Turning the Tables: Restaurants from the Inside Out

Turning the Tables: Restaurants from the Inside Out

by Steven A. Shaw

Firstly, any book that is crafted in the shape of a menu commands attention.  Secondly, Steven Shaw is a man with sass, intellect, and a healthy dash of class — and that is a very rare and delicious thing.

Shaw’s newly-released book, Turning the Tables: Restaurants from the Inside Out, takes readers on a much-needed tour behind the swinging doors, from the kitchens of diners to those in some of New York’s dining temples. To demystify the world of restaurants — and help the public gain an understanding that goes beyond the pages of a de rigueur tell-all book — Shaw provides the kind of analysis that encourages readers to think: to question, understand, and perhaps even empathize with the denizens of this hidden world.

Do not buy this book in the hope of finding the salacious gossip of Page Six.  What you will discover is useful information that should be known by anyone who frequents a restaurant.

In suggesting methods for landing the seemingly impossible reservation, Shaw does not resort to pithy remarks laced with food snobbery, as one might expect from an award-winning restaurant critic (and the creator of eGullet, the web’s foremost food discussion forum).  Instead, he approaches the task with politeness, tenacity, and a healthy respect for the mechanics of restaurant management.  His few simple rules may strike some as blinding flashes of the obvious, but one would be amazed at how often such rules are thrown to the wayside in favor of obnoxious (read: childish) behavior.  Shaw reminds us that sometimes a simple please or thank you goes a long way.

With an often amusing self-deprecation, he also captures what eludes a lot of the dining public: Putting together a fine meal is one hell of an exercise for a restaurant crew.  It involves nocturnal adventures to the fish market, tedious repetition of perfectly prepared ingredients, and an enthusiasm that is the driving force behind subjecting oneself to such torture on a daily basis.

As a former lawyer, Shaw has put his investigative tactics to use in the book’s chapters on food sources and business practices. He takes on the FDA, pasteurization laws, and everything that affects the consumer and his dining dollars — down to the reasons why Michelin and Zagat guides may not be the best resources for choosing a restaurant.  His opinions are not those from an ivory tower — he has clocked his hours on the boat, in the freezer, and on the farm to provide the kind of analysis that can only come from first-hand experience, and is delivered without pedantic hyperbole.

Even more interestingly, however — and what might become the book’s source of infamy — is the maelstrom that Shaw has unleashed in the world of restaurant criticism by stating (and aptly defending) his position that anonymous restaurant reviewing may not serve the best purpose of informing the dining public. He openly addresses what for years has been a thorn in the side of restaurant owners: the “us” vs. “them” dynamic of restaurant criticism. Shaw points out that more often that not, critics take on the role of crusader, anonymously trying to catch “sneaky restaurateurs trying to foist bad food and service on an unsuspecting public.” He says:

I prefer to think that the way to improve the state of fine dining in America is to bring consumers and the industry closer together…anonymity and distance in restaurant reviewing establishes a poor dynamic between those constituencies.  It sends a signal to the public that restaurants are out to deceive us, and that in order to expose them restaurant reviewers must act as undercover investigative consumer advocates (108).

Critics and reviewers have responded with snark in various forms — perhaps Shaw has hit a nerve?  It would indeed be wonderful to have a better understanding of the thinking behind the food, rather than criticism from a political beat-cum-“food” reporter who lacks a solid foundation of either culinary understanding or experience in restaurant management.

With an approach that is alternatively humorous, deadly serious, and never without passion for the opinions he states, Shaw aptly demonstrates why he is one to watch in the realm of restaurant criticism.  With refreshing objectivity, he does not play political games, pander to the establishment, or refuse to address the elephants casting about the room.  Pay attention to what this man has to say.