The art of flambé, or setting dishes on fire, has been with us for a long time, although its popularity peaked in the days when restaurant dining was more ritualistic and less sophisticated than it is today. The quintessential flambé dish is Bananas Foster, supposedly invented at Brennan’s Restaurant in New Orleans in 1951. This dessert consists of bananas cooked in a sauce of butter, brown sugar and cinnamon, then set ablaze with rum before being served over vanilla ice cream. Flambé dishes are usually executed on a cart drawn up to the customer’s table, and the proximity of flame to diner accounts for some of the drama and excitement.
These theatrics went awry last week at Ozona Blue Grill, a restaurant in Palm Harbor. During the preparation of Bananas Foster, the dessert caught fire and seriously burned four customers, two of whom had to be hospitalized. In the wake of this, many restaurants are “reassessing” their flambé policy. At Dimitri’s on the Water in nearby Tarpon Springs, one of the most popular dishes is an appetizer called saganaki (flaming cheese); the establishment has decided to limit pyrotechnics to one corner of the restaurant, at least five feet away from the customers.
At Ozona Blue, one of the major problems was the use of 151-proof rum, which was stronger and more volatile than it needed to be. Still, the procedure is dangerous, with the waitstaff actually bearing most of the risk—one false move and the bottle of 151 is likely to explode in their hands. Regardless of their assertions that they’ve prepared the dish dozens or hundreds of times, servers have no real training in this area. They’re not cooks, and their main focus is putting on a show which will hopefully generate a larger tip. It’s no accident that all the other hallmarks of formal service (filleting a sole or carving a game bird tableside) have totally disappeared in this era of chain restaurants and waiters named Todd.
Call me old-fashioned, but let’s have food prepared in the kitchen by professionals, and spare customers their first and second-degree burns.