This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Italy.
Names have been changed to ensure anonymity. Interviews have been edited for clarity. For someone of my generation, it's not difficult to picture an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant. Lots of blood reds and/or dark colors in the décor and mise en place, a counter in the front where cold plates are prepared, a kitchen hidden behind a curtain from which hot dishes emerge, and a menu you more or less know the contents of before you open it. A safe place—largely predictable, maybe, but pleasant for that very reason.
But what's an all-you-can-eat place like on the other side of the counter? What does the begloved youth who prepares our rolls think of us? And the waitress who, within ten minutes, fills our table with the 34 plates we asked for, but clearly won't be able to finish? And the owner who stands at the register, surveying all the goings-on in her territory? I went knocking on the doors of thirty Milan AYCE restaurants to find out.
The first thing I noticed is that the young men and women who work in AYCEs are somewhat reluctant to talk about what goes on. Or they immediately send you to their managers, who certainly don't have time to waste on frivolities like, "Hello, I write for MUNCHIES, VICE's food website," or feel that there's nothing particularly special in what they do, or mutter something unintelligible, the gist of which is usually, "I'm sorry, but please leave." After being thus bounced from twenty or so restaurants, I had the idea to promise anonymity to anyone kind-hearted enough to talk to me.
"The ones who order nigiri, futomaki, uramaki, and chirashi as soon as they sit down, you already know they won't finish it all."
The strategy worked. The first person I managed to speak to, Wei, is 25 years old and works as a waiter in an all-you-can-eatery in the middle of town where you can get lunch for about €13, dinner for €22. I asked him who, in his opinion, are the most problematic customers. He thought for a moment, then said, "The ones who order too much." From what he told me, servers are excellent at identifying the poor wretches who, faced with the menu's seemingly endless options, overestimate their capacity for ingesting rice: "There are the ones who order nigiri, futomaki, uramaki, maki and chirashi as soon as they sit down," Wei told me, "And you already know they won't finish it." I'll be the first to admit using tactics I'm not particularly proud of at times—meaning every time the part of my brain that's in charge of moderation went into short circuit at the sight of the words "tiger roll." I bite uramaki in half, eating only the filling and leaving little heaps of rice on my plate. I break nigiri into little pieces, spreading them around on the plates remaining on the table. I hide scraps of chirashi under my napkin and get up from the table with shame in my heart, each time convinced I'd gotten away with it. Wei shattered my illusions. "We see everything. We're used to people who don't manage to finish their plates. But usually we let them go; it's not a problem." Pleased to hear that I hadn't inflicted too much damage upon the all-you-can-eat system with my leftovers, I asked Wei if there are any times when he doesn't give the customers a pass. "Yes," he answered, "When they pretend the plate isn't theirs. I always see what they ordered, what came and what didn't." In the restaurant where he works, in fact, they have those little LED screens with stylus pens for ordering. So just know that you can play dumb as much as you want, but if you ordered too much food, you might get a better outcome by conceding your surrender rather than questioning the origin of the plate of udon that just arrived on your table.
"I've seen nigiri in the potted plant in front of the restaurant, sometimes even hidden in the bathroom wastebasket. One time a drunk guy threw his chopsticks at me to get my attention."
The restaurant Shi works in is much bigger than average: It's a former warehouse/superstore that was transformed into one of those enormous AYCE buffets that offer a little bit of everything, like seafood pasta to assorted meats. Shi doesn't have to deal with orders; the customers serve themselves, but she still has to watch out for the inevitable wastefulness. "A lot of them try to hide the rice," she told me—probably a consequence of the surroundings, because if you're not afraid the waiter might appear at any moment, obviously you feel reasonably safe making your move and leaving with your pockets bulging with eight nigiri stuffed in a napkin.
Shi also gets customers who are more creative. "I've seen nigiri in the potted plant in front of the restaurant," she told me, "Sometimes even hidden in the bathroom garbage"—or troublesome: "I speak Italian pretty well, but sometimes they talk to me like I don't understand anything, and it's unpleasant. Then there are the ones who yell at you because a dish is empty, and if you can stay calm you can explain to them that a new tray is coming. One time a drunk guy threw his chopsticks at me to get my attention." Unfortunately, there's still no way of telling whether or not a person entering your restaurant is socially inept.
"A lot of people want to use only chopsticks and can't manage to get it to their mouths. So they stab it, they break it… we even bring towels at the beginning of the meal, just for their hands."
The restaurant Hiroshi manages is not a typical all-you-can-eat: The interior is dominated by wooden accents, green-hued carpets and decorations, and the off-white backgrounds of the traditional prints that hang on the walls. The chopsticks are ceramic, and the staff is entirely Japanese. They decided to add the eat-what-you-want option alongside their traditional à la carte offerings a few years back. "Business has been better since we started doing all-you-can-eat," he said, "But it costs us a little more than normal to keep the quality high." I asked Hiroshi what were the strangest things he saw happen while running the restaurant. He told me about a particular type of person whom I would categorize as "adventurous": "We have dishes on the menu that you don't find elsewhere," he explained, "nattō, for example." Nattō is made by letting soybeans ferment until they take on a sticky, stringy texture, and a flavor that many Italians might not be prepared for. "It's on the all-you-can-eat menu; a lot of people want to try it and then when we bring it, we stick around." Hiroshi gets a kick out of watching what happens at the table: "They sniff it, taste it, and then they'll force themselves to finish it, even if it tastes terrible to them." Hiroshi also enjoys watching us abuse the sushi: "It's ok to pick up the roll with your hands," he said, "But a lot of people want to use only chopsticks and can't manage to get it to their mouths. So they stab it, they break it… we even bring towels at the beginning of the meal, just for their hands." If you're one of those people who by the end of the meal have a hopelessly soiled tablecloth and a heap of rice in their little dish of soy sauce, perhaps you just learned something. "You don't eat ginger with sushi," Hiroshi continued, "You eat it between dishes to cleanse the palate." Unfortunately, many customers don't know this, and more than once he's had to assuage people who, in one bite, swallow all the ginger and/or wasabi on their plates, which only results in self-inflicted fits of coughing and tears.
What I'm left with: Working in an AYCE sushi place isn't so different from working in, say, a pizzeria. There's just a lot more rice around at the end of service, and a lot more chuckling under your breath while watching customers embarrass themselves. As one of the many managers who showed me the door put it: "I really don't know what to tell you if you're looking for strange stories. I have a normal job. Now excuse me, I have to work."