My Trip To Space.. Food Included

In the early 1990`s I had a chance to work with the Canadian Space Agency, NASA and several key partners to the space program. Today`s final shuttle launch is a bag of mixed emotion for me – I`ve adored the concept of space since I was a child.  I was 7 or 8 when the first shuttle took off and it`s been a consistent part of my daydreams for as long as I can remember.

My work with them was a total of 3.5 months.  My role was fairly low in responsibility but very high in my exposure to the organizations.  Our 3-member team was contracted to do a lessons learned on several space-related projects and we obsessed over space for 18-hours a day and 6 days a week.  We had the chance to interview hundreds of people who ranged from junior project members to the heads of the programs and included astronauts, scientists, engineers and more.

While the project was not related to food, I do remember two distinct discoveries related to food:

  1. Crumbs were a nightmare anc considered potentially fatal.  The zero-gravity environment could produce crumbs that would float and could get into all sorts of electronic gear.  Most of us wouldn`t eat a crumbling pastry directly above their keyboard – when those crumbs can float through the air, it`s almost like everywhere is over a keyboard.  Several high-names chefs (including Grant Achatz of Alinea) have been involved with NASA to develop space meals since (not because or related to our project).
  2. Most Canadians (and others around the world) believe that the Canadian Space Arm (now known as `Dexter` by the program) is the best contribution Canadians have made to Space.  While Astronauts that we interviewed agreed that it was vital, they did not think it was the `best`thing Canadians contributed to Space.  The consensus favourite is the lesser-known space flusher.  A toilet designed to be used in zero-gravity (a loose tie-in to food but it made me chuckle).  The complexities of space made the design very difficult.

I also learned a lesson that fundamentally changed the way I work – and cook.  The lesson came over lunch while sitting in the cafeteria of the Canadian Space Agency (outside of downtown Montreal) with the then-head of the CSA.  I was young, anti-establishment and very much about avoiding any type of process in the name of creativity.  My host picked up on all of this, asked me several questions and then said (paraphrased):

We are an extremely creative organization.  We take on projects that no one has ever tried before.  That`s why we need process.  Without a process we wouldn`t know if a project succeeded or failed because of the project or because of how we tried to do it.  By approaching each project the same way we enable ourselves to determine what happened – if all the projects fail, the process was wrong, if one fails, the project was wrong.

It was a very scientific approach – constrain a variable.

When I preserve, I also follow consistent processes.  I approach each batch in similar ways and learn from each what can be applied to the whole.  By doing this, I`ve accelerated my learning…

When I had the opportunity to attend an interview by Chef Thomas Keller (one of the most celebrated Chef`s in the world), he said a similar thing:

Creativity comes from repetition.  If you want to be a great Chef, make stock for 2 years and perfect it.

He also stated:

The difficulty with young Chefs (experience, not age) is that they keep wanting to try new things.  They move on to the next dish, the next ingredient or the next technique before mastering the last.

I remember connecting Keller`s point to the Space approach I had earlier learned.  Since hearing his speech, I have worked on perfecting a limited amount of dishes (pizza and polenta come to mind) rather than just moving on to the next thing as all times.  Bread and pastry is my radar as a potential next target…

Space has forever changed me – and my kitchen.  I hope the next chapter of our exploration continues to inspire others as much as this one has…

Missing My Kitchen…

I`ve been away from home for less than a week and todays trip home is just on time!

When I travel for business I, like most, miss family, pets and friends.  I also find myself (as I`m sure others do here) missing my kitchen.

The obvious reasons for missing my kitchen include the ability to eat what and how I`d like, access to the freshest ingredients, a wonderful pantry and the ability to cook anything I`d like on a whim.

Travelling for business generally means less access to the types of foods I`d value most.  Last night`s dinner was in a restaurant with others and featured spaghetti with canned sauce – certainly not the cruelest fate and it was absolutely palatable.  But it`s not nearly the same as the case of sauce we still have left from last year waiting at home.

