The 800th Plate

The fine line between quantity and quality in Spago’s kitchen
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On any given night in Los Angeles a great restaurant kitchen is veering close to collapse beneath the weight of service. A couple hundred diners are about to be left unhappy, and the longevity of the business is at risk. The reasons are various but simple. A pasta left too long before pickup has congealed, a dish of too-pink salmon has been returned, an overdone fillet must be refired. Recently at Santa Monica’s Mélisse, a single mistimed amuse-bouche sent the kitchen into a tailspin for half the evening. Kitchens are living, breathing engines of quality. Each is constructed of different human components, and like car engines, each can handle only so much stress. They rely on flow, the steady rhythm of orders, of cooking, of plating, and of pickup. Break that flow at the wrong moment in the wrong place, and the engine fails. The pasta station blows or the fish station conks out, and the rest of the kitchen stumbles with it. Chefs have a phrase for this phenomenon: They call it “going off the cliff.”

Quality and quantity are always at odds inside restaurant kitchens. A chef may want to serve a John Dory and foie gras napoleon wrapped in napa cabbage, as well as a plate of roasted sweetbreads draped in black truffle sauce, and two dozen more dishes of similar complexity. But can he build the kitchen that will fabricate each plate perfectly every time, with the same flavor profile and texture? Not just once or twice but 30 times a night, 7 nights a week, 52 weeks a year? There are a number of talented chefs who can wow diners with a single amazing meal. The challenge in restaurant kitchens—which continuously present their chefs with opportunities to make mistakes—is to limit error along the grill line during five hours of dinner service. Every dish, every night, must arrive at the table tasting as it did the day before.

Chefs must find their kitchens’ limit, the number of dining reservations they can comfortably service in an evening. Beyond that limit, the risk of crashing the kitchen goes up. At Napa Valley’s French Laundry, run by chef Thomas Keller, the limit is 70 diners a night. “We are all about precision,” says Keller, “and above 70 it gets hectic and sloppy.” The French Laundry is considered by many to be the country’s finest restaurant. But if Keller decided to serve 120 diners a night, its status might drop.

Last year Keller visited L.A. and ate at chef Michael Cimarusti’s new restaurant, Providence. “One hundred and thirty-five diners can be a dream here,” says Cimarusti. “But we can also have nights of 70 diners that are such absolute nightmares for the kitchen that I want to throw down my apron and never pick it up again.” Many of L.A.’s foremost chefs also made their way to the restaurant. Joachim Splichal visited; his Patina kitchen has found it performs best at fewer than 200 diners a night. Mélisse’s Josiah Citrin dropped in; he favors 110 or so diners a night. David Myers of Sona did not show up, but Myers will not accept more than 130 diners a night. Wolfgang Puck, on the other hand, did visit. His Spago kitchen, under the direction of executive chef Lee Hefter, had once served 505 guests in a single evening without going off the cliff.

Spago’s ability to produce the quality of food that it does, in the quantity that it does, amazes nearly every chef in L.A. Even Spago’s Friday lunch, when the restaurant serves up to 350 people in three hours, would flatten any other local kitchen of its caliber. The Wolfgang Puck empire, built on Spago’s reputation over the past quarter century, is immense and aggregated and includes cafés, airport kiosks, catering services, frozen foods, and the biological entity known as Wolfgang Puck. In addition to the company’s flagship, Hefter is charged with running its fine-dining division. He oversees 300 cooks in 11 restaurants, like Spago Las Vegas, Spago Maui, and Cut, the steak house in the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel. He hires, or fires, each chef de cuisine, designs the contents of every menu, and is on the road three months a year. He always seems to be elsewhere, or impatient to arrive there, and his go-to question in meetings is, “What’s next?”

During a recent Friday lunch service, Hefter seemed to be in an unusually dormant state. He stood stock-still, dressed in a white tunic, on the kitchen side of an immense glass wall that separates Spago’s guests from its cooks. “I’ve backed off dinner service from 500 diners a night to 300,” Hefter said, watching the activity on his grill and at his pasta station. “I was yelling and stressed, the food was taking too long, and the customers were angry.” (This may have been a fib: On consecutive Saturdays following Hefter’s remark, Spago would serve more than 450 diners a night, avoiding the cliff.) “You just gotta know where to build your guardrails into the kitchen,” Hefter continued, scanning Spago’s busy dining room. Beside him, three plates of pasta with white truffles appeared for pickup. “That glass wall between us and them is really a facade,” Hefter said, nodding at the lunch crowd and watching as the pasta—at $95 a plate—was ferried to a table of three smiling women. “Diners may think they understand the kitchen because they see the cooks moving around back here, but they don’t. They don’t understand what had to start at five-fucking-forty-five in the morning to get that plate to them.” As the pasta was being set on the table, Hefter became almost wistful.

