Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Le Chat Noir On Delicious Matters and Manners

“The only foods you should eat with your hands are French fries, fried calamari (in Europe calamari isn't dipped in sauce), bread and sandwiches,” said Suzanne Latapie, owner of the Upper East Side bistro, Le Chat Noir as she elegantly and properly ate her dinner.

Notice the position of her hands as she holds her knife and fork. In an earlier post we pointed out how violently some people eat and turn into Psycho-diners. They literally stab the meat on their plate as if it were about to be snatched. Not in the picture is the piece of bread on the table. Suzanne took a roll out of the breadbasket and tore off a piece and put it on the table, the roll stayed on the table as well. Never put a piece of bread back into the basket once you’ve touched it. If there’s no bread plate, putting it on the table is fine. If you think the table isn’t clean enough, ask for the check and leave. Suzanne used her knife to gather food onto her fork. Shoving food onto a fork with your finger is fine in the privacy of your home but not in restaurants. Some may argue that it’s never fine; it’s right up there on the no-no list with drinking directly from the milk carton. When Suzanne took a sip of her wine, she held the glass by the stem. 

Sometimes she dines with a close friend and likes to order different entrees. The way she likes to share is to eat a portion of the food on her plate and then offer the other half to her friend and the friend does the same. This way plates aren't going back and forth and no one is eating food that’s been touched. There is nothing ruder than when someone takes the liberty of eating off your plate without asking.

Le Chat Noir probably makes the best chocolate soufflé in town – talk about sinful. It’s eaten with a spoon and when you taste the mouthful of chocolate you’ll understand why spoons were created. We love cheese soufflé and eat it with a spoon even though restaurants will offer a fork and spoon. This could be confusing but soufflé often comes with a small salad and you don’t want a spoonful of salad.

Like most restaurants, there are no toothpicks on the table. When I, Yvonne, lived in Italy, I never understood why there were toothpicks on the table when it was considered really bad form to use them. They'd talk about you like a dog if you even looked like you were going to take one. Toothpicking at a table is as bad as flossing in public. Grooming before, during or after a meal at the table is another ‘never do’.

Dinner was Suzanne’s treat so we left a generous tip. Staff really appreciates that because when they see the boss with friends they also see no tip in some cases. In small restaurants where there’s no coat check, the owner sometimes takes the coats. He or she shouldn’t be tipped.

We had a nice time, the food and wine were great and so was the company. And the manners were impeccable.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Civility Undone

Yvonne and I went back and forth on this. I felt we had to address this tragedy, Yvonne thought what Madoff did was beyond poor manners and to link this story to etiquette would minimize the irreparable damage he has wreaked on people’s lives. She has nothing to do with this week’s post.

I called my friend Barry (he knows someone who lost with Madoff) to discuss where he felt etiquette and Madoff’s actions intersect. Barry said what he did was wrong-headed; Madoff had no respect for anyone. “Civility is the basis of good manners,” said my friend.

What prompted me to bring this up were the reactions from people Madoff swindled. “How could he do this to one of his own?” some asked, “He was one of us.” Well no, he wasn’t one of anyone; he just happened to be Jewish. If he moved as comfortably in another circle even as a man of Jewish faith, say among Catholics or Episcopalians, he would have done the same thing -- and he obviously did; the man Madoff did this, not his affiliation with any organized religion.

I cried watching the damage he did to people while watching a “60 Minutes” segment on Madoff. Not once did I think “I’m glad he did it to them and not us.” Many people felt anger and sadness for those who lost; they saw another human being suffering regardless of their faith or race. Did some cheer and say “good for those people.” I’m sure some did. Being good to one another, respecting one another and being an authentic person, having compassion and empathy for others has everything to do with etiquette.

Madoff demonstrated unbearably bad manners when it came to dealing with his fellow man; what he lacked in civility he made up for in an egregious display of greed. He definitely shattered the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


"I can't believe it, Yvonne. With all the people out of work, I can't find someone to sit in for my assistant who's going to be away for a couple of weeks." My friend runs a successful, public relations firm. I promised her I'd get back to her with a couple of names. Having freelanced for more than ten years, I know what it feels like when the phone rings and there's a job possibility on the other end. To do the same for someone else is a great feeling.

I called a couple of people, left messages on land lines and cellphones and even sent one a message via facebook. I spoke to one friend, and she explained she was interested but was already working on a project. I waited a half hour before I called Yvette to ask if she knew someone who could use a job for a couple of weeks. I waited because I wanted my friends to have first dibs on it.  She rattled off a couple of names and decided to call a recently unemployed friend.

"Be careful, you may make people angry when they call you back and someone else you've recommended gets the job," a friend warned. I told him I understood his point but it's sort of like the early bird gets the worm and explained that I had held off calling Yvette in the hopes of hearing back from one of my contacts.

Meanwhile, the woman Yvette called contacted me. She gave me her information, I forwarded to my friend and within an hour she got the gig! Nothing like helping lower the unemployment rate.

