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robert brown

Taking Notes in Restaurants

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I would say that discretion is important. When we're traveling my wife will almost always be sure to have a fist full of business cards and take notes on the back of them. We've also used a very small pad. If possible, she will conceal her note taking from staff and other diners and try not to attract attention to her activity. Between courses she will usually ask me to briefly describe my dish. While she's discreet, she's also not overly concerned about being noticed. She will try not to leave the pen or paper on the table while she's eating. I've wondered a few times if it hasn't improved our service.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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When I was reviewing I kept a tape recorder under my napkin. Now I just write what I remember. Also, I ask for a menu. I have taken pictures at restaurants but only at some very special places like The French Laundry and The Inn at Little Washington. I don't see anything wrong with taking notes but the staff may think you are a restaurant reviewer who wants to be recognized. :blink:


Rosalie Saferstein, aka "Rosie"

TABLE HOPPING WITH ROSIE

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. . . but the staff may think you are a restaurant reviewer who wants to be recognized.  :blink:

:biggrin: That's the whole idea. Let them DARE to be rude to you THEN. You might be in the top 1% and could bury them. "Is he a critic?" "Well, he's got a notepad." "Let's not take any chances."

No, when you've sunk millions into a restaurant, you're not going to do anything but kiss-up to every reviewer in sight--in self-defense, if nothing else. Anyone who believes anything else is deluded.

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Three letters:

PDA.

People just assume you are another of the legion of faceless middle-class scumbags who has become so self-absorbed with your desperately important appointments that you play with your PDA constantly during your meal. :biggrin:

Of course that description is just a bit autobiographical. You might be able to pull it off a bit better.

But then again... its a good cover. So maybe you don't.

It also helps to have your cell phone ring once or twice.


Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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David -- I usually use a small piece of paper, although I sometimes use a page in my Filofax. (I don't like electronic versions that have been available to date) Note I am not affiliated with a restaurant. If I were and I shared my affiliation, I might give significant consideration to how note-taking might be perceived by the restaurant at which I dined (i.e., its wondering whether I might be interested in replicating certain dishes). :wink:

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David--I'll answer you from the perspective of a chef. My wife or I carry a digital camera with us and occasionally sneak pictures if we think it won't disturb other diners. We sketch a bit and also take little notes--sometimes on napkins--but usually in our Visor.

I've dined with other chefs--a few of them James Beard Award winners--and they carry Palms or Visors with them everywhere they go, they're the "PDA's" that Jhlurie mentioned. It has their schedules months in advance, phone numbers of all their contacts, etc. When they see something interesting on the menu or have a creative thought about something--they write in it their Palm. Some Palms can "scan" business cards into them. Not every chef does this--probably not most chefs, but as I said, these are some of the best chefs. One of the reasons why they are the best is because they pay attention to detail, they admire and respect the work of others and they are constantly thinking of things, filling up notebooks with creative ideas--ideas they'll probably never get to implement.

There's a technological side to staying connected and as your life as a chef gets more complicated--you have to use these tools at your disposal in order to save time and be more efficient and be more accountable to those who depend on you. You're just starting out--but using these tools help as your own network expands, as you get to know more chefs and have greater responsibilities. Don't be afraid of them--they can help you get to the next level.

I even have a Handspring Visor Prism--into which I can slip a tiny little digital camera in order to take pictures--like sliding a credit card into your wallet. Plus I carry all my recipes, files, articles and photos in my Visor. Sometimes it's easier carrying this around than my laptop.

This isn't for everyone. Computers and tech, geek stuff scares some chefs. It's kind of like using the microwave or newfangled "inventions" like the way Ferran Adria started doing foams in the whipped cream dispensers. Some chefs never cross the bridge or open the door to this--the choice is yours.


Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Klc, if no one has noticed, is clearly a gastrotekkie in the kitchen and dining room. Sometimes a high teckkie, and sometimes a low tekkie, but always a gastroteckkie. If there's one image of Steve and machine that will stick in my mind it's him using a funky pastel green Korean blender/spice grinder at the NY Chocolate Show under the banner of Kitchenaid. I'm no more surprised he carries a Visor than I would be to hear he dines with a small slate and a pocketful of colored chalks. Whatever he needs to get the job done. And I mean that in the best way.

:biggrin:


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Special K, want to see how far Palms can beam? I'm holding mine up. To your left.


"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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While I have never thought of using it in a dining room, my husband always carries a miniature tape recorder which we find invaluable on our walks to and from restaurants. He has spent many too many mornings/afternoons trying to find the wonderful little shop I noticed on one of our evening walks. Now, when one of us finds an interesting shop or library or hotel, he simply "tells his little friend" the address, nearest intersection and name of shop, so that in daylight we can find it without retracing 20 blocks! Used subtly, this would be one interesting solution to the note-taking problem.


eGullet member #80.