Despite that, I can easily live without a full pantry and the options my home kitchen provides with relative ease.  I am not a picky eater and can make do with anything at all and find an appreciation for what I do have.  There are many in the world that would be so lucky as to have that can of sauce that I ate last night and I try not to lose sight of that.

What I really miss is the ability to cook.  Working in the kitchen, to me, is my place of peace and comfort.  I love to work my way through a tested recipe or the experience of trying something new.  The repetition of a single task (like slicing) and the thrill of the senses abound when making a complex dish – or something as simple as toast.

The act of cooking, to me (and many others), is an act which is reserved only to my own home or to the homes of people who are very close to me (and the odd professional kitchen that I get to visit).  Just being in a kitchen is a place of warmth to me, a place of home.

It`s a place you rarely see when you travel for work -  and one that`s easy to miss.

Do you miss your kitchen when you travel?

There`s No Gout About It – You Are What You Eat

The last few days have been some of the most excruciating pain I`ve ever felt.

When I broke my elbow, it took 4 days to go to the hospital because I didn`t think it hurt `that bad.`  I had mono for 5 months before finding out because I thought I was only a `little bit sluggish.`  After unknowingly walking around with a dislocated finger (and doing farm chores for 5 days), I put the digit back in the socket myself.

And yet the last 3 days have been some of the worst pain I`ve ever had.

Gout (once known as the `Kng`s Disease`) is largely related to what you eat.  I have the lucky combination of enjoying some of the problem foods while also having a history of gout in my family.

My Father explains it really well; `Cartlidge cushions your joints from rubbing into eah other.  Got attacks a single joint and turns everything int crystals – th slightest movement of the joint crushes those crystals together and causes pain.`  He takes his hands, press his fingers with his pals pointed towards his chest and moves them like two gears – showing how the crystals (his fingers) connect like mismatched gears on a clock.  His explanation is only part metaphor – crystals do indeed form although it`s not the transformation of cartilage.

Gout typically appears at night and arrives with little warning.  I`ve had minor attacks most of my life but was diagnosed with acute attacks about a year-and-a-half ago and informed I would have an attack about every 18 months.  It`s been 17.5.

The attacks are triggered by consuming foods with high uric acid.  These include foods high in purines such as:

  • beer (some say alcohol in general though there is some debate)
  • cheese
  • red meat
  • mushrooms
  • excess legumes
  • fatty foods
  • asparagus
  • cauliflower
  • consume
  • baker`s yeast
  • gravy
  • organ meat
  • oils
  • and more..

Gout is a form of arthritis and t attacks a single joint – often the big toe, ankle or knee.  The joint becomes swollen, often turns red and is painful to touch (a simple touch of a blanket or even resting your heel on something which subtly puts pressure on the other parts of your foot is enough to writhe in pain – putting a sock on brings one lose to tears).

Treatment includes antibiotics, painkillers and natural helpers including

  • low-fat milk
  • cherries
  • adequate carbohydrates, especially complex carbs such as whole grains, fruits and veggies
  • lots of water
  •  tomatoes, kale, cabbage,
  • Fruit juices, oranges, bananas
  • and more…

Maintaining an ideal body weight is also an important factor in avoiding gout.

I have several lifestyle changes I can adjust to avoid.  We`ve drastically reduced the amount of meat we eat over the last few years and will have to make some more adjustments going forward.

It`s amazing – yet mind-numbingly logical – how much what we eat affects us.  Despite the pain, gout is a relatively minor complication of diet.  What is the addiction of fast food, convenience foods and additions of mysterious chemicals in pre-packaged foods doing in our society at large?

The important disclaimer: I am not a doctor or a scientist; just a dude with a sore foot.  Using the above as medical reference would be very silly, if not dangerous to your personal health.  If you have gout or any other maladies please do not use this article as a reccomendation on how to diagnose, treat or cure your ails.  That would just be a bad idea.

New Project: My Restaurant Menu

It’s the start of spring – we’re flipping between sunny, warm and hail and snow.  It’s a confusing time of year for clothing and it’s these days that I get really excited about the coming season of food (yes, I am that obsessed).

