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Critic-Turned-Cook Mulls Question: Worst Meal Ever?

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

A few days after showing up for the Master Chef casting call, I got together at Palace Kitchen with fellow reality show hopefuls to compare notes. We mostly knew each other by our Twitter handles.

"Aren't you Seattle Food Geek? (Also known as Scott Heimendinger.) And Salty Seattle (Linda Miller Nicholson), MarcSeattle as well as... hey, isn't that Serious Eats contributor Michael Natkin?"

In between bites of sublime bites of Spam—yes, housemade Berkshire pork Spam, served on creamy grits, a poached egg on top—the pleasant conversation focused on, what else, food.

One question stopped me cold. Marc Schermerhorn asked me, "What's the worst meal you've ever eaten?"

As a former critic, I'm used to being asked to name my favorite places or dishes that inspired awe, so this query caught me by surprise. I've been thinking about it since.

It's Not the Food, It's the Service

For all the hits I've been fortunate to taste while reviewing restaurants, there have been some colossal misses, even out of kitchens with stellar reps. But I think the worst meals I can remember have more to do with sloppy, rude, or inattentive service.

Now, before all you front-of-the-house folk get riled up, let me say: most servers are good, and some are even great. A handful are even true hospitalitarians. But those stinkers who give the front of the house a bad name? They can spoil dinner like no broken sauce or under-seasoned hunk of flesh.

I'm talking about the hostess who strings you along for more than an hour saying your table—the one you reserved—should be ready "any minute now." Or, how about the clown who refuses to meet your eye when you're trying to get a water glass refilled, inquire about whether your meal will ever arrive, or ask for the check? I've had servers sit down at the table while they filled me in on their favorites and others chastise me when I requested soy sauce for my stir-fry. I've watched servers stand and gossip (I can hear you!) while a room full of hungry diners wait.

This kind of disappointment can happen anywhere, even the hallowed halls of gastronomy. One year I celebrated a birthday at The French Laundry, where I endured an evening of feeling like I was the ugly duckling among a herd of swans.

Now, don't get me wrong: I adored the magnificent food. But a team of servers kept delivering special edible gifts from the kitchen to a neighboring table in a small room and our two-top was treated to the most perfunctory service. (In all fairness, I returned years later and was at a table getting VIP-ed and, big surprise—I ate it up.)

On the other end of the dining spectrum, I was once researching a column on where to find the best cheap bar steak when I was on the staff at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, and just as I was about to cut into my sirloin, the cook ran out of the kitchen waving a cleaver. He chased some server out the door yelling: "You want a piece of me?" Yes, dinner and a show.

These mishaps only make me appreciate good servers even more. Thank you for taking good care of your customers! I show my appreciation by tipping 20 percent or more. Oh how I loved being extra generous when I had an expense account.

I'm curious if my experience is the exception. Does your "worst meal" tale involve food or service? Or both?

About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been apprenticing in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March 2009 and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. She also blogs at LeslieKellyWhiningandDining.blogspot.com and is working on a story-telling project for Northstar Winery following one wine from the vine to the table.

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