The Miracle at Mon Ami Gabi

I became lost the other day, wandering around in Mon Ami Gabi, an upscale French restaurant situated within Las Vegas’ Paris Hotel. Standing somewhere between the outdoor patio and the bar that opens to the casino, I began to turn around in circles, looking in sheer awe of the size of the seated crowd, the dazzling display of busyness of the staff, the plates of food and drink coming and going from the kitchen, the hundreds of people who had come to be served in this miniature factory of fabulous eats and fun.

A factory it is, but more than that. At a regular factory, there are no customers demanding gratification right there on the spot. The workers make the stuff and ship it out. But here, the consumers are in the same spot as the producers, and every cook is a producer of goods. The service must be perfect and the food delicious, and incredibly so. At these prices, the slightest slip up could lead to disaster.

With food reviews as ubiquitous as they are today, one tweet, status update or Yelp post could cost thousands, even tens of thousands, in profits stretching for weeks and months. If the customer is thirsty, the water must be there. The cocktails must be exactly right. No twists when the customer orders olives. No soda when the customer asks for tonic. In other words, this is not the TSA: an unaccountable bureaucracy that does what it wants.

The crowd was sheer madness this evening. There were several lines of people waiting to get in. People with reservations wanted immediate seating, but plenty of people with reservations would never show, unable to leave their winning streaks at the poker table. With this level of demand, the staff can’t leave tables empty. Other people just show up, sometimes with a party of two and sometimes with a party of 10. The wait extended to fully 90 minutes.

The more people that the wait staff could get in and out, the more food and drink the restaurant could sell. But no one must be made to feel rushed. But neither can the service be too slow. The difference between too slow (grumble) and too fast (hey, what’s the rush?) might be only a matter of minutes. Knowing the difference is science, art and experience.

And there is no way to know in advance what people will be ordering from the gigantic menu. The kitchen food inventory must be vast and adaptable to sudden changes of taste and interest. There must be perfect coordination between the prep chefs and the cooks, between the cooks and the wait staff, between the bartenders and hosts and hostesses and everyone else.

As I said, there were hundreds of people either dining or waiting to dine. All the while, the sounds of the casino were everywhere, the talking was loud and louder, the needs of the gathered masses were as individualized as the number of people there. Every single person had an issue: Meat must be cooked this way not that, the wine must be dry not sweet, the potatoes must be replaced with broccoli, the water must come from a bottle and not the tap and so on through thousands of possibilities.

I tell you, it could have been madness, riotous. Yet the situation was orderly in every way, not like the mechanical workings of a clock, but even more impressively the coordination of volitional human beings each exercising free will. It was like a market economy in miniature. No police. The “thin blue line” was profitability.

Every person there was a king, a paying customer who wanted everything exactly right. The staff worked tirelessly to oblige. As soon as one party left a table, it was cleaned and moved and reset to accommodate a new party with new demands, new tastes, new preferences.

And remember, too, that we aren’t talking about the run-of-the-mill customer here. Most of these people come to Vegas for the time of their lives. They’ve all had a drink or two. They are prepared to spend more money on food and drink than any normal person ever would. And they come expecting the best of the best and will accept nothing less, especially after standing around in a noisy, smoky casino waiting.

Mon Ami Gabi in Vegas (photo credit to Geoff Fox)

And this doesn’t just happen in the course of one hour. The frenzy begins late afternoon and continues this way well past midnight. And it happens not just this day, but every day. Among the staff and management and chefs, there is no time for exhaustion, frustration, annoyance. You must work like crazy from the minute you get there to the minute you leave, and that could be a shift of eight hours or more.

Who is holding a gun to people’s heads to make all this happen? The answer is no one. Kings of old would display their wealth through their dining habits and make ostentatious display of the number of people who served them. Today, we are all kings. But we are even better off, with more selection between dishes and the number of places we can eat. We coerce no one. Our servants beg for the chance to wait on us and work themselves to the point of total exhaustion.

The structure of production of this amazing place extends beyond what exists in its four walls. The food comes from all over the world. The coordination extends to transportation, agriculture and ranching, herbs and spices from remote places, liquors and beers from all corners of the earth. And the coordination extends back in time, even decades and even centuries from the first seeds planted in the vineyards that make the wines and liquors. And the technology to make it happen is all relatively new, from refrigeration all the way through digital communication between the kitchen and the maitre d’.

This stunningly complex operation — far more complicated than any operation attempted by any government bureaucracy — must come together for everyone who happens to show up at one particular hour at one particular place. Or maybe no one will show up. If this happens too often, the whole thing collapses. All the planning, payments, skills, everything is shown to be a waste. What makes the difference between the existence of this tiny society and its disappearance is the decision of the man or woman on the street to eat there or not to eat there.

If you were to propose such a system to a person who had never seen it in operation, that person would never believe such a thing as this could happen. And it’s not just upscale restaurants to Vegas; the miracle extends to every fast-food eatery at the exit of every stop along every interstate highway. It’s all there for us, waiting for our decision, ready to serve.

We are the most served people in the history of humanity. The market has made it so. We repay this system by teaching our students that capitalism is evil, by protesting the market in mass demonstrations, by taxing the entrepreneurs, by spitting on the accumulators of capital who fund the system and take the risk.

Then we elect politicians, even presidents, who are sworn enemies of our great benefactor, the free market, which we — through crazy logic and deep historical ignorance — blame for all our troubles. Then, these same people praise government as the source of all good things.

It’s an upside-down world. But no matter how much the market is smeared and denied credit, it is still there for us, like a puppy that keeps returning affections no matter how often its master kicks and hits it.

These were my thoughts, and I was lost in them while standing in the middle of the room at Mon Ami Gabi. A waiter got my attention and said, “Excuse me, sir, may I help you?”

Civility in the midst of madness. Lovely. Just lovely.

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