As we’ve gained more friends who work within food and it’s related professions, it’s been exciting to hear of a lot of them trying new menus for their restaurants, experimenting with new dishes and preparing for the coming seasons of plenty that will change the fresh flavors available to those of us who have come through a long, cold winter.

It’s been fun brainstorming food with a few chef/ restaurant owners.  What will be ‘hot’ this season, what will people want to eat and what should one stay away from?  I have to admit that hearing all of this talk about restaurants, menu design and seasonal cooking got me a little envious.  I felt like I was missing out on some sort of perverse fun…

So I’ve decided to join the fray.

We’re not opening a restaurant.  But I am going to start developing my menu – with no plans to implement in an actual restaurant.

I want to stay as local is practical and am going to try to develop it with similar constraints to a professional kitchen – conscious of price, waste, effort vs. payoff and ability to reproduce reliably.  We’ll also include our own passions of local, seasonal, sustainable (and sometimes all 3) and incorporate preserved ingredients at the same time.

As part of this project I have also decided to start from scratch.  I’m not going to old favourites – it’s a complete blank slate and a new start.  I want to use some ingredients I’ve never used before and others I haven’t explored in a long time. 

I am also going to take the luxury of taking as long as I need to develop the menu.  It might take weeks but it could take months or years.  I’m not trying to simulate the experience of a chef – nearly build skills that I would be proud enough to place on a menu and offer to paying strangers.  We’ll share our progress as we experiment.

I have the basis of a few recipe ideas floating inside my head that I simply have to try.  I know that there is a slow-braised rabbit ravioli that is an absolute must (something that can be made in advance and will keep well and cook quick on final prep) and am pretty excited to get working on it.  This dish came to me in my sleep which somewhat concerns me because the last thing I dreamed up (beef jerky infused vodka) was less than fantastic.  There is also some form of risotto, likely with mushrooms (and a stash of mushroom powder to give it extra ooompf).  Wild moose and deer are off the menu as I couldn’t legally sell them in Ontario (nor get the quantities needed).

What would be on your menu?  Anyone want to play along?

Sometimes Bad Beer and Mediocre Food are the Perfect Breakfast

It’s the start of spring in Ontario.  Instead of gradually warming, this typically means that one day feels like early summer while the next feels like mid-winter.  I imagine the thermometer (and the weather men and women) feel a lot like a pinball these days.

Spring brings many traditions to these parts.  There’s planting, cleaning, putting clothes away, new foods and start of a busier preserving season, daylight savings and longer dog walks.  There’s also the start of the Season for the Toronto FC (our football or soccer team).

Dana and I have been going regularly to games for 4 years now and have had seasons  tickets for 3 of those years. Each winter we get excited to see the games begin again and always forget about just how cold those first few games can be (the first game was last Saturday – our stadium was -18 celsius 0r 0 degrees fahrenheit).  We wore snowpants and so many layers to the first game this year that we looked like proverbial Michelin Men.

Today is game 2.  It looks like the thermometer has moved back to the warmer side of things today and the mid-day match will see us back outside for 3+ hours.

We’re meeting friends for breakfast first.  We’ll find a pub, bar or the like and have some frozen food that was plunged into a hot oil and wash it down with a few carbonated beverages – all before noon.  Sometimes tradition – especially that which weaves friends and family – can take and meal and raise it to heights it couldn’t get to on its own.  Turkey will always taste better on Christmas to me, Partridge will always be best on Thanksgiving and brown food and beer will always be fantastic in the early spring months as we anticipate freezing and cheering on our team.

Sometimes ‘fantastic’ food has nothing to do with the actual flavor.  It’s a complicated mess of tradition, taste, emotion, memory and is spiced with the flavor of those you love.  It’s those ingredients which can elevate a simple meal into something far greater.  Today is one of those meals for me.

Can you relate?  Do you have a special meal reserved for a birthday or anniversary?  What are the food traditions that are woven into your life?  We’d love to know…

In Defense of a Man who Needs None… Susur Lee

Background: Susur Lee was (and depending who you speak to, is) one the World’s top Chefs.  Most f his reputation was made in Toronto where he owned multiple restaurants.  He decided to move to New York City, rebranded his 2 Toronto restaurants and launched his claim in the Big Apple.  Susur was a contestant on TOP CHEF MASTERS where many cable viewers got to ‘meet’ him.  For a variety of reasons, his US project has been muddled and his Toronto presence is a shadow of it’s former self.  That’s an unfairly brief summary of where we got to this week.

