Story – Steak Tartare Well Done, Please

I was incredibly fortunate at one point in my life to be able to travel all over the world for my job.  I earned a lot of money, and the traveling didn’t cost me anything.  I got to stay in the various countries for quite a while, anywhere from two weeks to two and half months.  I learned a lot of important lessons as I traveled.  First, most people are nice if you give them a chance to be.  Second, just because things are different away from home doesn’t mean they’re bad; they’re just different.  Third, if six thousand people are eating something, try it.

My favorite country to eat in has always been France, followed closely by Italy.  No one strives to make food and eating a complete and total sybaritic experience like the French do.  Just once in their lives everyone should enjoy a full course French meal without worrying about the consequences.

I was in Paris as part of a team to install an entirely new computer system and train the end users.  There were several programs to convert and to teach.  Each program had a specific team, but I was the only person responsible for converting the old programs and data to the new.  Because of that, I needed to be there for the entire effort along with the team leader.  However, the rest of the team was fluid, people coming and going depending on when programs were being converted, trained, installed, and used.  As one program’s requirements were completed, that team would leave and a new team would come in to start training the next program.  It became our habit to allow the people who were leaving to choose the restaurant that we would eat at on their last evening.

On one particular evening, two team members were leaving the next morning, Sylvia and Rocco.  We had six people going to dinner that evening.  I don’t recall the name of the restaurant, but they treated us very well.  It was a family style place, very informal.  We were in a jovial mood, lots of laughter and talking.  Sylvia and Rocco were excited to be going home.  The waiter took our orders which were pretty varied.  Two people ordered chow mein; I ordered gnocchi with four cheese sauce; someone ordered a steak; someone else ordered salmon.  Then the waiter turned to Rocco.

“I’d like steak tartare, please.” He said.  We were all surprised.

“Uh, Rocco, you know that’s raw meat, don’t you?” I asked.

“No, no.” he replied.  “It’s a hamburger patty.  I’m fine.”  Then to the waiter he said, “I’d like that well done.”

The waiter, very understandably, looked confused.

“Rocco,” Sylvia said, “It’s raw meat.   It doesn’t come well done.”

“Guys, I’m fine.  I know what I’m doing.”

We all quieted and listened to him talking to the waiter who had given up all pretense of not speaking English.

“Like I said, steak tartare, well done.  Thanks.”

The waiter asked, “Well done?  Do you mean, no blood?”  Steak tartare sometimes comes with a sauce made from the meat juices, but Rocco wouldn’t know that.

I watched Rocco’s face and could tell exactly what he was thinking.  Blood meant juicy, which implied a rare steak, and he wanted it well done.

“Absolutely.” He smiled.  “No blood anywhere on that plate.”

Me, being me, decided to turn that screw just a little tighter.  “Rocco, you do know that there’s a raw egg on top of that?”

Rocco looked up at the waiter. “Oh!  Could you fry that, please?”

The waiter looked at Rocco for a moment and said, “I’ll go find out, monsieur.”

While the waiter was gone, we tried to convince Rocco about his error, but he wasn’t interested.  “I want meat.” He said. “I saw a little girl at L’Hippopotamus (another restaurant we liked) the other day, and she ordered it.  It’s just a hamburger patty.”

“Right,” I said.  “A raw hamburger patty.  It’s ground or minced meat served raw.”

“Rocco, he’s right!” Sylvia added.

“No, it’ll be all right.” He replied, smugly.  He obviously knew more than we did.

The waiter returned.  “I am sorry, monsieur.  I spoke to the chef and he says he cannot fry the egg for you.  He doesn’t have the right pans.”

I almost laughed out loud.  A French chef in a French restaurant in Paris doesn’t have the right pan to fry an egg?  I’d seen omelets on the menu and almost ordered one.  I glanced at Sylvia who was looking at me with laughter dancing eyes.

“Okay, then leave the egg off.  Thanks.  I appreciate your checking for me.”  Rocco was polite if nothing else.

We made small talk and I wished I had brought my camera.  I wanted Rocco’s expression immortalized when he got his steak.  Sooner than we had any right to, the food appeared.

Two plates of chow mein, my gnocchi, the rest.  The waiter placed Rocco’s plate in front of him last.  Then he stood back and waited.

“What is this?” Rocco asked flatly, looking at his plate.  He got a raw hamburger patty with salt and pepper on it.

“Steak Tartare, Rocco.” I said. “We tried to tell you.”

He looked at his plate with deep disappointment.

“The waiter will take it back and bring something else if you like.” Sylvia said.

“No, no.” Rocco said.  “I’ll try this.”  I could tell he was thinking about the little girl he’d seen before.  He grabbed his fork and played with the minced beef for a few moments, screwing up his courage to put it in his mouth.  When he finally did, he immediately spit it out onto his plate, all politeness gone.

“It’s cold!” he said in shock.

“Yes,” I said patiently. “To heat it is to cook it, and steak tartare is served raw.”

Rocco looked back at our waiter who was . . . well . . . waiting for us. “I’m sorry, I can’t eat this.  I’ll be happy to pay for it, but please take it back.  There’s nothing wrong with it.  Can I just have that?”  He pointed at my plate.

He quickly brought back another plate of food and set it down.  Rocco thanked him profusely and took a big bite.

“Joe, what the hell is this?”

The entire table erupted in laughter as I explained what gnocchi was. “It’s a dumpling made out of mashed potatoes and flour and boiled in salted water.  It’s served with different sauces, but this is a four cheese sauce.  Basically, macaroni and cheese.”

“Wonderful.” He said.

After we’d paid and were heading out, I stopped our waiter and thanked him for his patience (speaking in his language.)

“Pas de touts, monsieur.  It was rather fun.” He grinned and I could tell that this episode was going to told and retold for years to come.  I was glad we’d tipped him big.

Once outside, I put my hand on Rocco’s shoulder.  “Come on, buddy.”

“What?” he said.

Waving goodbye to the rest of the group, I led Rocco to Le Mètro and the nearest KFC.


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