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Maybe i will fet both. A palm pilot or something and a little recorder if they donty come one in the same now. I love the tech stuff im not the best at using it however. Like klc said it will help me in the long run.

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jordyn's recorder is quite compact. I am in the process of reviewing alternativce recorders to purchase. I will need one before I visit the three-stars in Spain, although that is not necessarily something on the immediate horizon. :wink:

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I always bring a mini notepad. I also take business cards too.

People around here in Singapore are known to bring digital camera's to photograph

the dishes. :)

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How does one subtly take notes in an upscale restaurant. I think I would feel rather inappropriate lugging in a notebook and busting out a pen as I'm eating my meal. I'm thinking perhaps I could use a voice recorder attachment with my iPod and simply set it on the table before my meal. This way I can discuss my impressions of the dishes over normal conversation and transcribe my notes on a word processor at a later point. Does this seem appropriate? Does anyone have any other advice?

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I've talked into my digital mini tape recorder like it was a cell phone a few times, but I always seem to get the digital tape thing screwed up (there are too many little buttons), and I also feel self conscious with it, especially when I push the play button by mistake and this strange descriptive sentence about the bread blurts out.

What works for me is a text book and a notebook. I study it and make like I'm taking notes on a big legal pad. Works like a charm. Last week a server tried to read the text part over my shoulder, shook her head (like that's Greek to me), and left me alone. If I'm with a group I make like we're making to do lists for the company picnic.

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It's quite easy to take notes unnoticeably using a small, top-spiraled notebook and keeping it at you lap. I've done it for years and never made a scene. Long as you're just jotting down short bits, you can do it covertly.


Drink maker, heart taker!

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Here's a little tid bit from a project I had to do at culinary school. The topic was to write about a west coast chef (we were doing American Regional at the time with the country divided into three sections: East, Midwest, West -- at this time we were in the West portion of our study). Two months earlier I visited The French Laundry with notepad and camera in hand so I thought I'd do my paper on him. What follows are the notes of the visit that discuss other people's perspective of my note and picture taking...

..."Before I knew it, five people had approached me before the first course. The maître d, Jean-Paul, asked if I had ever been here. When I said no, he recommended the tasting menu. I smiled as I told him that this was the reason I came here. I also took out my digital camera and explained that I was a culinary arts student in Seattle and asked if it would be okay to take pictures of the dishes. I was expecting a haughty nose up in the air but received generous approval."

"...The first item I had was Salmon tartare with sweet red onion crème fraîche. I was rather self-conscious about taking pictures of my dishes, especially since I didn’t have anyone with me to discuss the meal. So I didn’t take a picture of it; the one on the right is from his cookbook."

"...At this point I was getting comfortable with the camera. There was a table of four behind me, eight in front of me, and a couple at a table to my right. I deliberately stayed away from using a flash as I didn’t want to disrupt anyone’s dinner. As I took this picture, I wrote notes about what I was tasting, any sensations that came to me, etc. It was at this point I started hearing someone say something like, “I don’t know, <pause> restaurant critic?” Now I’m starting to get comfortable and enjoying myself."

"...Now I’m getting full. These portions are two, maybe three bites each, but you put them together and you really get full. I’m about two and a half hours into the meal. “I bet he’s from Gourmet magazine!” My picture and note taking is obviously distracting people so I refrain from asking the name of the cheese.

It’s still daylight and the garden is beautiful, you can’t even hear the traffic on the street less than twenty feet away. The table of eight in front of me seems to be people who haven’t seen each other in a while. The couple to the right are celebrating something. The foursome behind me is a middle-aged couple and a couple in their mid twenties; one of whom had the misfortune of being an in-law, but I couldn’t tell which."

"...The maître d asks about my notes. Conversations at the three tables come to a halt. “Shh, we’re going to find out who he is!” In an overly friendly manner he says that we in the kitchen are curious.

I explain again that I’m a culinary arts student and I add that I’m on a field trip. “Ah, you are a culinary student!” My cover is blown. The curious tension from the other tables is gone. Their conversations start again."

...Epilogue

Excuse me sir, zee chef was vondering if you vould like a tour of zee kitchen?”

I look around, “Are you talking to me?”

Jean-Franc took a few steps back and waved for me to follow him. I get up and walk towards Thomas Keller's kitchen..."

:biggrin:


Drink!

I refuse to spend my life worrying about what I eat. There is no pleasure worth forgoing just for an extra three years in the geriatric ward. --John Mortimera

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If you are a restaurant critic and are aware that you have been recognized, no need to be subtle but best bet is the smallest possible pad you can find so that it does not take up too much room on the table while you are dining.