“Three hundred dollars right there,” he said, easing his weight back onto his elbows where the plates had appeared. “Must be nice. Glass of red wine, beautiful truffles. Not having to worry a thing about life.”

The version of California cuisine that Puck is credited with popularizing is actually a hybrid of cooking styles from the French and Chinese, two cultures that—known respectively for their intellectual neuroticism and plain hard work—are not exactly laid-back. Neither is Puck. He was on book covers and television shows before he opened the original Spago in 1982, atop a hill above the Sunset Strip. Chinois on Main followed, and then the brasserie Eureka—which went bankrupt after two years—and Malibu’s Granita, which recently shut its doors as well. Those setbacks have not mattered. “Puck is our ground zero for redefining what a modern chef is,” says Keller. “He realized and embraced opportunities where no one had before, organizing the whole package—the books, the restaurants, the personality, the philosophy.” The original Spago lasted 19 years on the Strip, mixing duck sausage pizzas with Swifty Lazar parties, transmitting a West Coast hash of better food and celebrity to the nation through live telecast and paparazzi blurb.

Hefter was just 27 when his boss tapped him to helm the new Spago Beverly Hills in 1997—a former working-class tough from New Jersey who’d found himself running the country’s most famous restaurant. For a chef so mobile, Hefter is perfectly shaped, with a shaved head and the impressive build of a large artillery shell. Before Friday’s lunch service, Hefter had flown to a Montana dude ranch, where he cooked black bass with Spanish chorizo and saffron oil for 120 diners; then to a New York banquet, where he accepted Esquire‘s award for the year’s best new restaurant, Cut, and went on to celebrate his wife’s birthday at Bouley; and then to Atlantic City, where he spent five days at the Wolfgang Puck American Grille perfecting the fall menu’s pumpkin agnolotti. Likely, he charmed almost everyone he met. He is genuine, bighearted, and at ease in his skin. But Hefter is also an old-school brawler who looks like the muscle in a Paul Muni film from the ’30s. He seems remarkably solid, tamped down, pressurized—slightly menacing but well contained. Being near him is like spending time around a very big can of condensed Lee Hefter.

At Spago Hefter is backed up by Thomas Boyce, his chef de cuisine. The two men could not be more different. Where Hefter was raised in New Jersey, Boyce grew up in Napa. Where Hefter is a devout football fan (“The Giants, because they got heart”), Boyce has never watched a complete NFL game in his life. Hefter stands well under six feet tall, and Boyce is just over. If Hefter can sometimes come off like he’s wound as tight as a coat hanger, Boyce is nonchalant and open. “It’s weird I would even work for this guy,” says Boyce, who has been with Hefter for 11 years. “But we just happen to work very well together. He used to be even more intense, wrestling cooks to the ground to keep things light but also to prove he’s top dog—like, ‘Don’t fuck with me.’ Wolf really appreciates confidence like that.” When Boyce started at Spago, he crashed the kitchen one night. “After I’d gone to Wolf the next day to say I was sorry and that I’d realized my mistakes,” Boyce says, “Lee took me aside. He said, ‘Don’t you ever say that to him again. Don’t you ever apologize. It only shows you lack confidence.'”

Hefter—after Endeavor’s Ari Emanuel—may be the most confident man in Beverly Hills, but he does have his insecurities. “I’ve always had a thing,” he says, “where there might be better chefs out there, talentwise.” At the same time, Hefter’s value to Puck and his empire is apparent to anyone in L.A.’s restaurant community. “I think Wolfgang did some great things,” says a chef who knows both men. “But Lee is a great chef, and he saved Wolfgang’s ass, because by the time Spago Beverly Hills opened, Wolf’s food was way outdated.”

Spago’s kitchen hierarchy is one of the more difficult in L.A. to parse. Hefter is executive chef, but because he is saddled with so many duties and out of state so often, Boyce seems to be in charge of the kitchen. “It is still Lee’s kitchen,” says Boyce, “but the titles are funny. I mean, I have no idea what Wolf’s title is.” Exactly which chef diners believe is cooking their veal on any particular Friday night depends a lot on where the guest lives. Though Puck has not been Spago’s executive chef for more than a decade, every night in the restaurant finds tourists and visiting businessmen asking if Puck can come out and say hi. “It’s a geographical map of knowing,” says Boyce. “If you’re from Wisconsin, you’ve never heard of Lee Hefter. If you’re from L.A., you’ve likely never heard of me. But if you’re a regular, you know Lee makes it happen and I keep it together.”

