Munchies

The Grossest Displays of Wealth I've Seen Working at High End Restaurants

Sometimes, a Chihuahua needs a rare sirloin steak.
05 March 2020, 12:25pm
champagne
Photo: VICE

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

In 2019, a Reddit post asked people to share the most outrageous demands they've ever encountered working in the high-end hospitality world. Among the replies were the story of a woman paying $100 to spit in a waiter's face, Swedish rich kids ordering expensive champagne just to pour it down the drain, and a surprising number of stories involving dogs.

Fascinated by the stories from this usually impenetrable world, I decided to dig up what I could in Italy, home to some of the world's most luxurious restaurants. After speaking to staff from five of Italy's fanciest eateries, I learned three things: no matter what, staff are never allowed to lose their cool, there are no limits to what rich people will ask for, and finding people willing to go on the record about this kind of stuff is incredibly difficult.

Of all the hotels and three Michelin-star restaurants I called, almost every one either hung up on me or thought I was prank-calling them. But not all of them.

Until recently, Valentina* was a sommelier at a famous hotel restaurant in Venice – the kind of place frequented by incredibly rich people. "I've seen a lot of strange things," she told me over the phone. "When a wealthy or important client made a reservation at the restaurant, we used to give them the biggest table, with a sofa and a view of the [Venice] Lagoon. More than once they made a real scene because it wasn't a table in plain sight, where everyone could see them."

On the other end of the scale, she was also often asked to deny the fact someone well known was very clearly eating at the restaurant. "When there were VIPs or famous actors, the rule to protect them was always to deny they were there," she said. "Perhaps someone was sitting at a table next to Spielberg or Robert Redford – if they asked, you had to cover for them by saying, 'Who, that guy? No, you're wrong, madam.' It was so strange, because sometimes guests were actually sitting right next to these famous people."

Valentina also witnessed some stuff you wouldn't expect to happen in a high end restaurant. "One night, a couple showed up – she was very elegant and beautiful, he was wearing chains around his neck and his shirt unbuttoned," she said. "We saw the woman writing in a notebook all night long. We thought she could be a food critic or a journalist, but eventually found out it was a therapy session. After dinner – or the session – he asked her to marry him, she said no and he got up as if nothing had happened, leaving a really generous tip."

Piazza Duomo is the only three-Michelin star restaurant in Italy's Piedmont region. As one of the world's top 30 restaurants, they're used to indulging clients' every whim.

"People come here to eat from all over the world. We're not a hotel, so the clientele is really varied – they come here to have an experience," said the restaurant's sommelier, Vincenzo Donatiello. "There was this couple in their sixties with a Chihuahua. When we took their order, they ordered for the dog first: a veal sirloin steak cooked rare."

Roberto Riccardo Tornabene is the head waiter at Felix Lo Basso Restaurant, which overlooks Piazza Duomo in Milan. He told me about one customer who "sat down and lit a cigarette in the middle of the restaurant, as if that was totally normal". Another, he said, "called a taxi and sent it to the chemist for nicotine patches. The taxi driver came back and the customer said the patches were no good, so he sent him back to the shop. When he arrived for the second time, the customer had no cash, so we had to pay the taxi."

Next up: Rome, home to the three Michelin star La Pergola, Heinz Beck's restaurant in the Cavalieri Waldorf Astoria hotel. Here, your every wish is their command – from the Russian tycoon who demands the pool is opened for him in winter, costing the hotel thousands of euros, to the woman who asks for a single cigarette and gets an entire pack on a silver platter.

Marco Reitano has been a sommelier at La Pergola for 25 years, so he's seen it all. "If we're talking about wealth, then I have to talk about wine," he told me. "Today, we have a cellar with about 3,400 bottles. Once, a regular customer studied the 1982 Bordeaux list for a long time. It's maybe the best [vintage] in history. Eventually, he ordered seven bottles for himself – to taste the difference between them. The bill was over €20,000 euros." Marco got to taste those opened bottles, too.

"Another regular is scared of the colour black," he continued. "So when there's dishes on dark porcelain we serve them on white plates."

What Rich People Really Worry About

Marco also had some heartwarming stories: "It was summer and we had a very important family from Asia dining on the terrace. We asked the seven-year-old son if he liked the Colosseum. He said yes, but that he was sad about not being able to see the gladiators. Well, here at the hotel have an occasional 'toga' dress-up party. So we sent a good-looking, tall and ripped waiter to entertain the kid, dressed as a gladiator."

There are many luxury hotels in Rome, but Hotel Hassler – known for its restaurant, Imàgo – is one of the best. "One of the strangest things was when a family showed up for dinner with precision scales because they wanted us to cook the gourmet menu with specific weights," he said. "From wine to oil, with specific amounts for each family member, of course."

"One of the funniest things," he continued, "was when a Japanese lady got sick and fainted. Her husband was holding her head and I called the chef, worried. The husband called me over, put my hand under his wife's head and continued to eat. The chef was amused, but having lived in Japan he knew that Japanese people often stay composed, even in extreme situations."

So there you have it: obscenely wealthy people do the funniest things. And just remember, the next time you feel bad about asking a waiter for more condiments, don't – some people order steak for their dogs.