A Culinary Couple Debates Whether Babies Should Be Banned From Restaurants

Ed Hardy and Francoise Villeneuve have a 7-month-old baby, about the same age as the wailing tot at Alinea that set off a nationwise stir after chef-owner Grant Achatz tweeted about the incident. As culinary professionals, they also have a unique perspective: would they themselves take their baby to a well-heeled establishment for a sit-down dinner?

Hardy is a well-traveled chef who — he's announcing here — has just taked his next executive chef job at Quench in Rockville, Maryland, while his wife Villeneuve is a CIA grad and chef who also writes about food (her website features her recipes and photography).

The Alinea crying baby incident left this new parent/culinary couple wondering: Should babies be banned from restaurants?

Ed's take: Interesting question. When I first heard about the situation I felt some sympathy towards both parties. But then I started to think about the culinary nature of Alinea, and I now have to say, even as a parent of a baby myself, that the couple was absolutely wrong in bringing the baby. Consider for a minute: no sane parent would bring a baby to an opera, ballet or musical. Now consider: what is Alinea? Is it a restaurant? Or is it culinary theater? I would never seriously consider banning a baby from any of my restaurants, but Alinea is and always has been a different species of culinary animal. I feel that it is a lot closer to culinary theater. People go to most restaurants to enjoy conversation, fellowship, convenience, a change of perspective and a choice of cuisine that is different (and better) than what might be currently residing in their refrigerator for some sort of price that makes sense to most Americans. Alinea doesn't provide any of those things. What it DOES provide is entertainment. Specifically, food entertainment. It's perfectly acceptable that the conductor of this performance would not welcome a screaming baby. So yes, Grant, ban the screaming kids. To be honest, I'm a little surprised that through careful introspective analysis and honesty the Alinea team didn't arrive at this conclusion a little earlier.

As a chef I always welcome babies to my restaurants. As a new parent, I have a newfound respect for places that have thought ahead and have a plan for infants and kids. A well-executed kids menu with interesting yet accessible options? Bravo. I'm impressed by places that have highchairs that aren't an afterthought, and staff that seat families with young children in thoughtful places (i.e. not right next to the table most likely to be grumpy about a baby that might make a little noise). I'm doubly appreciative of smaller, independent, chef-driven operations (like mine) that succeed in all of the above, because they've had to try a lot harder than your neighborhood chain restaurant to successfully cater to kids.

Should restaurants provide baby food? What a novel concept. My vote is "yes," for the simple reason that we always have fruit, vegetables and a Vita-prep. Why would we not try to make a mother happy? How much could a little fresh, local vegetables simply blanched and pureed cost us? (Answer: not very much at all!) Should I have considered this sooner? Probably, but it took a screaming baby and fatherhood for me to come around to it.

Francoise's take: We have a son nearly as old as the Alinea baby. Would I take him out to Alinea? No. But then I probably wouldn't go to Alinea without him either. I have every respect for Chef Achatz and his artistry. But to be frank, I can't afford to drop $350+ on a meal, whether or not it includes the high-concept theatrical jazz. If I could, I still wouldn't. Eating out is about having fun. Getting out of the house, spending time with friends, or family or loved ones. And sharing some good food while leaving my cares behind me. For me, that experience is a little less fun when it's coupled with the anxiety of dropping enough money to feed a large family in a developing country for a year. Don't get me wrong; I dine out a fair amount, sometimes at fine dining restaurants, sometimes at more casual joints. Many times I bring my baby with me. When I do, it's often at lunch, when crowds are smaller and the hoopla that comes along with checking a stroller and getting out the highchair is less of a pain for the restaurant to handle. And sometimes it's at dinner. In those cases, I usually stick to more casual restaurants, where having a kid around won't be as big of a deal. It's less of a quiet atmosphere, so you know you're not ruining someone's date when the baby makes a small noise or two.

Some folks are outraged about this Alinea incident not because someone brought a baby to a restaurant, but because someone brought a baby to Alinea, which is more of a hushed, revered temple to restaurant-goers. Whether the restaurant is fine dining or a noodle place, if your baby is being loud and annoying, it's your duty to take it outside, or to the powder room and calm it down before you return to the table. Because someone is only spending $25 as opposed to several hundred dollars, does it follow that they should be tormented with shrieks reminiscent of Jurassic Park? Consideration is consideration, no matter where you are. And parents should use their heads about where they take their kids. My son is pretty angelic, all things considered, but after an hour and a half in a high chair, he gets majorly antsy. So I know not to take him out for a leisurely, 4-hour dinner at a restaurant. Because it will be a disaster. It will disturb the other diners. Not to mention, it will be a pain for him, and for me. If you know your kid starts screaming after 30 minutes in a high chair? Don't take them to a fine dining restaurant with a mandatory gazillion-course menu.

Part of my job as a parent is preparing my kid to face the world. I'd like food to be a part of that, including dining out. And I don't see why parents should have to be treated like lepers because we have kids. But sometimes, it makes more sense to accept that yes, you do give up some things when you have kids, like expensive, lengthy meals (the money now funneled towards college tuition). Or yes, to get a sitter.