If you are a critic and believe you have remained anonymous, best is to periodically make your way to the toilets to make your notes. More comfortable to remain anonymous when possible and writing notes is often a give-away that you might be a critic.

If a student or simply a person who likes to record his/her thoughts for posterity, no need to be subtle but again - a small pad and not to devote so much time to it that you forget to enjoy your meal

I know some disagree with me, but I find palm pilots a pain in the butt that demand more concentration than pen and paper and thus pull me away from my meal. As to taping in any form, I feel foolish enough speaking on a cell phone when walking down the street and would feel like something of a lunatic to be seen sitting at my table and mumbling constantly. Thus, I remain a pen and paper person.

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I am very much in Rogov's camp on this one. Pretending to be on a cell phone so that you can use a recorder of some sort is too conspicuous. I prefer not to use my cell phone in restaurants, so this would not be in line with my regular behavior.

Now, I have two very easy ideas for note taking in restaurants. You can certainly sneak off to the restroom to jot things down, but then it depends on how often you need to take notes, and whether you want to appear to have a bladder the size of a pebble. But, if you are in a casual dining restaurant, you can bring a small college textbook and a notepad, and appear to be studying, or you can bring a tourism guide, and appear to be making notes as to places in town to visit. In either of these cases, no one will ever think to try to look at what you are writing.

And beyond that, if you are in a really nice place like The French Laundry, I wouldn't feel a need to take notes, actually. I simply ask for a copy of the menu, and looking over it later will call to mind all of the details of every course. At the price point of this restaurant, it's not unusual at all to ask for a menu, so no one should think twice.

Incidentally, when it comes to taking pictures of the food, actual food critics send a crew around at a later date to take a press photo. Only foodbloggers and culinary students take pictures of the food as they are actually eating it. :raz:

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On the one hand, you could be fairly open about taking notes and have the kitchen be aware that your experience that night might go out to a rather wide audience and keep them on their toes.

On the other hand, you could pretend to be an obnoxious boor talking on their cellphone during dinner and have the kitchen think your an uncultured slob.

I know which route I would take.


PS: I am a guy.

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I wouldn't feel a need to take notes, actually. I simply ask for a copy of the menu, and looking over it later will call to mind all of the details of every course.

That's exactly what I was thinking while reading this thread. As it is, I ask for, and very nearly always receive, a menu to take home, after every enjoyable restaurant meal I have (the first time I go to a new restaurant, that is). Nobody thinks it strange and nobody asks why. Whether they're high-end or casual, nobody hesitates or thinks twice about giving me one.

The other thing I do is I always ask restaurants to fax me their menus and daily specials before I go. It's not always convenient for me to bring my reading glasses to a restaurant, and sometimes between the typeface and lighting, I can't always give the menu the attention I want to. So I've learned just to have it sent in advance and study it before I go. Nobody hesitates or thinks twice about doing this, either. Even restaurants from the other side of the country and from France fax me menus all the time.

Now the other thing I was thinking is that if you're going into this field, you should be able to think of comments and wordings and phrases in your mind and be able to remember them when you get home, especially if you have a menu to bring the dishes to mind. You need to discipline yourself and learn how to make "mental notes" that you will remember, and you need to pull out a pad and pen and spend a few minutes when you get home doing "mental recall" and writing everything down before you allow your mind to forget the details, and the phrases that came to mind. There are courses, and books (for writers and others), that teach you how to do this as well.

Of course, there's nothing wrong, ever, with making notes wherever you are, and anybody thinking that you're automatically writing about the meal would be incorrect. People carry notebooks and make notes for themselves all the time. You could be doing a school paper on some other subject and need to jot things down as they come to you - who would know? Of course, if you're transcribing the menu, people will notice. But there are times when, even if you carry a notebook, it's not convenient or possible to use it, so working on your memory and recall is still a good idea.

As far as taking photos, It's totally accepted now. To illustrate this, two incidents come to mind.

I always take photos when I go to a restaurant, especially in France. There's one beautiful place I go regularly, and always take photos. After a few nights of doing this, one of the "regulars", a rather matronly Belgian woman, marched over to my table at the end of the meal as she was leaving. She assumed I was German and asked me (in German), "Are you German?" I couldn't imagine where she was going with this, and I was sure she was about to tell me off for taking flash photos in a fancy restaurant during her meal. But I answered her, "No, American", and then she broke out into a gigantic smile and said "Ah, Wunderbar. Wunderbar!" It turns out she loved it that I liked the food enough to want pictures of it. The next night, people at tables near me suggested we photograph some of their dishes as well before they ate them. And one night, when we realized the need to take a movie-clip, with sound, of the cruncy pastry on the apple tart, I actually stood up, tapped my fork to my glass to get everybody's attention, as if I was making a toast, and asked if they'd be silent for a moment while we took the video. They were all happy to.

