Roman insists this is all legit: "He bills me online."
Barney Stinson taught us the importance of "knowing a guy," and it's an even more valuable skill set than you might think. Some people put professional-grade guy-knowing to use in the business or social service fields, while others enter slightly murkier waters, like acquiring exotic foods for restaurants in illicit ways. Not only is that a real profession, but they get their very own snooty-sounding title: Debrouillard. We sat down with one, and he told us ...
A Debrouillard is a highly specialized kind of chef. Sometimes they're called in to create a feast out of thin air, like the time our source, Roman Popovic, had to pass hot dogs and crackers off as "Alsatian canapes." But he spends most of his time tracking down rare foods like a chronically tardy hunter. You can't hire just any passing hobo to go find a rare aged French cheese in the middle of a shift, because he won't know where to look. That takes a special hobo. Enter Roman: He's kind of like the Wolf of the restaurant world.
Debrouillardry is mysterious work, involving a lot of back-alley deals with sometimes literally faceless men.
"Sometimes I don't even meet [my sources]," Roman says.
Roman makes a call, there's a knock at the door, and he opens it to find the ingredient, but no messenger. It looks more like a ransom drop than a business deal.
"I needed white asparagus last week for soup when the chef ran out, and I called up my produce guy," he says. "He said no problem. Now, I had called around a bit, and no place anywhere had any. The nearest was two hours away, and that was too long. Half an hour later, there was the knock and the asparagus."
Roman insists this is all legit: "He bills me online."
Debrouillards operate on a "don't ask, don't tell" basis, because the chef knows if they ask Roman where he got white asparagus when everyone in a two-hour radius is out, they could be legally liable. The truth is, the answer often involves bribery.
"There was a distribution center I went to for fish a few times [when] we ran low on seafood," Roman says. "All I would do is walk in with a few loaders, get up to what I needed -- let's say large shrimp -- and I would give whoever was in charge a little more than market price for what I was taking, and what was supposed to go to another restaurant."
To be clear, Roman was buying shrimp that another restaurant had already paid for. The suppliers then turned around and blamed the missing stock on supply problems.
"'Someone miscounted somewhere,' or 'we forgot someone had ordered this earlier.'"
That seems like a good way to lose a customer, but suppliers apparently make enough money that they can afford to risk it. If the restaurants in question had any idea who was responsible for their plight, Roman would have some pretty formidable enemies.
"We caused our local Red Lobster to not have enough fresh salmon, when they had a bunch of ads on TV having a salmon month or something," he says. "My restaurant and others simply bought them up. Because they all had people in my position, they could go out before Red Lobster even had a chance."
That's because Roman can pay whatever he needs to, while Red Lobster is bound by corporate rule on how much they can spend. Needless to say, it pisses some people off. Roman has come very close to sleeping with more metaphorical fishes.
"There was a time at the fish market where I got the last of the fresh salmon for the day by offering a little more for it," he says. "I didn't know Red Lobster had reserved that, but I did when the guy behind me asked where his salmon was, and the fisherman said they were out. [The seller] didn't rat me out, and his son gave me a nondescript box with the salmon right in front of the Red Lobster buyer. He said 'We didn't have that big a catch. I'm sorry.' The buyer promptly whipped out his cell phone and said, 'They ran out. AGAIN.'"
There you go, headline writers -- it's not millennials who are killing terrible seafood chain restaurants, it's Roman.
Sometimes, knowing a guy isn't enough. It's not possible to know every guy. Roman has had to get creative and, in moments of desperation, done things he's not entirely proud of. Like?
"Guinea pig," he says. "It was guinea pig."
"It was a general South American restaurant, but our sous chef was from Peru," Roman says. "I helped him get a supplier for Peruvian foods, and a food they offered was fresh guinea pig. He convinced the owner and head chef to let him try it. Then there was a weekend a Peruvian family in town had a wedding. They invited dozens of people up. They chose our restaurant for the rehearsal dinner, and as soon as they saw guinea pig, they asked for that to be the meal. The sous chef tried to get more in preparation, but they chose our restaurant almost last minute, and we didn't have a lot of time. The day before, he asked me to get six guinea pigs. I tried my normal ways, but no dice. And that's why I went into pet stores."
Almost as if they could smell his ill intentions, the pet store employees ensured that it was not an easy transaction.
"One [employee] snuggled the guinea pig I chose under my chin and said. 'Awwww, he loves you!'" Roman says. "I wanted to say 'Don't make this harder than it has to be,' but she thought it was going to be a pet ... I eventually had six [pigs] in cardboard pet store carriers. A few said something along the lines of 'I'm going to a good home!'
It was all perfectly legal, but even so, "it's the most guilty I've felt about anything I've ever done in my life." Roman blasted music in his car the whole way to the free-range farm where the pigs would be slaughtered and inspected, just so he wouldn't have to hear their little squeals. Rumor has it that on cold, quiet nights, you can still hear them in that backseat, scratching and chirping and ... look, guinea pigs don't do a lot. Guinea pig ghosts, doubly so.
Sometimes, even the most morally questionable means don't produce results. In those times, Roman must trick his customers into sucking down Walmart slop, unawares.
"Our wine steward needed more of a certain wine for this French restaurant I was at," he says. "He gave me an empty bottle of wine for reference and set me off. I saw that it wasn't sealed with anything special, only wax and cork, and it gave me an idea. I grabbed a few of the empties of the same kind, washed them out, and went to the local liquor store."
"I knew what color it was when he poured a little out earlier, and I think I had a match from a cheap box of red wine," he continues. "I opened the spouts, filled them up to about where wine usually goes up to, quickly recorked them by putting cheap wine corks from the store in, and made it look as good as new. It had been wax sealed, and I dripped red wax from a cheap candle from the dollar store next door."
The customers appeared to be fooled, but the steward was not.
"He swirled it, frowned, and said 'You got the color right, at least,'" Roman reports. "The next time he asked [for something], he had to say, 'Make sure it's the fucking real deal this time, okay?'"
That's right: He made a sommelier swear. That's almost worse than the guinea pig thing. Almost.
Evan V. Symon is an interviewer, writer and interview finder for the Personal Experiences section at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience you'd like to see? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Disgusting Truths About Every Restaurant (From a Chef) and 6 Things Chefs Don't Want You to Know About Food Trucks.
And don't forget: nothing says esteemed chef like a picture of a domesticated rodent on your kitchen linens.
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