Not long ago, following my new Tibetan doctor’s prescription to slow down and be nice to myself (don’t you just love a prescription like that!?), I let myself enjoy a leisurely lunch with my friend, the chef Jonathan Waxman, at the Venice restaurant phenom, Gjelina. As we looked through the menu deciding what to order, I pointed out the words typed on the cover side of each menu, “changes & modifications politely declined.” Gjelina, as anyone who follows the shallow, eating disordered life of Victoria Beckham knows, does not allow substitutions. “What do you think of that?” I asked J-Wax, curious about his point of view on an issue that became pretty loud and controversial in the City of dressing-on-the-side Angels after the VB incident.
“I”m fine with it,” he said.
“Fine with people asking for substitutions or fine with Gjelina’s policy of declining them?”
“You know the famous quote,” he went on in the cool, calm, and all-knowing way he has that inspired younger chefs he competed against on Top Chef Masters to compare him to Obi-Wan Kenobe. “Le chef il a toujours raison.” (Jonathan himself has a policy, though it’s not printed on any menu, of refusing to answer any question in a direct manner.) Since I did not know the quote and do not speak enough French to order a cafe au lait in Paris, I stared back blankly. “It means, ‘The chef always has a reason.’ In other words: Don’t f*@! with it. Let him do it his way. If you don’t like it, order something else.”
“So what do you do at Barbuto when people ask for substitutions?” I asked.
“I do whatever they want,” he said, shrugging his shoulders and chuckling because he was so obviously contradicting himself. “What the hell. I want people to be happy”