Location: Bouley, Summer 2016
Staff Rank: Bread Cart Custodian
For those who really care about dough, Bouley’s bread service–officially the Chariot de Pain–casts an imposing figure. It glides through the dining room with monolithic loaves numbering more than ten and sporting a cornucopia nuts, fruits, and spices studded into the crumb. And while variety doesn’t speak to quality across the board, many of the breads are good, and a rare couple (like black and white gluten-free breads lovingly profiled by the NYT in the restaurant’s newest re-review) are excellent. And given I can clear out an ample basket of below par bread when the occasion demands it, this chariot surely sounds heaven-sent. Even more, the caretaker of this chariot, as long as I’ve patronized the restaurant, has taken a kindly form. One who evangelizes the restaurant’s expert loaves and cuts and serves with uncommon, dying dedication. This fine figure seems to love their job, and those who love bread, and thus stood as a welcome cornerstone of each meal.
If bread service–particularly the roving, reappearing sort–gives guests a modicum of control over their satiation during a tasting menu, then I must have have been a control freak this evening. Bouley’s cuisine is often excellent but undoubtedly, highly delicate. The chef is a student of nutrition, and his food reflects this consciousness, one I respect but supplement with all the chariot’s bounty. I made it through my first six slices in the time it took one course to appear and disappear, encouraged by the pomp and pleasing tone of the bread-bringer (truly, their voice is smooth and rich like brioche). The bringer made the second trip to our table, unbeckoned or enticed given I sat facing the wall. My next selection was more modest: four slices that became five when the custodian cut a slice of an olive loaf in error (never waste good bread). The pace of the meal slowed as the restaurant reached capacity, yet the flow of wine continued the meal was a happy one: we had planned for a long, leisurely stretch of time at the table.
On the chariot’s third lap (again a visit of its own volition), I looked to yet again bolster the ranks of my bread plate but was stopped after listing my third. The harbinger of bread, perhaps assuming that because my back was turned to them I’d lost all ability to listen, gossiped to a manager tending the service station to my right: “This guy’s eaten like 12 slices of bread.” I couldn’t quite hear the response; they returned to the table. “You still have a lot of food coming…” the chariot-master began anew. Silence prompted an awkward chuckle as they read the disgust on my face. And what followed can only be described as Costanzian: they cut me slices of the two breads they could remember and looked to offer more. Silence, and the other member of my party dismissed the chariot. Sensing some offence had occurred, the chariot returned again. More silence. Once more, twice more, three more times during the ultimately three and a half hour meal. The bread-bringer affected their voice as if we were the same old chums we were before. As if his hollow act hadn’t been exposed–as if I could now be pacified by more bread when the prospect just moments ago elicited a carnival freak show kind of intonation in his hushed (yet overheard) speech.
Unlike the case at Le Bernardin (where the actions of a rogue busser are to blame), this incident at Bouley–purely because it reveals a disdain for customers in the communication between servers and management–points to a larger cultural problem with the restaurant. Like a child who sees Mickey with his oversized head removed smoking a cigarette in the alley, the false sincerity of the bread-bringer–and his endeavor to get me to play along with it after so breaking character–looked to tear down all legitimacy of Bouley’s hospitality. And only because so many bread persons at so many humbler establishments show a real enthusiasm for the product they serve and those who return the excitement. It’s something that saddens me, given I once had one of the best meals of my life there. But Bouley has always been a place where you have to “play the game” (order expensive wine, dress to the nines, etc.) to get privileged service. They’re set to close this coming fall (personally, I don’t see the reopening happening), but let’s hope the “sabbatical” helps the team reorient how they approach hospitality and those who patronize their restaurants.
Verdict: Impound Bouley’s bread chariot (I don’t mind holding onto the cargo) and wash the bread-bringer’s mouth out with flour.