I didn't hear back from any of the people I called. I was a little surprised but who knows, maybe an emergency came up. Maybe they didn't get any of my messages or maybe they aren't hooked on facebook like moi.

I told my friend, the human warning signal, what had happened and added, "I guess everyone's all right and not in need of work, no one called me back." 
"You have to be more sensitive, maybe people don't want to give the impression that they need a job so desperately. Or maybe they thought the job was beneath them." 

I see his point. Once, early on in my freelance writer career, a friend called and said she'd pay me one hundred dollars a day to answer phones at her production company. I thanked her for thinking about me. Lying, I told her that I was already working on something. 

I immediately called Danielle, one of my most level headed friends. "Can you believe it? She thinks I'd answer her phones. I'm a writer," I ranted. "I bet she wouldn't have asked a white senior writer if she would answer her phones." I was all over the map on this one.

"I don't think it had anything to do with race, I think it's a gender thing. She probably wouldn't have asked a male friend to do that," Danielle pointed out. When I cooled down, I realized someone was trying to simply help me.  Thank God I had had the good sense to graciously express my thanks to her even though the last thing I was feeling was gracious.

I still have yet to hear back from the others I called. I wonder, in my thoughtfulness had I been thoughtless? Had I unwittingly insulted them? Did they assume that if I didn't hear back from them it meant that they weren't interested?  In the future, if another opportunity comes up, should I call them?


"I was a bit apprehensive when I contacted my friend, I was afraid she would think the job was beneath her. I had a backup person but when I spoke to my friend, she told me she was willing to do any kind of office work. I was glad she got it, she was very grateful. Who knows why Yvonne's friends didn't respond. Maybe she should ask them if they're interested in a job instead of making the assumption. However,  a thank you is in order because it's the right thing to do. It acknowledges a person's thoughtfulness and your appreciation. And who knows what a future call could bring?  Funny thing about manners, they will tell you what to do the next time.

Once, a relative tried giving me some career tips and suggested that I find work in a hotel making beds. I thanked her for the suggestion, I knew she was well-intentioned. But I made a note to myself to next time consult with a real career counselor. Interestingly, I did work for a while in a hotel answering phones. 

So, to Yvonne, I say, "Move on."  Don't make people wrong for the rest of their lives. The next time you hear about a job, no doubt there will be others to call. But don't be surprised if  the person you contact about work may just not be that into it.


One of the women called and thanked Yvonne again and again for thinking about her. She'd been ill and passed on the information to someone else.  There goes those manners again, they'll tell you who to call next time.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


We used to have a friend who used her ten year old daughter as her personal assistant. If you called to speak to the mother, the child would field the call. You could hear the mother in the background asking who's on the phone. The child would tell her and then the mother would say, "Tell her I'll call back in a little while." The child would dutifully repeat what the caller had just heard and hang up.

With all of the back and forth, seems like it would have been easier for the mother to take the phone and just say, "I'm in the middle of something, would love to talk to you, can I call you back?" It's not like the mother was in the backyard weeding. They were in the same cramped New York City apartment, a couple of feet apart.

Is this laziness or another screening technique? Had the mother decided that the call wasn't important enough for her to stop doing nothing?

"My mom can't talk right now, we're in the middle of dinner, can she call you back?", a friend's daughter asked Yvonne who was slightly miffed. Being shooed off the phone by a teenager didn't sit well with her. She felt that she should have been announced to the mother and the mother should've been the one to explain that they were in the middle of dinner and she'll call back. "What I really don't get," Yvonne said, "Why would you answer the phone if you know you can't talk?"

Her friend called back and profusely apologized. She explained that she doesn't allow phone conversations or texting during dinner. Her daughter had picked up the one phone without caller ID and didn't want to miss speaking to her father who was away on business. This is completely understandable and we like that she's teaching her children the importance of having dinner together as a family free of technology.

The phone is a powerful tool, it can be an ego booster or ego buster. It gives power to power seekers, 'I don't take calls that are private or restricted.' The phone can feed paranoia, 'Hello, are you there? Are you there? Pick up, pick up.' Uhmm, maybe the person you're calling has voicemail and not an answer machine wherein they could hear you. It breeds snobs, 'I have to get this other call.' This is always fun, you're in the middle of a conversation and your good friend gets a call from someone more important than you and apparently they can't be called back later because they're so special.

There is value in Caller ID for people who are being stalked or preyed upon by sleazy mortgage brokers and annoying telemarketers. It can also let you know if it's a call that should be answered, especially in the case of an emergency, it could be someone in need. But some ardent fans of Caller ID don't pick up calls from unrecognizable numbers or names. What's a poor caller to do?

We are convinced that call waiting was created by someone who didn't have many friends and was afraid to miss the one call from the one friend. They also didn't understand the value of spending quality time on the phone with someone you care about.

Several years ago, there was an advertising campaign for the telephone company. The tag was, 'Reach Out And Touch Someone'. It was before all the bells and whistles that make it so hard to reach out and touch someone with a phone call in today's world.

Is that your phone we hear ringing? Pick up, please.