind the Kitchen Door and co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a national restaurant workers organization, has heard all the same arguments for not paying restaurant worker a living wage - and then some.
Like many former restaurant servers, I have a lot of memories of customers who were almost too impossibly difficult to deal with. I try not to think of them. I learned, over the years, to become more tolerant to the customers who insisted on customizing their dinners with a lot of substitutions: "Can I have half-chicken and half-beef with my pasta instead of just chicken? Can it have green peppers instead of red? Can you make it with ricotta instead of parmesan?"
As a server, I frankly didn't care if the customers asked for the moon instead of red sauce. What I did care about was the kitchen crew screaming at me because making a lot of custom substitutions on the line was time-consuming - particularly on a busy weekend night - and often required upgrading the cost of the dish. There's a good reason why "No substitutions" is frequently seen on modern menus. You want a complicated custom-made dish? Make it yourself at home.
One thing I never experienced, in all those years, was a customer handing me a list of requirements and a bag of pasta and insisting I have the kitchen prepare their meals to their exact specifications. I've known chefs and managers who have kicked patrons out of the dining room for less serious infractions.
And that brings me to a recent fracas in New Jersey involving a vegan couple claiming to have been cheated by a restaurant after they brought their own whole wheat pasta to the restaurant and were not given a discount on their tab. New York Magazine headlined its report on the story "Are These the World's Worst Restaurant Customers?"
But when I popped open this particular bag and put the first chip in my mouth, it was soggy. I spit it out. Then I noticed that all of the chips inside were mushy - except for a round, hard object the size of a pingpong ball.
It's no secret that we have a serious sweet tooth here in Fat City. And we love bakeries. Old favorites (like Jonathan Bender's report on the move by the venerable McLain's Bakery in Waldo) or really, really old favorites, like the long-razed Vienna Model Bakery & Cafe in the River Market, which lured in playwright Oscar Wilde back in 1882. Will someone please revive this forgotten business?
The subject will be bakeries - all kinds, all over the metro - this morning at 10 a.m. on the Central Standard Fridayprogram on KCUR 89.3 with me (someone who really needs to stay away from bakeries) and fellow panelists Emily Farris of feedmekc.com, Gloria Gale of 435 South, and Christine Becicka of Ingram's Magazine.
If you can put down that doughnut long enough, call in and join the conversation at 816-235-2888.
The words "All You Can Eat" are magical to some diners, anathema to others. Restaurant veterans often look down on them, unmercifully. "I wouldn't eat at a buffet - any buffet - if you put a gun against my head," said one chef who asked to remain nameless. "I mean, I have friends that cook at buffets."
Room 39's chef and co-owner Ted Habiger says, "Buffets as restaurant are terrifying to me. But a buffet line at a wedding or a special event is a different thing. And I'll admit that there's one kind of buffet that doesn't bother me. Those Mongolian grill-style restaurants where they cook the food in front of you."
Me? I like the concept of the all-you-can-eat theme, but I'm frequently disappointed by the array of dishes set out before me, where quantity, rather than quality, is the selling point.
That brings us to today's Central Standard Friday program on KCUR 89.3.
When Colby and Megan Garrelts opened their newest restaurant, Rye, in Leawood this past December, they made a shocking admission: The flaky crusts for the house-baked lemon-meringue pie and molasses-rich MoKan nut pie were made with lard. Yes, lard, that legendary ingredient which creates the lightest, flakiest pie crusts - and renders such a dessert verboten to vegetarians. (As Fat City has reported before, it's rare to find a restaurant or bakery ready to admit using the product anymore.)
The Garreltses aren't alone in celebrating lard. The joys of rendered pig are espoused in a cookbook (published by Kansas City-based Andrews McMeel) titled 100% Natural Lard: The Lost Art of Cooking With Your Grandmother's Secret Ingredient. The softbound cookbook was created by the editors of Grit Magazine, whose editor-in-chief, Oscar H. Will III, tells Fat City: "Lard is making a comeback, partly because of the slow-food movement and partly because the lipid hypothesis - that saturated fats are dangerous - has been debunked."