Fancy French Dinner with Apple Tarte Video

The next year, I dined at the fabulous two-star restaurant "Le Cerf" in France, and had the Truffle Dinner. It was so good I had to come back a week later and have it again. I asked the chef/owner - his wife, actually - if I could bring the camera by any chance and take photos of the meal, and she smiled and said "Absolutely. But of course!"

Food Photos from 2-Star "Le Cerf"


Overheard at the Zabar’s prepared food counter in the 1970’s:

Woman (noticing a large bowl of cut fruit): “How much is the fruit salad?”

Counterman: “Three-ninety-eight a pound.”

Woman (incredulous, and loud): “THREE-NINETY EIGHT A POUND ????”

Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

Newly updated: my online food photo extravaganza; cook-in/eat-out and photos from the 70's

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Here's a little tid bit from a project I had to do at culinary school.

:biggrin:

I loved this anecdote! Keller was my Culinarian project when I took Intro to Gastronomy. My partner and I found him to be very forthcoming and generous with his time, and allowed us to tape the interview and use photos from his book, etc. Then, when I went to the FL a few months later and brought a copy of the presentation for him, I got to go back to the kitchen and meet him. He remembered us.

Anyway, about the note taking: when I was reviewing, I started first by surreptitious tape recording via microphone on the lapel, and wound up just writing notes in my lap. It was easiest of all to just keep a notebook on the table and appear to be making notes as for an interview, etc.

Bryan, are you now the reviewer for the paper in Durham?


"Oh, tuna. Tuna, tuna, tuna." -Andy Bernard, The Office

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Happily, I am shameless. I carry around a mini Moleskine journal (Moleskine ruled pocket journals--they come in sets of 3) with me, and I will write during the course of my meal. A few times I've asked waiters to write down the name of a wine or dish, and they graciously do so. Recently this resulted in several comped tastes of wines by a waiter who just enjoyed how into the meal I was. He not only brought wines to match the courses, but wrote their names in my little book.

I have a mini-tripod for tabletops (it's about 5" tall, with flexi-legs), and have become unselfconscious about photographing food without a flash (WITHOUT. A. FLASH.) because I just don't care what someone at the next table thinks. The camera is noticeable if you're the sort of person to notice what people at the next table are doing--but since I don't make a big deal about it, and only spend a few moments with it during the course of a meal, I can't imagine it would really bother someone else. But that same scenario with a flash? I'd be irritated. I'm very low-key about the whole thing, and I think people are more used to folks having cameras and pens in restaurants now, because there are so many travelers who not only keep journals, but who share their reports online at various travel or food sites.

Much is in your attitude, I think. If I look like I'm working, maybe it's because I'm working. There are ways to be invisible, but you have to learn how that's done.

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Happily, I am shameless. I carry around a mini Moleskine journal (Moleskine ruled pocket journals--they come in sets of 3) with me, and I will write during the course of my meal. A few times I've asked waiters to write down the name of a wine or dish, and they graciously do so. Recently this resulted in several comped tastes of wines by a waiter who just enjoyed how into the meal I was. He not only brought wines to match the courses, but wrote their names in my little book.

I have a mini-tripod for tabletops (it's about 5" tall, with flexi-legs), and have become unselfconscious about photographing food without a flash (WITHOUT. A. FLASH.) because I just don't care what someone at the next table thinks. The camera is noticeable if you're the sort of person to notice what people at the next table are doing--but since I don't make a big deal about it, and only spend a few moments with it during the course of a meal, I can't imagine it would really bother someone else. But that same scenario with a flash? I'd be irritated. I'm very low-key about the whole thing, and I think people are more used to folks having cameras and pens in restaurants now, because there are so many travelers who not only keep journals, but who share their reports online at various travel or food sites.

Much is in your attitude, I think. If I look like I'm working, maybe it's because I'm working. There are ways to be invisible, but you have to learn how that's done.

Good for you! Wee need more shameless people in this world :biggrin: .


Edited by Country Cook (log)

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You know what they teach in the CIA: the best way to hide is in plain sight.

Most any attempt to take notes in secret is bound to be noticed by servers. Most customers have no clue how incredibly advantageous the vantage-point of the server is. They can see right into your lap, right down your shirt and right into your handbag. They can hear you from farther away than you'd think. And rest assured, you are an amateur at concealment -- you probably have a dozen "tells" that you're not even aware of.

So, what you do is you bring a briefcase, a legal pad, a datebook, a cell-phone . . . and you just put it all on the table like you're having a business meeting with the person you're dining with, which, in effect, you are. Nobody is going to give a crap or look twice at you.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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