One of my English professors maintained that “art is the fulfillment of expectation.” A line of poetry, a musical phrase, an early visual in a movie all give us a sense of something about to happen. When it does, and when it surprises, delights or shocks, we are satisfied.
In a few notable restaurants, the same definition can be applied to waiting tables. And when the waiters are trained for service in a great French restaurant, it is art indeed. Waiters at Taillevent in Paris in 2002 were, I assure you, artists at the height of their powers.
My son and I enjoyed a meal there on a culinary tour of France that included Paris, Lyon and several towns in Provence. The main course, a lamb dish, was superb and the cheese plate a gastronomic adventure, but what I remember most was the service. Considerate, efficient, virtually invisible and performed by a team as impeccably prepared and practiced as the ballerinas we had watched earlier at Opera Garnier. When the thought began to first enter your mind that a bit more wine would be just the thing, it was there at your hand. When you were finished with a plate, truly finished, it disappeared somehow. When your palate had sufficiently recovered from one taste sensation, washed down with a perfect sip of perfectly matched wine, the next would appear just at the very instant when you were beginning to think that a little something else might be lovely.
When we wanted advice, as in what to choose from a cellar with over 3,000 choices, they were expert guides. When we asked for a glass of champagne without specifying which one, their choice was outstanding.
But they did more. My son, at the time still a smoker and feeling the need at mid-meal for a Marlboro, asked a waiter who was escorting him to the suite of restrooms (you were always escorted), if it was possible to have a private smoke. I was not to be told that he still had the habit. Here’s what the staff did. They procured a pack of the right brand. They set up a table in the salon, with table cloth, chair, ashtray, lighter and a small glass of wine to sustain him while he smoked. Then, a waiter stood guard in the hall in case I decided to walk in that direction. He relaxed, enjoying his cigarette at his leisure in a beautiful room in a beautiful restaurant, then returned satisfied and ready to tackle the cheese plate and dessert.
A restaurant that has served the rich and famous, from Nicolas Sarkozy to Vladimir Horowitz, practiced its art for us, giving both of us a memorable meal.