Although fried chicken has always taken a back seat to steaks and barbecue as one of Kansas City's signature dishes, the dish has had its moments of past glory (The Wishbone, Mrs. Peters Fried Chicken). And the pan-fried bird at Stroud's is still firmly perched on its iconic status. There's even a new venue in town, Rye, serving excellent deep-fried chicken - and not just any ol' fried fowl, but free-range Amish, hormone- and antibiotic-free chicken. The Rye fry isn't inexpensive - $12 for a half-breast, leg and thigh, no sides included - but it's a succulent, moist and gorgeously crispy take on the Midwestern classic.
Another new restaurant, Pig & Finch in Leawood, also has fried chicken on its menu, but only as a Sunday night special. It sounds like a terrific deal: three pieces of deep-fried bird sided with a hefty mound of Yukon Gold mashers and gravy, old-fashioned green bean casserole, a buttermilk biscuit and raspberry jam for $13.
So what's the problem?
Two American entrepreneurs claimed to have invented soft-serve ice cream: in 1936, Tom Carvel of the franchise brand bearing his name, and in 1938, inventors John Fremont "Grandpa" McCullough and his son, Bradley, co-founders of the Dairy Queen franchise. No matter who actually invented the product - a lighter, airier frozen confection dispensed from a machine - soft-serve caught on in America in a big way. By the 1950s, there was hardly a city that didn't feature at least one concrete block hut with a cheery name like Tastee Freez (celebrated in John Mellencamp's song "Jack & Diane"), Dairy Freeze, Dairy Dream, and Frosty Freez.
For nearly three decades, restaurateur Joe Accurso was the man to see for Southern Italian cuisine just south of the Plaza. Generous, jovial, good-natured Joe opened a little delicatessen at 5044 Main in 1984 when he was 24 years old. The sandwich shop later became the classic incarnation of a family-style Italian-American restaurant: red-and-white-checked vinyl tablecloths, Chianti bottles used for candlesticks, family photos hammered into every inch of available wall space. The food was cheap, the ambience casual, and there was always Joe - delivering plates, opening wine bottles, hanging out with his regulars.
When 5044 Main was slated to be demolished, Joe Accurso rented space in a new building being constructed down the street at 4980 Main - the same glass-box structure that contains Spin! Pizza and Glace Artisan Ice Cream - and opened a shiny new Accurso's in 2009. The menu didn't really change, and the Accurso family photos were back on the walls, but the place just wasn't the same. That essense of an old-fashioned neighborhood joint was gone, and some of the old restaurant's eccentricities (erratic service, an inconsistent kitchen) were less tolerable in the sleek new dining room. Also, Joe, now the father of a toddler, didn't seem to be around as often.
In 2011, Joe sold his restaurant to his cousin Craig Accurso and Craig's son, Anthony. Since neither of them had much, if any, hands-on restaurant experience, they spent the first 15 months operating the restaurant as it had been for the previous two years. Sure, they painted the dining rooms, added linen tablecloths on weekends and replaced the photos of Joe Accurso's clan with photographs of their side of the Accurso family. And to understand the workings of a busy restaurant kitchen, Anthony Accurso - the owner and senior manager - spent a year cooking behind the line.
Last month, the big changes were unveiled at Accurso's. And Anthony is out of the kitchen and working the dining room.
This is a question we've asked frequently here in Fat City: Do you ever go out to eat alone, and if so, where do you go? There are some people who will stand in the middle of their kitchen and eat a miserable peanut butter sandwich rather than go to a restaurant solo.
Eating at the bar is one thing - being single isn't quite so obvious, and the atmosphere is certainly more congenial than a table for one - but being the only companionless diner in a busy dining room is like being the wallflower at the prom. There are some local restaurants, however, where single patrons are more welcome than others. That will be the topic this morning at 10 a.m. on KCUR 89.3's Central Standard Friday program. Local food writers Emily Farris, Mary Bloch and Christine Becicka will join me to seek out the dining venues in Kansas City where being dateless won't ruin one's appetite. Call 816-235-2888 to join the conversation.
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