Today’s post is far more Editorial than we’ve been lately and is something I’ve been gently thinking about for the last few days.  I’m not intending to start an Internet war – simply sharing a perspective that’s a little off what I’ve been reading around the Internet this week. 

The Internet seemed to be on fire this week with the news that one of our former Top Chef’s was launching a new project – a line of salad dressings with one of Canada’s largest food conglomerates.  It seems as though his star may have been falling (or, at least, settling in the sky) when many of our Cities food-forward people heard the news – and seemed to lose their breath.  The Globe and Mail stopped short of name calling but did quote a writer Rose Prince from the Telegraph that, “Selling out has become a natural progression that follows television fame.”

Twitter was ablaze with name calling and bitter accusations.  There were a series of awful accusations that accused him of being, amongst other things:

  • a sell-out
  • desperate
  • greedy
  • fake

Pretty heady stuff – words that hurt.

I am hoping I can level an argument that may appeal to cooler heads.  I’m not suggesting you should run out and buy his line of Salad Dressing (I won’t) – just asking that we take a step back for a moment and consider the ramifications of the easy act of piling on an easy target.

Susur opened his restaurant in New York in 2008.  The risk was considerable – he closed his flagship restaurant in Toronto, rebranded it Madeline and passed the keys (metaphorically to his former right-hand).  He essentially opened two high-end restaurants at the same time.

I am sure that there were many reasons why the ventures appeared to struggle (I don’t have access to the numbers).  Certainly it was a giant task, splitting attention in two places is difficult (at best) and the competition in New York is fierce. 

I have no idea why the ventures didn’t soar into success.  I would have to argue that the decisions to launch these ventures occurred long before our economy hit the bump that it did, corporate expense accounts got cinched and buildings full of bankers rolled their Aeron chairs down the streets.  The people with the $1,000+ expense account were a rare breed.  And this had to be part of the story.

Was the decline of the economy predictable?  Perhaps.  It is certainly a lot more foreseeable in hindsight.  Susur and his investors wouldn’t be the only ones who didn’t see it coming.

The restaurant business is one of the toughest businesses there is.  Combine 2 higher-end restaurants in two-cities and a bad economy and the odds would be stacked against all of us.  Even Adonis was mortal after all.

Imagine yourself in the same position.  Reaching success and still not sated.  Wanting to raise the bar even higher than world-class.  Willing to put your name, your brand, your restaurant and more behind that dream.  And imagine hitting the same obstacles.  The truth is that this is what most chef-owned restaurants do every day.  There are few safety nets and a lot of people cheering for you to fall off the tightrope.

A celebrated Chef in Toronto went through a very public battle with bankruptcy (or near bankruptcy last year).  The case is none of my business and I am a giant fan.  The man has won an Order of Canada – and too many people seemed excited to spread the news of his ‘failure’ (which was highly exaggerated as time is showing).

Perhaps you don’t agree with the mass grocery approach (I haven’t spent more than $120 in grocery stores in 6 months and haven’t bought salad dressing in years).  Perhaps it’s not sustainable (it’s not - but my personal target of choice would take aim at Tuna and Factory Farms before the nefarious aisle of Salad Dressing).  But perhaps, just maybe, this is a safety net.  One that will allow him to continue to pursue his dream – even if it is an extreme measure.

But my argument isn’t about defending Susur.  He can do that on his own. 

My calm argument is simply that if we jump on Chefs using the only thing they have (their brand) to weather difficult times, what’s in it for them to risk doing what they do in the first place?  If people are only going to cheer you on when you are doing well and leave you when you hit a bump, why would you want to do it in the first place?

