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.”