Let Them Eat Sweetbreads

Nina Teicholz, The New Yorker, April 5, 1999.

On a good day, Chris Fehlinger can get an otherwise sensible person to order the head of a goat. “It’s a game,” he says. “You decide what you want a table to have before they have it.” It was while Fehlinger was waiting tables at Babbo, a fashionable new Italian restaurant in the Village, that he unloaded the goat’s head. He sold it to a table of food writers. “They asked if there was anything the had to have tonight, and I said, ‘The goat. All we have left is the head, but it’s the best part.’”

In New York, diners have to work hard to get a meal at a good restaurant. They’ll call a month ahead in order to secure a table. Then, when they arrive, chances are they’ll get a cool reception from the maître d’, and be made to wait before being shown to a table. At that point, the waiter takes over, and when he is shrewd and manipulative as Chris Fehlinger the diner doesn’t have a chance.

The danger is no longer immediate, however. Mario Batali, Babbo’s chef-owner, fired Fehlinger a couple of months ago, because, as both parties agree, he was a bit too much of a know-it-all. “But we miss him,” Batali says. “He was the Zen master of all salesmen. He could sell wine to people who don’t drink.” These days, Fehlinger, a compact thirty-year-old with short, prickly blond hair and an art-history degree from Duke University, is launching both an on-line magazine about food and a Web site called bitterwaitress.com. For the Web site—a gossip sheet about restaurants and their celebrity chefs and patrons—he has lined up waiters from such restaurants as Union Square Café and Gotham Bar and Grill (both former employers of Fehlinger’s) to file reports on who tips badly, who made a scene in public, and so on. “There is a waiter’s art of overhearing conversations,” he says. “I learned everything I know about publishing at Union Square Café.”

Fehlinger loves to tell war stories. “Sometimes, at Babbo, we’d have a five- or seven-pound fish, a huge fish, and it was always fun to get a party of three people to eat a seven-pound fish,” he recalled the other day. “They would!” He also enjoyed talking customers into ordering an “all-organ-meat tasting menu that I came up with, just because I was bored one day.” He went on, “For fifty-nine dollars, it started with tripe and tongue, and went on to calf’s-brain ravioli, goose-liver ravioli, and the sweetbreads.”

Good waiters learn how to “read” people. If customers respond to basic suggestions, Fehlinger explained—if, for example, they seem interested in cocktail recommendations—you know they are good potential guinea pigs. “A lot of times when people asked about the menu, I would make it sound so elaborate that they would just leave it up to me,” he said. “I’d describe, like, three dishes in excruciating detail, and they would just stutter, ‘I, I, I can’t decide, you decide for me.’ So, in that case, if the kitchen wants to sell fish, you’re gonna have fish.” He also employed what might be called a “magic words” strategy: “All you have to do is throw out certain terms, like guanciale, and the you throw in something like saba, a reduction of the unfermented must of the Trebbiano grape. If you mention things like that, people are just, like, ‘O.K.!’”

It also pays to make customers believe that you are on their side. “If people are asking you which of two dishes is better, and you say, ‘Oh my God, don’t get that!,’ then, suddenly, you’ve won their trust,” Fehlinger said. “So, when it comes to wine, they find themselves spending twenty dollars more than they’d planned to.”

Fehlinger grew up in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania, and he describes himself as “basically white trash.” That’s probably why his greatest satisfaction has always come from serving peasant food to rich people. “People paying nine dollars for a plate of headcheese—I love it!” he said. “It’s like the most desperate poverty food ever. After every part of the pig is gone, the snout has been made into dog food—the head is thrown into a pot of boiling water. The meat and fat from the skull rise to the top and are stuffed into a casing. It’s disgusting, but it tastes good.” He went on, “People would ask about it, and I would tell them, ‘Oh, it’s a soft, uncured pork sausage.’” Then he summed up the Fehlinger method: “It’s, like, the more diamonds you are wearing, the higher the chances that I would force you to eat headcheese.”