I have a tonne of respect for the Career Path of a Chef – as I know many do.  I’m not entirely comfortable with this line of product (I have made the point of not mentioning it here) and it does take a bit of the shine out of my excitement around the symbol that is Susur Lee.  But that, in my mind, doesn’t mean he’s a sellout or worse.  It simply means he is doing what he has to – and discouraging that is a very dangerous precident for for all the Chefs who dare to risk the same.

A Table for One: Observations of Eating Alone in a Restaurant (Part 4)

Todays post will mark the final in this series (at least for now).  We`ve looked into what you see, hear and taste differently as a result of dining for one.  i thought this would be a good day to turn to wrapping together some form of conclusion.

Before I do, let me share a story or two that may help ground my argument.

I had the extreme pleasure of eating at one of the best restaurants in the world by myself.  It’s not one of the top 10 but certainly in the Top 500 (and arguably 100).  It was a fine experience – I got to focus on what I was eating, interact with the staff in ways that i would not have done with others and it felt very indulgent.  But something fell short.  I love the company of others and love to discuss the food, share bites and share memories after the fact.  The focus of the meal was intense but the memory began to fade the moment I left my chair and, with no one to reflect on the meal with, pieces of memory started to disappear with no hopes of returning.

I’ve also had the chance to eat in some phenomenal places with people I wasn’t naturally connected to (i.e. 15 years of business meals).  Although they also fade I find these meals to be the toughest of all (if measured solely on the enjoyment of the meal) as there’s often an alternate objective or focus to just stay engaged with the conversation that the meal can fade into obscurity.  I’m not saying I dislike these people – just that the environment is more formal than with those you adore so there are many other concerns that what’s on your plate.

My favorite pairing with any meal is the company of those I care for.  It’s even more fun when they are passionate about food.  I know, for a fact, that my fancy solo meal would have been better with the company of Dana or others.  Enjoying food and drink with those who also enjoy it while you all enjoy each others company just elevates all the elements and forms fantastic memories that can never be taken away.  It has to be 3 or 4 years since Dana, two friends and I entered Alinea (in Chicago) and the memory continues to resonate with us and we frequently trade a comment or two about that once night of our shared experience.  I have more memories by percentage of that one evening than I do of most years of my life.

But I am a passionate advocate of eating alone.

Solo dining is like salt – it adds a dimension to a meal that elevates the entire thing without necessarily being recognized.  Eating alone is like pleasurable homework that reminds me to pay attention to things I might otherwise miss if I only ate with others.  It provides the context that elevates dining with a party raise to a level that I wouldn’t otherwise see.  And while it is fun in its own right, it raises the other experiences to different heights that I could not have done otherwise.

I encourage you to get out on your own – see what changes about what you see, taste and hear and try to remember those subtleties the next time you eat in a group.  Dinner might just become a different experience altogether.

A Table for One: Observations of Eating Alone in a Restaurant (Part 3)

Since we`ve examined the effect that dining on your own has on what you hear and what you see, today I want to examine my perspective on how it affects what you taste.

It is an odd claim to think that taste can be effected  by the lack of company you dine with.  There are two categories of factors here – direct (such as not being able to share tastes from someone else`s plate) and indirect (not being able to vocally express mutual excitement about your dinner, thus raising the enjoyment of both parties communicating).  Some ‘features’ fall in to both categories while others are clearly singular such as the two examples just given.  Here’s a partial list of some of the other differences:

An appetizer and dessert becomes decadence

These things often extend the meal when others are presence and take a quick stop for sustenance and change the pace to allow for an evening together.  When eating solo, these items seems so much more extravagant.  To me this is a real positive some nights while completely the opposite on others.

Would you like something to drink?

Drinking alone has a certain connotation for many who either find it awkward, simply verboten or otherwise.  For those who consume alcohol with others, any stigma of having a solo glass of wine or beer with your meal tends to disappear very quickly with frequency of travel.  Having said that, I don’t ever remember ordering a cocktail to start an evening meal which is something I generally reserve for dinner with multiple friends.

If you are a wine drinker, many wines (available only by bottle) become out of reach and the ability to pair wine with multiple courses by sharing bottles with your party are no longer options.

