A New York Times story has the food world all a-twitter. It’s about a new generation of “purist” chefs who are joining with New York City’s Momofuku restaurateur David Chang to say, “The customer is not always right.”
These are chefs who are saying “no” to diners who want to make substitutions to their dishes. Some have other strict rules for diners that make it clear the chef runs the restaurant – the customers can come in and enjoy the food the way the chef intends – or they can leave.
Rules and fixed menus
Chang, for instance, doesn’t offer vegetarian options for his dishes nor will he make substitutions in dishes off his menu. Some special requests are “ridiculous,” he was quoted as saying in the story. He questions whether the growing number of dietary restrictions claimed by guests are real, or whether the guests are using them as excuses to get the foods their way.
The owner of a diner in New York has a rule that customers can’t order the same thing as another diner at their table – everyone at the table must have a different dish — ostensibly to share. (This rule has a history: It dates back to Paul Prudhomme, the Cajun chef, whose blackened redfish, his most popular dish for diners, nearly wiped out the redfish population; he asked diners to each order something different from his lengthy menu.)
South Florida chefs accommodate substitutions
Several area chefs and restaurateurs said the New York City chefs are simply arrogant – or lazy.
“We are in the hospitality business – hospitality is Florida’s number one source of income and if you are a cook, then cook!” said Zach Bell, chef at Cafe Boulud in Palm Beach. “(Speaking) for my kitchen – we had better have a valid reason for not being able to do something – that is, not have the product in-house, or we don’t have the resources. But if my entremetier can’t bang out an omelet at 9 o’clock (at a guest’s request) then he should probably find another line of work.”
He’s even more opinionated about the attitude of the chefs who think their work is “art” that shouldn’t be touched. “It is not a (expletive) art! It is a craft – a metier – technique!”
The New York chefs are out of line, said Fran Marincola. He’s owner of Caffe Luna Rosa, an 18-year-old oceanfront Italian in Delray Beach. “I sent the article to my chefs and other restaurant owners with the comment, ‘This is what happens when the back of the house runs the front.’
“The object of having a successful restaurant is to make money – this is the definition of success. We want the customer to feel like it is their kitchen. They pay the bills and the more ways I can please them, the better I like it. It is my pleasure!”
He referred to a high-profile restaurant that opened in Delray Beach and closed in less than a year. “My wife and I went there, and I asked for a salt shaker. The waiter said, ‘The chef feels the food is seasoned correctly when it is served.’ Is he kidding me? I never went back – and six weeks later, they closed!”
Burt Rapoport, another long-time South Florida restaurateur and owner of Henry’s, and the new Deck 84, both in Delray Beach, said, “Our (restaurants’) culture is that we always try to find a way to say ‘yes!’ to our guests.”
Substitutions, yes – but timing counts
Oliver Saucy is a chef/co-owner of Cafe Maxx in Pompano Beach, so has a perspective of both positions. Cafe Maxx has long been known for unique fare, prepared to order. Saucy makes substitutions whenever practical.
“Lots of chef do no substitutions, period – end of story,” he said. He ticks off their excuses: “‘It’s just too much to keep track of’ ‘Do you really expect me to work that hard?’ “I never quite got that line of thinking. Could be a reason we’re still around and going strong. We honor most requests, special orders don’t upset us. Most items we prepare are cooked to order, so to change or omit a simple ingredient, leave out the butter or salt, or switch a protein onto another comparable set-up is relatively simple.
“Many have dietary restrictions, too – Atkins (diet), lactose intolerance or a wheat allergy.”
Like most chefs, he’s aware of the foods that can be eaten by those with restrictions, and in general is able to easily accommodate them – within reason.
Only occasionally, the answer is no, he said. “If a customer’s request is too difficult to handle and/or any of the other guests will be affected negatively because of time, ingredient availability or preparation issues, I will hold the line.” A request for “bearnaise sauce during the dinner rush,” will be denied, he said.
Chef Nick Morfogen of Delray Beach’s 32 East, routinely says “no” on crushing nights during the dinner crush in season. “On busy nights, I tell my servers that there will be no special orders permitted. On the other hand, during off-season, I do whatever I have to do to keep the guests happy. I do make exceptions for dietary restrictions and allergies and accommodate them.”
All diners affected by one request
Morfogen says all diners should have a good experience – not just those who want to create their own menu simply because they can. “Because of our size, seating, and the way we take reservations, they force me to put a hold on special orders. In other words, I am not going to spend an unusual amount of time trying to make one guest happy and end up sacrificing the tables and guests that follow.”
Dean Max, chef at the newly opened 3800 Ocean at the Marriott in Singer Island, and at 3200 Ocean in Fort Lauderdale, agrees. “Most restaurants are a place to be fed and if you want something left off – no problem.”
But he also sometimes says no. “I don’t mind taking anything off a dish because some diners just don’t like certain items, but I will not freely let someone add something else to it instead. I do this not of arrogance, but more of a business sense. When a table of six has each dish that is picked apart and rearranged, it slows that table and the whole restaurant execution down, spoiling a bunch of people’s experience.