Every Spago guest sits within view of three giant pointillist paintings that dominate the dining room: scenes of peasant women picking fruit from trees, of peasant men working a vineyard, and of a couple at rest in an orchard. These are not your typical malnourished 19th-century agricultural starvelings; they are large bellied, with huge thighs and giant buttocks. Looking at the first canvas, you half fear one of the women will suffer a myocardial infarction on her ladder and fall off the painting into someone’s soup. The art speaks to the central theme of Spago’s kitchen and its dining experience: plenitude. “What makes Spago great,” says Providence’s Cimarusti, “is that you get this overwhelming sense of abundance. Everything is ample, and the food just streams out of the kitchen.”

“I don’t think Wolf knew what he wanted to do when we created the new Spago,” says Hefter. “And I didn’t think up the menu until two days before we opened. But I wanted a big menu, I wanted a restaurant with a lot of choices. I wanted a lot.” Most chefs dream of owning a small restaurant, but Hefter would find that life dull. “Am I going to have chicken and not duck?” he asks. “Squab on Thursday and rabbit on Friday? How can I not have squab every day?”

Spago—which is a cultural institution as much as it is Hefter’s domain—produces Asian, Indian, and European cuisines following a traditional model established by the movie industry: Bring the best of the best to my table! As it turns out, the Hollywood model is a home run. “You may be a better cook than I am,” says Keller, “but if I can find better product than you? Then I am the better chef.” Puck and Hefter spend astounding sums on the best spring lamb, the best white truffles, the best Kobe beef. Once, during a live interview on Good Morning America, Puck was asked what his secret was. “I get the best ingredients and then try not to fuck them up,” he answered.

The amount of ingredients that Spago churns through each week is staggering: 80 pounds of duck breast, 90 pounds of Kansas City beef, 200 pounds of veal, 500 pounds of fish, 650 pounds of rib eye and côte du boeuf. More than 1,000 dry goods are inventoried, including a spice shelf that perpetually runs low on the cumin, coriander, caraway, cardamom, and fenugreek that flavor Hefter’s Asian-inspired recipes. At the height of Friday’s lunch service, Hefter walked off the grill line to the prep area, where beets were being trimmed, turnips brushed clean, and carrots peeled. “I buy the best product bar none,” he said, surveying his vegetable patch. “Everyone knows that. Everyone knows I pay top dollar, and I have no tolerance for anything else.” Hefter picked up a carrot that didn’t stand a fighting chance inside his meaty palm and bit it.

That carrot, and millions like it, can be a chef’s worst enemy. “The thing about being a cook,” says Keller, “is that it’s repetitious. You’re peeling a carrot, but because you’ve peeled them a thousand times before, your mind can wander—’How can I make the lobster better?'” Keller once served a butter-poached Maine lobster with potatoes and a julienne of crispy beets. After peeling some carrots and ruminating on the dish, he decided to elaborate, constructing a mashed potato tower and splattering the china with beet reduction. More carrots were peeled. Now the potatoes were sliced paper-thin and baked with clarified butter, and leeks and tomato diamonds in beurre monté sauce were added. With each evolution, the complexity of the dish increased. Its quality rose. More carrots were peeled. Next Keller decided the lobster should be prepared using the sous vide method, its inner core raised and lowered to various temperatures during the cooking process, and that the potato slices should be sautéed to order by his cooks. The quality of the dish rose even further.

What was the end result? For the diner, it meant that the French Laundry’s Maine lobster with leeks, pommes Maxim, and beet essence was probably the best found anywhere. For the kitchen staff, it meant that instead of executing, say, 7 steps to finish the dish, they had to run through 13 steps, some of them in incredibly brief frames of time. The carrot, like Proust’s madeleine, had set the chef’s mind wandering. But the complex plate that emerged was a threat to his kitchen’s performance.

