The expression “Très Soigné” is a staple in the French kitchen. Or in any professional kitchen for that matter. Even Marcel tossed it around on the second series of Top Chef.
“Très Soigné” translated means “very neat”.
To me it normally sets off the alarm that the President is coming in, or the owner of Ferrari is dining privately, or the beautiful Queen of Sweden has arrived, or the Michelin Guide Director is lunching with friends (everyone knows the Director since he eats out regularly around town).
And, it also means: if that plate you’re hunched over and trying to finish is not absolutely perfect, you’re dead.
Not that I’ve actually seen anyone murdered in the kitchen, but I’ve certainly witnessed my fair share of deflated egos.
After I hear the order “Très soigné!” called out and all of us respond “Oui Monsieur!” to acknowledge the command, I peek at the reservations list to see if I might have heard of the person. Mostly I find it’s an unknown journalist (to me, that is), but sometimes it’s some one world renowned – this definitely gets me excited.
The funny part of this command, “très soignè“, is that it really isn’t necessary. Everything we make is très soigné. It’s not because you are a tourist from Arkansas that your food will be any less beautiful or the servers any less attentive. We don’t give bad portions to the Americans and beautiful portions to the French. It’s not because you arrived in a Gap suit and left the Channel dress hanging in the closet, that the food will be inedible.
No, every pate is pristine and every plate is watched over by three executive chefs before the servers carry them away on silver plated trays.
Nonetheless, what this command really does is send everyone in the kitchen into a heightened state of awareness because, no one wants to be the person who messed up.
But, there’s something that gets my adrenaline moving even more than when I hear “très soignè” bellowed out by the executive chef. It’s when I check the reservations list, or walk through the dining room before service begins, and I see single reservations or a table set for one person. I always make a point to memorize that table.
Why? Because single reservations are possibly the Michelin scouts coming in to dine under assumed names.
I know that many people (especially in the Bay Area, and rightly so) have their doubts about the Michelin Guide. But, we live by it here in Paris. And, in a way, it ensures that all people are treated “très soignè” whether the order is called out or not.
The critics mostly come alone, but it’s rumored that they dine with other critics too, just to ensure that no one suspects anything. And, they sometimes come in more than once to be absolutely positive that the experience was the same.
In a country where the customer is always wrong, the Michelin Guide sets the bar, and those restaurants that wish to be successful need to climb above it. Far above it.
Of course, to us Americans, where the customer is always right and our competitive culture weeds out the worst, this notion is bizarre. Don’t you want my business? Don’t you want me to come back here again? Don’t you want a nice generous tip and great write-up on my blog?
Tant pis! However if you go to a Michelin stared restaurant you will be sure to have outstanding food and service because once the restaurant has earned its “macarons” the idea of loosing any of them can lead to a significant cut in business (example: Tour d’Argent) or even worse, suicide in the case of the outstanding and widely loved chef, Bernard Loiseau (read “The Perfectionist : Life and Death in Haute Cuisine” (Rudolph Chelminski).
Or if you’re just a lowly cook like me, it can mean your job. I’m just assuming that of course, I’ve never seen any of the cooks fired in the kitchen because I’ve never seen anyone make an earth shattering mistake. I certainly don’t want to be the first!
And we’ve never lost any stars, why would we? The food is outstanding, the cooks are professionals, and the wait staff have trained in universities in the art of how to serve people properly.
But, you can be sure that I put an extra “très” in the phrase “très soigné” when I hear it called out or see that table for one.
And I might add, I always show a little extra love when I know an American is dining in the restaurant – hey, I know how much the exchange rate hurts right now – and I want at least one of the restaurants you eat at in Paris to be truly worth it.