“Why should the sweet couple on table 14 not get their food in time because some finicky diners at another table want things their way? It’s a domino effect when diners act this way.”
Charging for changes
Not all foods are equal – and cost is a factor when expensive foods are substituted for others. Diners should expect to pay when that happens, they said.
“In the modern world,” Max said, “prices have gone up dramatically for products and we have not passed that on to the customer, in order to remain competitive. So it’s already reduced our net profits. For me to let some diner take off the potato puree and roasted beets on their halibut and replace it with the white asparagus and abalone mushrooms from the bronzini dish, well, frankly, I am losing even more of my profits now.
That can’t be spelled out on every menu. “To communicate on a daily changing menu a document of acceptable substitutes would be overwhelming and take away from our other focus in executing perfectly. Now the server would have to come back to the kitchen to interrupt the chef and find out the replacement of a 50-cent beet and 75-cent potato garnish that don’t match the $4 in cost for the white asparagus and exotic mushrooms.
“If you don’t like spinach, I’ll take it off your dish – no problem. But if you want some black truffle risotto that goes on another dish instead, plan on paying for it as a side dish.”
Boulud’s Bell agrees. “Diners should expect to pay for requests that would obviously cause us to incur more costs. I do have a problem with arrogant customers who don’t feel they should be charged extra – chances are they charge for their extra time at their law firms, etc.”
Diners aren’t chefs
Customer-designed dishes sometimes don’t work, either. They often aren’t realistic, culinary-wise, and chefs cringe at having to make certain food pairings they would never put on their menus.
Ken Rzab, chef/owner of Rhythm Cafe in West Palm Beach, said, “There is a middle ground. I will accommodate any special request that is possible, with the exception of putting garlic in mashed potatoes. If you want that, I’ll give you the garlic and you can put it in yourself.” His restaurant posts a partly tongue-in-cheek list of “rules” for diners. (Read it here.)
“One problem we have had in the past is when we have a dish with eight ingredients and the customer asks that we leave out five, and then complains that the dish is bland and boring. Sorry – you dissected the dish,” he said. “The requests for substitutions over the years has led us to a menu that has built-in substitutions. The dish is offered a certain way – if you don’t like that, we have specific substitutions available.”
“When orders make it to the kitchen for preparation and the guest add all their special requests, I cannot be certain the food experience is going to be as well as originally planned,” said Chef/owner Anthony dePalma, of Dolce dePalma in West Palm Beach. He likes to know just why a diner will substitute a food. It’s do-able in most cases, he said, but it doesn’t make it right. “And yes, we are starting with fresh ingredients and cook a la carte, but there are reasons why certain items don’t work together.”
Morfogen said, “In the past when I have gone out of my way to customize a dish, I have come to realize that the guest often times does not like what we made because it doesn’t make any sense. It ends up as a lose-lose situation for me because the guest ends up judging us on a dish I would not ever serve.
“For example; I buy marlin (kajiki) from Hawaii on occasion, and it has to be served raw or seared rare or medium-rare, and it is delicious. Cooked past medium-rare, the fish is tastes like cardboard. My staff knows that if the guest insists on it being ‘cooked thru’ that I refuse to take it off the check when they don’t like it.”
Plan ahead – and ask nicely
The last-minute, unrealistic rush-hour requests are usually denied everywhere, but chefs are always willing to work with diners, they say, who give them advance notice.
“We try to encourage people to let us know about dietary restrictions ahead of time and to make special requests for future visits so that we are prepared for them,” Bell said. “We have customers who eat here several times a week – who can blame them when they need to lay low on the butter, et al? We have a guest that comes in on Mondays to discuss his menu for the coming Saturday – for seven years now – I don’t even think he has seen our menu. We treat it as a challenge, whether he wants crispy veal head ‘like he had at Daniel,’ or shad roe, or an old-school cheese soufflé for his mother!”
Rzab said, “I have a customer who, on his first visit, brought two pages of dietary restrictions and suggested dishes. He asked (if) for future visits if I could make him a special meal according to the restrictions. He gives me at least three days’ notice and we create a new dish for him each time he comes in. No problem.”
It’s a business
The chefs and restaurateurs admit not all guests can be satisfied, but most are reasonable. “Sometimes they’ve only had bad food memories with certain foods,” dePalma said. Brussels sprouts out of a can, or soggy, mushy mushrooms turn many off those, for instance – they are the two most substituted ingredients on his menu.
“From time to time, I have approached guests or just sent a side of the food they didn’t want to the table and asked them to just try it. If they don’t like it, I will buy them dinner.” He’s relatively sure the proper preparation will change their minds, he said. “Once I challenge a guest to try something, 99 percent are so grateful. They actually care about what we do.”
DePalma notes that in “foodie cities” chefs are more apt to have egos about their food and their experience.
“Maybe this works in New York,” said Ernie DeBlasi, of Caffe Luna Rosa. “We had our busiest week in Luna Rosa history last week because we painstakingly go the extra mile for our guests. Let the other chefs be snobby – we’ll keep breaking records.”
Bottom line, Rapoport said, is, “Every restaurateur and chef should ask themselves – ‘Are we here to please our guests, or are they here to please us?‘”