Spago’s big plates are not as complex as those found at the French Laundry, or at Mélisse, Providence, and Patina. For instance, if you had ordered rabbit at Mélisse this winter, the following would have had to occur first: The animal would have been butchered, its shoulders braised, and its saddle marinated, cut up, vacuum sealed in plastic, and cooked at three distinct temperatures. Its heart, lungs, and kidneys would have been combined to make a sauce, and a butter would have been produced by combining the liver with foie gras vinegar and crème fraîche. Lettuce puree, melted torpedo onions, and caramelized endive would have been added. When finished, the entire plate would have taken about six man-hours to produce, with no room for error in any step.

Spago does have some complex plates. “Our foie gras served five ways,” says Boyce, “takes 12 cooks working together to get that plate through prep and to the table. When assembled, its different elements need to be seared right, grilled right, sautéed right, sliced right, toasted right, and we can do 20 in an evening.” But where Citrin’s or Cimarusti’s plates may have a dozen steps in their preparation on the line, most of Spago’s plates have just three or four. To one way of thinking, the different kitchens’ activity nearly equals out: Hefter’s expansive dinner menus offer more than 50 items. Other restaurants may offer half that. His plates can be simpler, but far more must be produced nightly.

When Joachim Splichal opened the original Patina, his kitchen was 750 square feet of heat and stifled air and German expletives, and still his team fed 230 diners a night. That old kitchen would have fit into a corner of Spago’s. “Lee’s got a line that stretches from here to Las Vegas,” says Splichal. While a restaurant like Splichal’s has 12 to 14 cooks working on weekend nights, Hefter has room for and employs more than 20. He dramatically calls this big thinking the “philosophy of the brigade.”

“The philosophy of the brigade is like the army,” says Hefter. “It’s a pyramid structure wherein the food is always making its way to the pass, and the cooks in that pyramid are also always trying to move their way up in stature.” Hefter is the pyramid’s summit. Beneath him sits Boyce, beneath Boyce are the kitchen’s sous-chefs, and beneath them are the cooks. A Spago sous-chef can work all stations—appetizer, pasta, grill, sauté, fish, pizza—can fashion the handmade agnolotti, fix any sauce, and butcher a rib rack into côte du boeuf in an emergency. On busy nights Hefter has five sous-chefs working, almost twice that of comparable restaurants in the city. They are Hefter’s firmest guardrail against the cliff.

 

“The more sous-chefs I have,” says Hefter, “the more eyes on the food I have. The more eyes on the food, the less chance a bad plate will go out, get returned, and push the kitchen closer to the ledge.” His sous-chefs act as quality filters, and his kitchen’s pyramid is a system of finer and finer sieves. It works to catch mistakes as plates move along several lines of conveyance toward the pass, where they are picked up to be delivered to tables. (Spago’s dessert station, run by executive pastry chef Sherry Yard, has a life of its own in the kitchen, moving at a slower, more comfortable pace and rarely interacting with the grill line.) The origin of one such pathway would be the cook who seasons and then sears the pan-roasted monkfish. He is the pyramid’s first filter. Second is the fish station’s sous-chef, who helps plate and taste the fish, examining it for defects. The third filter is the grill’s sous-chef, who moves the plate forward to be expedited, inspecting it as it goes by. Finally, there is Hefter or Boyce standing at the pass, scrutinizing the plate’s presentation and temperature.

“It’s a framework of perfection,” says Hefter. “If you break the framework, you introduce sloppiness and mediocrity, which I won’t accept.” Hefter’s kitchen is strengthened by Spago’s good pay. Typically, cooks and sous-chefs move from kitchen to kitchen for new experience but also because they’re not getting rich at any particular fish station. An executive chef is constantly training new staff, and his kitchen’s quality wavers. Hefter’s sous-chefs have been with him as long as eight years, a bedrock of knowledge that shores up his kitchen’s quality. In addition, because the Puck empire is ever expanding—a New York Spago is being considered—Hefter’s sous-chefs are sometimes promoted out to run their own establishments. Ari Rosenson, who runs Cut, worked six years as a Spago sous-chef.

A sous-chef can still show up under the weather, wrecking his performance on the line. A cook who just broke up with his girlfriend will ruin every risotto he puts out. Humans are a kitchen’s most unstable element—the flavor profile of the black bass Josh plates Thursday night will vary slightly from that of Tetsuro’s on Saturday. “If there is a weak link one night,” Hefter says, “I’m going to delete it. I will tell a cook his service is shit, his food sucks, and get the fuck out.” No doubt due to that promise, Hefter’s pyramid hums along whether he’s present or not. Even when the chef is visiting kitchens in Minneapolis, Palo Alto, Las Vegas, or Maui, you can feel his presence on the line. “Lee may have had a little doubt when he set out to create a restaurant that would be recognized worldwide as one of the best doing this volume,” says Boyce. “But you never see him second-guessing himself anymore. He’s like a duck paddling on water—everything is kept underneath.”

