Tryst Of Fate

Are chefs very superstitious?

Some time back in the '80s, college baseball players began donning "rally caps" late in losing games. Nothing magical, really, just regular ball caps twisted into bizarre shapes.

We doubt there's a statistical correlation between manhandled hats and come-from-behind victories. In fact, deep down most of us know spells designed to bring good luck or ward off misfortune don't really work. Traditional preventatives--even symbols--well, they fall short, too. It's impossible to dodge every crack, yet few mothers wind up in traction. With all the laminates around, knocking on real wood is more difficult than ever. Somehow there's no corresponding rash of failure. Dan Marino wore the unlucky 13 and made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Dropping a voodoo doll resembling our editor into the pool...nothing.

Still, people continue mystical practices and even invent new ones. Got an Asian slogan tattooed on your arm? Baseball great Wade Boggs ordered chicken on game days and plucked three pebbles from the field each inning. Legendary nutcase Howard Hughes arranged vegetables in perfect rows on his plate before dinner, at least according to the movie. Even skeptics follow patterns that could be considered superstitious, such as driving a particular route to work each day.

Hey, break an established routine and bad things may happen.

So what about chefs? Marc Cassel of Dragonfly claims he'll try anything "up to and including human sacrifice" to appease the culinary gods. Probably not a good idea to fall into a drunken stupor out on the patio--might wake to find the kitchen staff performing some noisy ritual dance around you. Of course, we always imagined chefs huddled over sheep entrails to foretell the evening's crowd.

But what are their most common superstitions?

"You never say 'it's been a long time since I cut myself,'" says Brian C. Luscher, chef at the Tournament Player's Club facility at Craig Ranch, "guaranteed you'll walk out with a cut."

Challenging the fates and predicting events are taboo in most kitchens, agrees Sharon Hage, chef-owner of York St. Suggest patrons will clamor for a bowl of vichyssoise, vats of the stuff will likely sit untouched all night. Conversely, Luscher adds, "Saying 'well, we're not going to sell any of those,' that's bringing about your own demise." The chef won't order much stock. Line cooks spend their time prepping other items. Throw open the doors and immediately customers start ordering the overlooked dish. "I'll shut someone down if they start saying something like that," he continues. "I don't want to jinx myself."

Hmmm...the Cowboys cheerleaders will not ask to hold a slumber party at our house.

The rule even extends to compliments outside the kitchen. We started to congratulate Hage for turning her small spot into a nationally recognized institution, but she quickly interrupted: "Don't say anything; I don't want to curse it."

Oops.

Unfortunately there's no way to reverse a hex of that kind, aside from knocking on whatever wood exists in a stainless steel kitchen. And that doesn't work.

The other prominent superstition involves routine behavior. Nick Badovinus, chef at Hibiscus, orders Saturday night dinner at Cuquita's and grabs a cheeseburger somewhere every Sunday. "I don't know if it's tied to success," he says, "but those are serious routines." Over at Landmark Restaurant in the Melrose Hotel, chef Joel Harloff places his cutting board in the same spot every morning. Just before work he clips pens and markers into his pockets, rolls up each sleeve three times, and strolls over for some coffee.

"What happens after that," he says, "I've got no control over."

Chefs already operate in a world of unpredictability, so why jump over cracks or mutter incantations? Superstition is a tool for asserting some form of direction over uncertainty. You may feel confident about drubbing your buddy in Madden 2006 or repairing a faucet or even launching a new business, but you don't know for certain, so you knock on wood to influence results. Well, restaurants cope with the constant threat of 20 people bursting through the doors a few minutes before the kitchen closes. Deliveries arrive late, guests fail to show after reserving tables. No act of contrition, no move to appease fate works to set things right when normal existence already teeters wildly.

"And when things go wrong, they always go wrong on weekends," complains Michael Zeve, chef at Sevy's.

Sure, we spoke to a few who wear lucky togs and/or toss excess salt over their shoulder. For the most part, however, they simply avoid irking the gods and stick to a routine.

And that's our answer to this week's Burning Question. It's difficult to separate superstition from rational behavior sometimes. Harloff's habit of tossing an extra measure of each ingredient into the pot "for luck"--is that really communing with mystical forces or just preparing for unexpected walk-ins?

Perhaps a little of both. Now, it's been a long time since liquor reps dropped off a few cases of bourbon for us to sample...

 
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