I can feel sweat soaking through the armpits of my $5,000 Tom Ford suit and a nagging itch along the starched collar of my custom-fitted tuxedo shirt. Even though I’m working at one of the most popular restaurants in New York City, I’m dressed better than most of the men in the dining room. I pour a healthy shot of 151-proof rum into an antique jigger and raise the flame on the butane burner inside the flambé cart. I’ve performed this carnival trick hundreds of times, but for some reason, I still get queasy the moment before the pan ignites.
“What’s that thing with the fire?” a woman from the table behind me asks, tugging on the vents of my tuxedo jacket and gesturing toward the dessert I just finished flambéing. I’m tempted to lie and tell her we just sold out, but instead I explain the Bananas Foster — caramelized bananas flamed with dark rum over house-made banana-buttermilk ice cream — the restaurant’s most popular dessert. But she isn’t listening. I can already sense her plans to cast me as the lead in her TikTok video or the poster child for her “en fuego” meme. “Oh my God, I hate bananas,” she says, turning toward her tablemates, “but we should totally order it anyway!” They haven’t even finished their appetizers.
Scenes like this were not uncommon during the three years I worked as a captain at the Grill in midtown Manhattan — a midcentury chophouse in the former Four Seasons Restaurant space where tableside theatrics and culinary sleight of hand are calculated distractions. The palatial, Phillip Johnson-designed dining room screams go-big-or-go-home, and the staff is rigorously trained to ensure that you do go big and also go home with less money in your wallet than when you arrived. The Grill’s sister restaurant, Carbone, which helped re-popularize made-to-order Caesar salads and mobile dessert carts, deserves most of the credit for hastening the revival of tableside service, at least the trendy variety. (Brennan’s in New Orleans, where Bananas Foster was invented, has been preparing the dessert continuously for decades since Chef Paul Blangé created the recipe in 1951.)
Although flambé cooking originated in the mid-19th century, French chef Auguste Escoffier popularized the technique when he presented Queen Victoria with cherries jubilee — cherries flambéed in kirschwasser, or cherry brandy — in 1897 to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee. Today, the tableside flambé is having a renaissance in many upscale restaurants, but for a different reason: It makes great content.
A perfectly executed Bananas Foster takes about three to four minutes to prepare. But a restaurant flambé requires additional time to allow the person who orders it to overshare about the one other time they ordered a flambé at a Michelin-starred restaurant in the south of France. Someone at the table will also invariably ask, “Have you ever burned anyone before?” (Thankfully, I have not — but I’ve definitely sent errant chunks of flaming banana out of the pan a couple of times like rogue fruit meteors, causing momentary bouts of panic and a few singed linens.) Every time a pan spiked with sugar and alcohol combusts, flambé sales go viral. One order and the entire restaurant goes up in flames.
No matter how technologically advanced our society becomes, humans will always be captivated by fire. The fear and fascination it instills in us is primal, a sobering reminder of human fragility. Perhaps the lasting appeal of a flambé lies in our ability to manipulate fire to create something sweet and luxurious, one of the few moments in life where we feel the tiniest degree of control over Mother Nature.
“The true satisfaction of good flambé cooking comes not only in the eating but in the preparation and the serving as well,” wrote John J. Poister in his 1968 volume The Pyromaniac’s Cookbook. “For this reason, the cook theoretically should have more fun than those who simply partake of the results, however sumptuous they may be.” I doubt Mr. Poister would be so cavalier about the joys of flambéing if he had to make 30 orders of Bananas Foster every night. Nonetheless, the notion that flambéed dishes enhance the spectacle of a dining experience is undeniable.
Today’s trend toward maximalism — the aesthetic of intentional excess we see reflected in fashion, design, and art — plays well in restaurants, where more is always better. But today’s dining room schtick has become even more extra. At Papi Steak, a steakhouse on steroids in Miami, a $1,000 wagyu rib eye is shepherded to the table raw, nestled inside a diamond-studded, golden briefcase and accompanied by a platoon of boisterous staff. One of the servers unlatches the case, which glows from the inside like the opening scene in Pulp Fiction, revealing a bloody steak concealed underneath a cloud of smoke. With the crowd goading them on and everyone’s smartphones held high, a manager comes over with something resembling a cattle prod and brands the words “Papi Steak” into the marbled hunk of beef. The steak even has its own designated entrance music that blares in the dining room to announce its arrival.
When Major Food Group — the brain trust behind a growing empire of restaurants that includes its wildly popular Carbone restaurants in New York, Las Vegas, Dallas, and Miami — took over the landmark Four Seasons space, the company invested more than $30 million to restore the iconic space to its former glory. The gueridons, or roving carts used for tableside service, were custom built for $20,000 each (at least, that’s what I recall being told by management). In other words, every time someone orders a Bananas Foster at the Grill, a tuxedoed captain rolls up to their table pushing a trolley that costs as much as a Hyundai Elantra.
I used to resent diners shooting video of me tossing Crab Louie salads, fileting whole Dover soles, or flipping wild mushroom omelets cooked in black truffle butter. I’d often wonder how those same people would feel if a client randomly shoved a phone in their face to film them going about their business at the office, like reviewing a tax document or drafting a legal brief. Over time, I learned to accept that exhibitionism comes with the territory. Today’s diners seek out restaurants for entertainment — the food is often secondary — and the restaurant owners seem more than happy to oblige. Whether we like it or not, the staff are considered part of the show.
The nervousness I used to experience preparing tableside flambés wasn’t stage fright. Flambés can actually be very dangerous. Every server has nightmares about a flambé gone awry. Earlier this year, two people were killed, including an employee, when a waiter flambéed a pizza in an Italian restaurant in Madrid. Decorative fake plants near the entrance caught fire during the server’s presentation, trapping scores of patrons inside the burning dining room.
There are several common pitfalls that lead to flambé failures. If the pan isn’t sufficiently hot or the sauce isn’t reduced enough before the alcohol is added, it retards the flame. Shockingly, staff rarely go through any formal training to learn how to flambé. Most servers are, quite literally, thrown into the fire. As a novice, I definitely had to step away from the table and start over after a few flambé bloopers. I’m not gonna lie: It’s embarrassing when your flambé doesn’t flambé, like striking a book of matches in the rain.
Eventually, that night at the Grill, I put my game face on and roll the gueridon over to the woman who hates bananas. “Be careful,” I say, measuring out the rum. “I’ve never made one of these before.” All waiters have their secret arsenal of stale humor to deploy when they need to butter up the crowd. As the caramel sauce begins to bubble, I pour the rum over it, gently tipping the rim of the saute pan forward to allow the fire to contact the liquid. Flames shoot skyward, casting a soft, amber glow around the table. The woman is so engrossed in my performance that she forgets to take a video. She fumbles around with her purse, but the alcohol burns off by the time she finally gets her phone out. “Oh no, I missed it! Can you do it again?” she asks, expecting a mulligan. “Of course, I can,” I answer politely, spooning the molten bananas over ice cream and sprinkling the bowl with an almond crumble. “But you’ll have to order another one.”
Adam Reiner is a freelance writer based in NYC and founder of The Restaurant Manifesto, a blog about restaurant life and dining culture.
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