It’s not a race

Our friend Doris the Goat (do check her out) commented on day 1 of this series that eating alone often challenged her to eat slowly.  When eating by yourself it can be an easy temptation to simply hoover a plate.  I often suffer from eating too fast but her comment is making me pay extra attention when eating out this week – I have a feeling I may be falling victim to this as well.

The menu is interpretive

When eating with others, we tend to follow some sort of group norm.  The majority of people have an appetizer or don’t, we tend to order the same number of courses (this is a mass generalization and one the dessert is often exempt from) and tend to pace ourselves to eat together.  When eating by yourself, such social conventions are tossed aside.  I’ve had a 3-course tasting menu of appetizers at a pub before, as an example.  It was ridiculously silly – and a lot of fun.

Some things are off-limits

I’m amazed at how often I notice items designed for ’2 or more’ when eating solo and I never notice these things when dining with others.  Just the thought that I can’t get something can make me want to get it.

Focus

Sitting by yourself allows you to skip conventional conversation and focus on the flavors of every bite.  In principle this should enhance the experience but I’ve found that the lack of conversation about what you are eating and tasting is the corresponding tradeoff.

What else have you noticed?

A Table for One: Observations of Eating Alone in a Restaurant (Part 2)

When we introduced this series yesterday, we focused on how the changing perspective of what one hears when dining alone in public.  I thought we’d focus on what you see when you dine alone – with particular focus on the things you notice that you normally don`t when in the company of others.

The Primary Difference in What you See

The focal point of a meal changes completely when there is someone sitting across from you compared to when there isn`t.  A companion grounds your focus to the intimacy of the space you share.  Long looks to other parts of the restaurant are often seen as anti-social or signs of disinterest in your companion.  Eating solo requires you to either stare at your table – or to look around the larger space of the room.

Looking around the room highlights this double-standard.  Unlike most social situations (grocery shopping, walking down the street or a hallway at work) where a connection of eyes often give way to a slight nod or quick smile, the requirement changes to avoid eye contact with others.  It`s a funny experience – you are required to look around because you are by yourself but don`t want to appear to be doing so.  The tradeoff is that many people aren`t looking past their own table so this is fairly easy to do.

`Seeing`the Staff

The staff – especially waiters and waitresses are exceptions to this eye-contact rule.  It`s ok to notice them – and ok for them to notice you.  In some ways you are both there together, separately.  It`s akin to being on a bus and mutually recognizing a familiar stranger.  You both acknowledge each other but it doesn`t lead to prolonged conversation.

You also pick up on interaction between the staff.  It`s easy to see tension and full-blown arguments that happen in brief exchanges conducted under-their breath and in brief moments as they pass each other in the halls.  On the surface all can seem happy but the patient eye can reveal chaos worthy of a duck`s feet when observing closely.

Seeing what you eat

I tend to notice other people`s plates a lot more when I enter a restaurant by myself.  When I enter with others, there`s such an excitement to be reunited and to be together and to be sharing an evening that we can even forget to look at the menu.  When out solo I can take a good look at the food each are eating without distraction (or being obvious) and tend to be far more influenced by the plates around me.  This is a good example of a lesson from solo dining that I apply when eating with others.

If you receive a beautiful plate, you can stare at it as long as you want without being pulled to have a cheers or feel like you need to start to eat.  There is no social pressure or convention that says you need to move on or speed up.

The Stories of Others

The natural act of looking around when eating alone reveals stories (some factual, some fictional works of art that are projected on others) of other tables.  Birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, first dates and girls night out are easy to identify or create when sitting solo.

The Kitchen and Mechanics of a Restaurant

When sitting by yourself it`s far easier to pick up the nuances of how a place works.  You can quickly figure out how enters are passed, who is cooking meals, how your order is communicated, who makes the drinks (and why) and so far.  This tends to be the least socially awkward (a restaurant gives it`s diners permission to enter and observe).

That`s it for today – what would you add?

A Table for One: Observations of Eating Alone in a Restaurant (Part 1)

Business travel has its share of flaws – and its share of perks.  For the most part it’s a world of extremes – you are often surrounded by people or off on your own, awake late at night or off to bed early, completely exhausted or completely invigorated.  Changing paces is the constant flux of life on the road.

