One of the most challenging aspects of being a chef is trying to figure out what people actually want. There are those guests that order straight from the menu, those who like to switch up components and those who confuse a restaurant for a grocery store.
I have never understood why some restaurants insist on "no substitutions, no changes." I'm probably going to take some grief from other chefs about this, but I think that part of being a successful chef (or host) involves remaining flexible. I'm not suggesting that we should sacrifice our integrity, only that we should know when to step aside and allow people to eat what they want. Why should I care if you want to eat unseasoned baked chicken on a plate with no accompaniments? As long as you enjoy it, that's what matters. Do I think the chicken would be better with some homemade noodles and vegetables and a tasty pan gravy? Absolutely, but I'm not the one paying for it, the customer is.
That being said, sometimes we as chefs do have to put our feet down.
You don't want the sauce? No problem. You want the vegetables instead of the potatoes? No problem. You want a prime filet instead of the fish? No problem, though I'll have to charge more. You want something that's not on the menu at all? That's a problem.
If you're a finicky eater, don't ask the chef to "cook for you." Just order something simple, and be very exact in describing what you want. If you're a vegan (i.e., you don't eat anything to do with animals) and you're going to a steakhouse, call ahead and give the chef some time to prepare something. Don't just show up expecting to be wowed, and then be visibly or audibly disappointed that you're only offered a grilled vegetable plate because you only have 30 minutes before the show that you've had tickets for six months for starts.
There are usually more ingredients in a dish than what's listed on the menu. If you have any allergies or dislikes, be up-front with your wait team so we can do our best to accommodate your needs. Don't wait until the dish is in front of you (or worse, after you've tasted it) to explain your dietary restrictions. It's easier to make changes before the dish goes out of the kitchen rather than halting the flow of the kitchen and remaking or starting the dish again from scratch.
Bottom line: Go out and eat great food and drink great wine, but think ahead. If you're craving something special make sure you go where you can get it.
I'd love to hear comments from chefs and/or fine dining veterans on their experiences with special requests, substitutions and adjustments.
Hoyt Hill Jr — Nashville, TN — September 19, 2007 3:02pm ET
Andrew Bielecki — Boston, MA — September 19, 2007 4:23pm ET
Anacleto Ludovic — paris france — September 19, 2007 5:49pm ET
Dan Perlman — Buenos Aires — September 19, 2007 6:47pm ET
Joseph Karpowicz — Stony Brook, NY — September 19, 2007 9:49pm ET
Karl Mark — Geneva, IL. — September 19, 2007 9:56pm ET
Hoyt Hill Jr — Nashville, TN — September 21, 2007 1:39pm ET
Dana D'anzi — September 21, 2007 7:12pm ET
Dan Perlman — Buenos Aires — September 22, 2007 12:41am ET
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