Thursday, March 03, 2011

Have It My Way . . .

Balsamic Egg
My vegetarian "Balsamic Egg" @ Melisse, with balsamic caramelized onions instead of the usual caviar

Why am I not surprised that a little twitter debate about foodservice turn into something like this?
Might as well take this straight into Godwin territory since I've been pondering on the idea of "(food) Nazis" for awhile and their "my way or the highway" idea of serving dishes, sooner giving potential patrons the boot rather than swap or omit an ingredient. And the diners who love them . . . are they devout believers in the chef's unwavering culinary vision? Or masochist flocks of sheep idly following whereever the sheperd leads them?

Like my views on most other things, I'm in shades of gray for this matter. Even when I was working in the foodservice biz, I don't subscribe to the "customer is always right" mindset (esp. when I was @ a coffee bar and people kept expecting me to make drinks just like S***bucks... a standard macchiato is not a mostly-milk and caramel-ladened beverage! RAWR! But I digress...) But on the other end of the spectrum, the notion of unilaterally refusing all spec requests just feels wrong--especially for an industry based on the idea of hospitality (rather than hostility.)

I'm not one who typically make special requests when I dine out (the vegetarian egg on top was a standard @ Melisse's meatless tasting menu,) but it just irks me to have that option taken away (something akin to how pro-choicers aren't actively seeking abortions.) And people who love (food) Nazis typically reply "if you can't deal with having it the chef's way, then don't go" and honestly, I'm disinclined to head to those places. But I just feel sad for all the first-time patrons who, not having done a little homework beforehand, get bluntly rebuked and then are saddled with ordering something less-than-ideal for them or having to find another place to eat at.

I get it took considerable R&D for the chef to create their dishes to be enjoyed as is and that spec. requests at the very least throws an annoying wrench into the cadence of things. I also get the "trust me" concept and have a certain admiration for a chef's ballsiness in doing that, but I also see trust as a two way street. Just like how diners are trusting the restaurant staff to prepare something delicious, why can't the staff occasionally trust a customer's deviant personal taste and honor their request to have something subsituted/taken out? Especially when it's something as simple as holding the pickle on the burger or for the dressing come on the side--and not as absurd as ordering a BLT but swap the bacon out for --- (yes, another WTF? order I'd gotten while working @ a sandwich/salad joint.)

There are varying degrees of appropriateness for switches and scraps, I'm not for catering to a picky eater's every whim, but not universally denying all requests either.

Despite pulling out racist card, Midtown Lunch does make an interesting analogy between chefs and artists . . .
. . . to which I rebut
because operating a restaurant is more akin to a live performance - with different & everchanging audience, vibe, etc. - and not just a one-off recording of a song or molding of a sculpture.

But at the end of the day, it is what it is -- given the great diversity of food scene here in LA, there's something to cater to every whim (or lack thereof.) Truly finicky diners who can't stop customizing everything they order can go to the likes of the have-it-your-way establishments, and (food) Nazis will still have their fanbases who are willing take it however it's dished out. And while I don't often dine @ places falling in either extreme of that spectrum, I'm definitely a lot more cautious before checking out places falling in the latter.

AND--having said all that, curious to see how everyone feels about the (food) Nazi phenomenon . . .


SC said...

I feel lie I am in the same boat as you. I get that a lot of work and thought went into the dishes, but it would be nice if chefs considered alternatives for their dishes.. like the one you pictures at Melisse.
At the same time, I think it's only courteous to first call and make sure they can accommodate you.
I also think it helps, as vegetarians, to make requests because it lets them know that we enjoy their food too and we deserve to be considered - not just with a mushroom pasta dish. I hope that last bit made sense

Anonymous said...


Aer Conditionat said...

I’m not going to say anything about the debate on Twitter, but I am going to say something about this vegetarian balsamic egg, which looks absolutely delicious.

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Zach said...

I guess I'm not surprised that somebody who feels this way about restaurants would also have no sense of humor.

"Racism card?" Surely you're kidding...

In all seriousness though, this just shows how much food has changed over the years. And as more and more chefs take their craft seriously, I don't think it is unreasonable that many of them would see themselves as artists. Maybe at one time food was about hospitality, but there is nothing that says that is a requirement of all restaurants. There are plenty of restaurants where hospitality is a huge part of what they do, and you have every right to eat at those places and not eat at others. And I think people with restrictions on what they can or can't eat, or don't want to eat, should probably do a bit more research before eating at a restaurant. Make sure the place is accomodating before making your plans.

As for your point about live concerts, to me going to a place like Momofuku and asking for something to make Vegetarian, or going to Father's Office and asking for a burger to made "Kosher" is like going to a Garth Brooks concert and expecting Hip Hop. It's just not what those particular restaurants do. If you don't do your research, that's your fault.

Of course it's easy for me to take this position. I will eat absolutely anything, and when I eat at a restaurant I'm much more concerned with experiencing the chef's vision than I am with my own personal tastes. I sympathise with people who show up to a restaurant not realizing they can't eat anything. But I don't sympathise with people who take out their frustration on the restaurant. Just as you are allowed to choose to eat a certain way, chefs have every right to cook a certain way.

I'm not saying people don't have the right to dislike these restaurants... but I don't understand people who personally attack chefs who cook like this. If all artists throughout history were forced to cater their art to the whims of a paying public, Moma would be filled with a lot of Thomas Kinkade.

sophia said...

I like Zach's comparison between singers/painters and chefs...but the truth is not everyone thinks of food as art, but mere sustenance. And then there are people who maybe enjoy food, but only in a certain way.

When it comes to people who don't view food other than calories and nutrition, I have nothing to say except I don't know why they would be in a fancy high-end restaurant in which the chef's creation is worthy to be called a "serious craft." Why not just stay at home and cook quinoa, or go to Olive Garden and order salad and saltless breadsticks.

As for the people with picky tastes, I think they should just suck it up and open up their narrow tastes. If they truly like food, they should be willing to appreciate new tastes and experiences.

I don't really take a definite side here. It really depends on the place, but ultimately my opinion is that someone who is willing to pay big bucks for a meal should have the common sense to do his or her homework before spending that money. Unless it's a serious allergy or whatever, they should be mentally prepared to just appreciate whatever the chef puts before them.

gourmetpigs said...

"Picky tastes" aside, there are those with allergies (and apparently strong dislike to cilantro is genetic or whatever), and it's a shame that a restaurant would not cater to those as well.

As for the analogy to painters and artists, they can generally do whatever they want, but I'm pretty sure on commissioned paintings they do cater to their clients.

Jean | Delightful Repast said...

If a person has an allergy or very strong dislike, he could call the restaurant a day or two in advance and discuss it and very likely be accommodated most places.


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