I am sitting at a table that doesn’t exist. I wanted to eat out at a table 13, defying superstition ahead of the third Friday the 13th in this unusually inauspicious year, but it was hard to find one. Only two of the UK’s 14 best restaurants have a table 13, most simply skipping from 12 to 14. Here at London’s Le Gavroche, the closest I can come is to dine at table 12a, a kind of phantom table 13, the cursed spot that dare not speak its name.
“It is absolutely ridiculous,” says Michel Roux Jr, the chef who owns the two-Michelin-starred restaurant.
Indeed, given the outstanding meal I’m devouring, the idea that I might be considered unlucky to be sat here is absurd. However, superstition defies reason.
“I personally would feel very uncomfortable sitting on table 13 or if there were 13 people at the table,” Roux says. “And I would also feel uncomfortable offering a table 13 to somebody.”
According to Jason Atherton, a graduate of Spain’s famous El Bulli and head chef at Pollen Street Social, not having a table 13 “is something that has always happened in restaurants.”
Picking up on Chinese traditions, he says: “If the number eight is somewhere in the business — either the address or the telephone number — this is a good sign,” which is just as well since you’ll find his restaurant at 8-10 Pollen Street.
Le Gavroche general manager Emmanuel Landre says customers are as apprehensive as proprietors. When people book up the whole restaurant and devise their own seating plans, “99 percent of the time they avoid number 13 on purpose.” It may be irrational but “a curse is a curse and nobody wants a curse.”
In many ways it is fitting that the restaurant world should be so full of superstition because one of its oldest forms of triskaidekaphobia — fear of the number 13 (there is no agreed answer as to when and why the superstition about this number began) — is the idea that if 13 people gather at a table, one will be dead within a year.
Although the true genesis of the superstition is unclear, two dining stories are often held up as origins. First, there is the Last Supper, where Jesus ate with his 12 disciples and the 13th man in the room betrayed him. Then there is the Norse legend of the 12 gods invited to a banquet in Valhalla. The party is crashed by Loki, the spirit of strife and mystery, and Balder, the favorite of the gods, is killed. However, as E and MA Radford wrote in their 1949 Encyclopedia of Superstitions: “This would hardly account for the dislike of the Romans and Greeks for the number 13.”
Some, like me, have deliberately sought to defy the 13 myth with their stomachs. In 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition, Nathaniel Lachenmeyer describes the original “Thirteen Club,” created in the US in the 1880s. On the 13th of every month, the group would meet to eat at tables of 13. Five successive US presidents became honorary members, including Theodore Roosevelt.
Thirteen is not the only superstition to permeate the catering industry. Landre says that, like most of the staff there, “when I drop some salt, I take it and throw it over my shoulder, to remove the curse it can bring.”
It’s another food superstition with a Last Supper association. In Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, follow Judas’ right arm from the hand holding the treacherous 30 pieces of silver and you’ll see it has knocked over a salt cellar, a sign of bad luck.
In many ways, food and eating are natural sources of superstition. Top chefs have to be a little obsessional, and that can have its irrational side-effects.
“I’m slightly OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder],” Roux says, “and I do have very funny little things that I keep to myself, like my shoes in my locker are always positioned the same way.”
Superstitions are forms of bogus association that are an inevitable byproduct of the need to learn which foods nourish and even more importantly, which make us ill. The problem is, as the 18th century philosopher David Hume explained so clearly, we never directly observe cause and effect. So if you eat something and become sick, you will assume that the food caused the upset, even though you do not know whether it did so or not. The trouble is that this turns up a lot of false positives and creates all sorts of weird associations. You eat roast chicken and are diagnosed with a serious illness the next day and the meal becomes forever tainted. Thirteen people gather and one dies and the number becomes unlucky.
Superstitions are also sometimes created by the need to reinforce what is simply sensible behavior. Salt was once very valuable, so what better way to discourage waste than to promulgate the myth that spilling it will bring you bad luck? In this case, however, the superstition leads to a perverse consequence. In order to get rid of the devil you invite in by spilling salt, you have to throw a bit over your left shoulder, where he is sitting, to blind him. Deliberate ritual waste thus becomes the way of atoning for accidental, occasional spillage.
Roux has superstitions that have grown out of an understandable reverence for the value of food.
“I absolutely hate seeing a loaf of bread upside down,” he says.
Roux sees this as a kind of religious sacrilege, saying: “Bread is life and should be treated with respect.”
Yet even these justifiable beliefs can take on a supernatural life of their own, on the precautionary principle that: “If you’re not respecting something there could be bad karma.”
So even though Roux admits it’s a bit much to apply his standards to mini-baguettes and small rolls: “If I see it out of the corner of my eye, I’ll automatically flip it the right way up.”
Perhaps those who dismiss such superstitions as mere nonsense are missing the cultural significance of such rituals. Enrico Molino, assistant manager of Le Gavroche, knows how arbitrary superstition is, since he comes from Italy, where 13 has no significance and it’s 17 that is unlucky, with hardly a restaurant in the country having a table bearing the number. When he came to Britain he simply switched one superstition for the other, not because he believed in magic, but to uphold a tradition. It’s the same reason he does the whole salt-throwing thing too.
“I do it because my grandmother used to do it. It’s memory,” he says.
The same is true of other superstitions.
“I think it’s because we want to remember something, isn’t it? We don’t want to get rid of the past, because it’s beautiful, what happened before and what we’ve been told, no?” he says.
There is also one way in which superstition can be turned to our advantage.
“Friday the 13th has always been a quieter Friday than usual,” Roux says.
Even at Le Gavroche, which is fully booked for lunch until October?
“Yes, being superstitious transcends all and everybody. How do you get a table at Le Gavroche? Book on a Friday the 13th,” he says.