The organization I work for is extremely good about hosting guests as they travel.  Eating solo is a choice that’s often more difficult to do than to be with company – but it’s something I enjoy a great deal.  Perhaps this comes from being an only child or perhaps it’s just a welcome change from busy days whilst travelling.  Either way, it’s a unique dining experience and one that people who enjoy eating at restaurants should partake in from time to time.

I’m not inferring that this is a better experience nor is it worse.  I do believe it is more relevant than simply relegating the experience to ‘interesting.’  Dining alone makes dining with others a more complete experience – just as salt and proper seasoning add something to ingredients in any good meal.  It’s an accent and makes you notice things that may have otherwise faded into the background.  In an effort to improve our cooking we often focus on ingredients and techniques – from time to time we had best check on our seasoning.  This is why I think dining alone is an important experience.

Today kicks off a short series of posts (3-4) that will share some of my observations on dining in restaurants.  While it’s written from the perspective of eating alone, it’s as much about what happens when we eat together.

Today’s post will feature on the great sense of SOUND.

Background Noise

Fergus Henderson (St John’s) insists on NOT having music in his restaurant.  He loves the sound that the clamour of diners, clash of cutlery and general scuttle of a restaurant makes.  I’ve never appreciated background noise like this as much as when I am alone.

The natural noise of a restaurant – the palpable excitement of individuals as they share company, food and wine – has a rhythm which builds over a course of an evening.  When you sit by yourself this ‘background’ noise becomes the main act.

Solo dining allows you to identify specific sounds you often miss otherwise.  The “mmmm” or “wow” from 3 tales down is similar to a piece of popcorn going off in another part of the pan.  The harder ou listen the more sounds like this you pick up on.  Similar sounds often occur with the presentation of dessert or an outstanding cocktail. 

These are sounds that occur by instinct when with a group of close friends – though rarely do they escape my lips when sitting by myself.  It’s a funny paradox – almost as if you can either make the sound or hear others make it but not do both at once.  And when you turn from making the sound to hearing it, it’s rather surprising just how often those sounds are made in a public restaurant.

Music

When eating with others, it generally disappears.  When eating by yourself it becomes another focal point.  I can remember 10 songs that played during dinner last night and recall brainstorming music ideas for songs and themes I would use if I ever opened a restaurant (I enjoy the fantasy and am certain it is far more fun than the reality of actually doing so).

It’s amazing that, when you pay attention to it, that music really can add to the experience of a room – as well as distract from it.  When it’s done right I believe you wouldn’t notice it at all – until you turned it off and then you would find something missing.

When eating alone I start to understand how there are some businesses which specialize in consulting with restaurants to help them create a music list and why others invest in fantastic sound systems.

Conversations of other Tables

The harder you try NOT to listen to the conversation beside you, the more you hear (it’s like trying really, really hard NOT to imagine a pink elephant with your eyes closed for 5 seconds).  It’s easy to accomplish the task if you have something else to focus on (like the conversation at your table) but when you sit by yourself, there are few ways to avoid listening to others around you.  What you hear changes with the ebb and flow of the din of the room but the occasional sentence floats into your consciousness (sometimes from a far corner of a room) and it’s stunning how much people share in public.

My amusement is nothing to do with the details – I am fascinated that someone would share an unbeleivable difficult piece of their life or perspective while feeling that the 6 inches between our tables is enough to contain said dark secret.  Their instinct is typically fair (I never remember hearing anything sensitive when with others) but I have found that when I dine alone phrases like, “I usually never tell anyone this” or “it’s really tough for me to talk about” or “I have a wonderful surprise that you can’t tell anyone about” seem to float through the consciousness of the frequently.

I’m starting to think of tables as ‘rooms within rooms’ – places where nothing but the spacing of your table creates an illusion of intimacy.  This is never more relevant than when two chairs (or booths) sit back-to-back and you can’t see the person you are sitting 6 inches from.

What else have you heard?