Quantcast
Restaurant Confessionals

Menu Substitution Is a Sign of Bad Manners

I’ve been a chef for seven years, and in the last year or so, I’ve noticed a sharp increase in the amount of people asking for elements to be removed from dishes; bits to be swapped from one onto the other. It drives me fucking insane.

Munchies Staff

Oberstes Foto: Matthew Hine | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments.

Chef, 28, London.

I'm going to cut to the chase and say I'd put good money on there not being a single chef out there who meets an intolerance related substitution request with a genuine, "no problem, matey" smile. Unless, of course, they're working at somewhere like noma, where you can plan exactly what you're feeding people weeks or months in advance.

The kitchen I run offers small plates, a few bigger dishes, and two desserts. The menu is pretty long considering the size of our kitchen and staff in general, but I believe in giving as much variety as possible from the produce that we get. Squid, for example, is on a couple of dishes today because we got a beautiful load of it in this morning. People don't always just want it fried with garlic and chili—I'm serving it raw, sliced as thin as paper, with various pickled bits. Right this minute, actually, I'm using the ink from their sacs to make a mayonnaise to go with whatever fish the fisherman gives me tomorrow.

This is all to say that as a cook who—like many chefs—lets producers and their supplies dictate what I put on the menu any given day or week. The dishes are carefully thought through results of the best produce, what I can offer at both good value to the customer and make money for the business. It's a constant balancing act.

I've been a chef for seven years. In the last year or so, I've noticed a sharp increase in the amount of people asking for elements to be removed from dishes; bits to be swapped from one onto the other. It drives me fucking insane.

What is important to say, though, is that I have tremendous sympathy for people with food intolerances. One of my kitchen porters has celiac, and I've seen the reaction that gluten can have on someone with an autoimmune disease like that. It's not pretty. Especially if you use the toilet after them. Christ.

I've been a chef for seven years. In the last year or so, I've noticed a sharp increase in the amount of people asking for elements to be removed from dishes; bits to be swapped from one onto the other. It drives me fucking insane.

I'm also not saying for a second that there aren't lots of people out there—including customers of mine—who have all sorts of dietary issues, but as a chef, it's awful to assume that everyone making these kinds of requests is doing so because they might have read something that morning on the dangers of gluten or whatever, but I do.

Something I have tried doing recently is asking whoever is serving the customer making a request for an absence of breadcrumbs on a piece of fish, for example, to ask whether they are celiac. This is because various elements of other things in the kitchen—sauces, stocks, tempura batters, etc.—contain flour, and therefore be a no-no for someone who is gluten intolerant. Rarely, the server will come back and say, "yes, they are celiac," in which case I will bend over backwards to create as close a version to the dish they've ordered.

Why should someone with an awful intolerance not be able to eat a delicious piece of hake just because they can't eat the breadcrumbs that are on the full dish listed on the menu? I'll make them a brown butter and caper sauce instead. It's no bother.

The fact is that for the most part, our customers making the omission or substitution requests do not have a medical condition that prevents them from eating wheat, dairy, or butter (I've had people ask for fish cooked specifically in grapeseed oil rather than butter for its lower fat content). When asked—in a friendly, "what can we do to help way," of course, because to assume makes an ass of you and me—why they've made a request, people don't often have an answer other than, "I'm trying to lay off X, Y, or Z for a while." I don't make omissions or substitutions unless it's not going to be a faff for anyone. It's too much work for an already very pushed team working largely on muscle memory during service.

But fuck me, how hard is it to just pick something, if you are choosing to eat a certain way, that you can eat, rather than choose something because you want one part of it and then end up designing your own dish? It strikes me as an absence of decent manners.

This is what makes me angry. Yes, you might go to a restaurant because you know the guy or girl in the kitchen makes amazing food, and you generally like eating what they come up with, but not fancy or—if you do have issues—be able to eat what they've put on the menu the day you go in. But fuck me, how hard is it to just pick something, if you are choosing to eat a certain way, that you can eat, rather than choose something because you want one part of it and then end up basically designing your own dish?

It strikes me as an absence of decent manners. Yes, this is the service industry—people are paying for me to make them a nice dinner and to have a nice time—and I am very aware of that. It's a privilege. But at some point there has to be some idea of there being a person at the end of the order ticket, someone who has worked really hard to create balanced, varied dishes.

I don't know what the answer is. I will continue to ask my serving staff to inquire as to why a substitution request is being made, because I don't want to make anyone ill. A part of me does, however, think that flighty requests should be called out. There's a reason behind this weird, massive increase in so-called food intolerances, and I think it's in people believing what they read from untrustworthy sources and wrongly self-diagnosing their own diets. It's all a bit silly.

Food is too exciting to treat like a chore.