As I get ready to wrap up my time here at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I am tempted to recall some of my favorite stories or successes in this job. But who wants to hear that?
Instead, let me tell you about the four most mortifying events of my tenure:
The Incident With the Bathroom Faucet: Joël opened in 2001, and I soon thereafter went on a review with Cynthia Tucker, the AJC’s rock-star editorial page editor, who inspired awe in me. I was very anxious not to sound like the uninformed idiot I knew I was.
The restaurant bathrooms featured what was then considered a great novelty: hands-free faucets. I tried swiping my hands under them to no avail, leaning in further and further until the water swooshed into its wet stone basin and ended up all over my ultra-absorbent pale tan pants. I tried blotting it with handfuls of toilet paper, then standing on tiptoes in front of the hand dryer, and finally returned to the dining room 20 minutes later with my jacket folded in front of me, walking at arthritic angle to hide the vast spot.
“Everything go OK in there?” Cynthia asked.
The Problem With Fake Names: When my kids were growing up, they assumed it was a common safety precaution to reserve at restaurants with a pseudonym. I had quite a few of them over the years, with credit cards and, eventually, Opentable accounts to match.
In the early days, I was A. Chapman, an easy appropriation of my wife’s name. But then I caught wind of a notice going around restaurants identifying me as a 40ish man with salt-and-pepper hair who asks a lot of questions and pays with an A. Chapman credit card.
I needed to up my game.
I soon discovered that it was easy enough to get credit cards for “friends,” and I went to town. I became Arthur Baron (an old friend), Derek Margolin (because it sounded cool) and Harry Lime. Remember Harry Lime? That was the character played by Orson Welles in “The Third Man” who makes a surprise appearance well into the movie. I liked the implicit irony, even though the fanciful name itself was a stretch.
Alas, my ruse caught up with me one afternoon at Lenox Square when a man came running up yelling, “Mr. Lime! Mr. Lime!” I looked at him, bewildered, as he explained he had recently waited on me and thought my name was so unusual. What nationality is it, he asked.
I had no idea. What nationality is Lime?
“Uh, Latvian,” I said, using the first country that came to mind. “When my grandfather came over, his name was Limonitchki, and, um …” I babbled until he left.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been David Lurie, after a protagonist in a favorite novel (“Disgrace” by J. M. Coetzee). I’ve got enough Opentable points for a certificate, but just need the fake ID to cash it.
The Declined Credit Card: A credit card only works if you’ve got enough credit, which wasn’t the case for me as a young reviewer.
At the late, great Seeger’s one evening, I had just finished a terrific and terrifically expensive meal when manager Claude Guillaume came to the table, leaned over, and whispered, “Mr. Chapman, your credit card has been denied.”
My only other credit card was maxed out as well, so I had no choice but to offer up my debit card with my own name, and pray.
“Try this card, but it has a different name on it,” I said. “Of course, Mr. Kessler,” Guillaume said, not looking at it and not missing a beat.
The Warning to the Wrong Guy: Over the years I’ve written more than a few full-on zero-star pans. I try to give the restaurant every benefit of the doubt, but if I can’t recommend anything about it, I can’t. That said, I know it can be a crushing assessment for people who’ve worked hard to open their businesses, and so I’ve made it a habit of giving chefs and restaurateurs a heads up.
Sometimes I can drop the warning during our phone interview; other times I worry that they didn’t fully listen to me or were too anxious to ask about my experiences, and so I will write a follow-up email. I will encourage them to give the review a good read, to call me out if I got any detail wrong and to keep the lines of communication open. I’ll also promise a re-review after six months if they want one.
I cringed my way through one such email to a super-nice Chinese-American restaurateur whose culinary ambition wasn’t at first matched by his kitchen execution. I detailed all the misguided dishes that I didn’t have space to even mention in the review so that he’d know my opinion was borne of thorough research. I looked up his email address from my queue, and fired it off.
The next day I got a response from a different Chinese-American restaurateur at a different restaurant — the person to whom I accidentally sent the email. I screamed an epithet in my home office so loudly I scared the birds from the trees.
The Word That Never Should Have Seen Print: When I first started writing at the AJC, I had a weekly column called Dinner Conversation that was supposed to comprise news, notes and observations from the dining beat.
At that time, butter was considered unhealthy, so many restaurants served flavored vegetable spreads with their bread service. I had, a few years before beginning my job in Atlanta, worked at a restaurant with a colorful character who had a colorful word he used to describe these spreads. I had never heard the word before, but I liked its onomatopoetic character.
So, I wrote a whole column about how great this word was and the various iterations of vegetable spread around town. (As I refuse to ever get within shouting distance of this word again, let me explain in the most oblique way that it rhymes with the name of Donald Duck’s uncle.)
The morning after this article was published, I got the first of several hundred calls from a detective with the Cobb County sex crimes division. Peals of laughter rang through the newsroom as my colleagues opened the Weekend Preview section and began reading. I knew I had to be the first to bring it to my supervisor.
In terror, I knocked on the door of then-features editor Susan Soper and explained to her that I had chosen an inadvertent word without realizing its meaning. She read the column silently, looked up at me and deadpanned, “This is unfortunate, but I don’t think it will be a stain on your record.”
I got up and left.
When I looked back through the glass wall of her office, she was laughing so hard her face was red. I was still new at this job and had screwed up hard, but I felt thankful to be working here. I knew the AJC would take good care of me, even with my occasional acts of abject idiocy.
How right I was.
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