So the philosophy of the brigade explains why Spago efficiently feeds 450 diners a night where similar restaurants struggle with 200. A cavernous kitchen, 20 cooks instead of 12, five sous-chefs instead of two, an assembly line of schnitzel and pizza with stations of quality control built in along the way. Yet Spago worked with the same kitchen five years ago, and it was a madhouse on many nights. “I couldn’t take those Saturdays,” says Hefter. “My cooks were miserable. You could feel the cliff coming. And it had nothing to do with the size of the kitchen.”

The first problem of service that restaurants must grapple with is that guests order food when they sit down—the kitchen has no idea what they want until the waiter addresses them. Will they choose a lobster Cobb salad that takes five minutes to prepare? Or a well-done côte du boeuf that takes 45 minutes? Ricotta gnocchi with veal ragout that takes seven minutes to finish? Or the deluxe tasting menu that takes five and a half hours? What if it’s a table of four and they want the Cobb, the beef, the gnocchi, and the tasting menu? Any chef, given his druthers, would rather diners placed their orders when making the reservation. “That would be heaven,” says Sona’s David Myers. “You could plan an evening like that perfectly.” Better than that would be giving customers no choice at all. “The ultimate prize for me,” says Keller, “would be no menu. Why would you want to come to an incredible restaurant and have a choice? Why not just say, ‘Here, cook for me?’ “

At Spago a half decade ago, 44 diners were being seated every half hour. They ordered the Cobb salads and the tasting menus, and the kitchen went off the cliff. What changed? Something so simple it makes no sense on the surface. The problem was not in how the kitchen was feeding customers in the dining room. Instead, it had to do with how the dining room was feeding customers to the kitchen. Hostesses began seating 22 diners every 15 minutes.

“I suppose I get the idiot hat of the century for taking so long to come up with that one,” says Spago’s general manager, Tracey Spillane. When diners order an appetizer and entrée at Spago, the kitchen’s goal is to get that entrée to the table in 42 minutes. When 44 guests were being seated at 7:30 p.m., that meant that 44 entrées were more or less appearing together on the kitchen’s pass at 8:15. Spago’s kitchen is a pyramid, and the flow of ordering and cooking and plating was clogging every half hour at the summit, Hefter’s station. “When we had that enormous volume,” says Hefter, “you couldn’t isolate where the kitchen would crash. It all backed up, and every station would pop.”

“Basically,” says Spillane, “the kitchen can only be as successful as how we feed them.” When Spillane walks the dining room floor, she is always counting menus. How many are resting in customers’ hands? Twenty? Thirty-five? If it’s thirty-five, she slows the seating. “Twenty-two plates are what we can get out of that kitchen, and I will have to always adjust for that at the door. That’s a tough negotiation when guests see an empty table, but you can’t explain this to the guest.”

On a fall Saturday night, Boyce stood in his kitchen, in the shadow of five Peking ducks hanging from the ceiling by their necks, counting the evening’s reservation chart. Between 5:15 and 10 p.m. he had 366 diners scheduled, plus four banquets in Spago’s smaller private rooms, plus a catered party of 15 at Puck’s house, plus the L.A. Weekly restaurant critic Michelle Huneven—more than 450 people to feed in less than five hours. “Just starting with 366 is a healthy number,” Boyce said. Two bumps in the evening particularly concerned him: 6:30 p.m., when 32 people were scheduled to be seated, and 7:45, when 28 were booked. “Well, we try to stay at 22,” he said, weighing the paper in his hand. “But that 28 is what worries me the most. If I have just one party of six showing up 15 minutes late around that time, it’s going to reverberate through every station of the kitchen for the remainder of the evening.”

Luckily, it was Saturday, what L.A. chefs know to be a big beef night. “I’ve got beautiful sardines,” Boyce said, walking onto the grill line. “Foie gras five ways, gorgeous sweetbreads. But they’re going to want steak and salad.” Steaks are easy for a kitchen to produce. A steak can safely rest on the kitchen’s pass for a few minutes; its protein structure firms while cooling, retaining moisture that makes for a more tender piece of meat. By 8 p.m. it looked as if a ruby-colored Pangaea was reassembling on Boyce’s grill.

If it had been Sunday night, when Angelenos crave comfort food no matter the weather, Boyce’s pasta station would be getting hit. Pasta and appetizers are the two hardest stations to work in Spago, the two stations most susceptible to crashing. Pasta must be timed perfectly. Left for more than a minute on the pass, it has to be thrown out and refired. The noodles absorb moisture, drying out their surface starch, becoming a gluey, congealed mess.

That, anyway, is the layman’s description. Here it is in technical terms: “This fucking pasta,” says Gino Angelini, “it makes me crazy, crazy, crazy!” Angelini makes L.A.’s best pasta at his restaurant Angelini Osteria. “If it sits on the pass for 30 seconds too long,” he says, “you throw it out. Tagliatelle, agnolotti—you screw those up, you screw up the kitchen, and then everything goes. The kitchen slows down, and the night goes crazy!”

Boyce needed to worry about his appetizer station, and at around 8:30 p.m. it crashed. Appetizer is a station at odds with itself: Spago’s newest, most inexperienced cooks start out there, but the station also produces some of the restaurant’s most complex plates, like the foie gras five ways.

Duck liver, however, wasn’t crashing Boyce’s kitchen; blini were. Cooked to order on a too-cool grill, they were underdone, backing up a series of smoked salmon appetizers. Boyce asked for them to be redone, and then noticed the station’s crab cakes. “Your fucking crab cakes are flat,” he growled at a cook. “Do them again, and get them in the oven.” The cook, momentarily flustered, glanced down at his plate. “Don’t look at the fucking plate,” Boyce growled again. “No. Don’t.”

“Standards are the most important thing restaurants like Spago or Providence have,” says Cimarusti. “And a chef will have to stick by them at the absolute worst moments. A chef decides to send a plate back to a cook, and it’s that decision, he knows, that will send his kitchen off the cliff.”

By 9 p.m. Boyce’s standards were gumming up his kitchen’s activity. Helping to re-plate a series of crab cakes, Boyce peered over his shoulder at a flurry of activity. “Now,” he said, “it’s the grill that’s in the shit.” He walked over and began assisting Chris Hook, the sous-chef manning the station. Something caught Boyce’s eye when a plate of monkfish passed into his hands. In Spago’s kitchen Boyce is known as “the chef whisperer.” One evening during service Boyce glanced around and realized that he had put every cook into tears at some point or another. In the American workplace, restaurant kitchens remain among the few environments where browbeating and screaming at employees is acceptable behavior. “But I got tired of yelling,” Boyce says. These days he whispers more than he screams. “The effect of screaming is, you take someone out of the game,” says Boyce. “While he’s spending the next 90 minutes to get his emotional shit back together, his station goes down, and you can guess what follows.” Where Hefter rails, Boyce now often plays good cop to his boss’s bad cop.

Tonight he was wearing both hats. From the fish Boyce removed a tiny pea tendril that did not belong. “What’s this?” he asked, holding up the off ending microgreen. Before the fish sous-chef could examine it, Boyce assisted, throwing it and beaning him in the face. “Don’t do it again.” As it turned out, fish did not crash that evening, and the crab cakes eventually made their way to the tables. There wasn’t a single complaint from 366 diners.

As plates are cleared from tables at Spago, before they wind up at the wash station, they and their remaining contents are held up for inspection by Hefter or Boyce. The same is done at the French Laundry for the same reasons. “Looking at those dishes is how you really understand what’s going on in the dining room,” says Keller. “Is the plate clean? Is there something left on it? If so, why? Was there something wrong that we didn’t catch?”

When asked the question, nearly every restaurant guest will answer, “The meal was great.” Diners are always the last individuals a chef can trust to gauge the quality of a night’s performance in his kitchen. They know what they think of their meal; they’re just not comfortable sharing their opinion with the chef. “On what appears to me to be the worst night,” says Citrin, “when I’m getting the angriest in the kitchen, I will walk into the dining room and everyone is happy. Are they speaking their minds? Hopefully.”

“I think,” says Splichal, “that they will politely say thank you and that the meal was great. But if there was a problem you’re unaware of, it’s when they walk out the door that they will make their judgment: ‘I really didn’t like the John Dory.'”

It’s a very human dilemma. Each standard a chef like Hefter or Boyce builds into his kitchen is a kind of communication to the diner, telling her what his desires are, what his goals are, how he wants his food to be experienced. But unless he’s off-the-charts bad, he’ll almost never get a true response. He may worry his diners don’t understand the complexity of his kitchen, but they remain as much a mystery to him.