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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Angry Chef: Sauce on the side

click to enlarge MR. T IN DC/FLICKR

Envision this: It's a balls-out busy night. The kitchen is cranking but just barely keeping pace. In the midst of the mayhem, table 12 sends back a perfectly dressed salad. They wanted the dressing on the side. I return to the table with their salad, made to their specification with a 2-ounce ramekin of dressing off to the side and a go-fuck-yourself smile on my face. The young woman at table 12 pours the dressing over her salad. Because she is very busy sending a text message, all the dressing ends up on one side of the plate, soaking half the lettuce and leaving the rest dry. Murder.

For most people, this may seem extremely trivial. At this point, I probably appear to be even more of douchebag than you initially presumed, but I think there's a lot more to "sauce on the side" than what lies on the surface. What started as an innocent request has gradually morphed into a fury in which people feel entitled to build their own dishes in a restaurant as if the food is an erector set. Coupled with life-threatening allergies and other make-believe ailments, this sense of "build your own entrée" can easily send any ordinary dinner service into utter chaos at any moment.

If you think about it, which you probably don't, the subject is quite fascinating. Who was the first person to muster enough courage to ask the server to instruct the kitchen to make his or her dish a certain way? Maybe it did all start with a salad. Maybe we (the restaurants) are to blame. Perhaps some chef thought it would be easier to send a salad out to the table with the dressing already on the side, in a ramekin. Upon having this salad dropped at the place setting, some random person discovered the dressing served on the side in a ramekin and wondered in amazement if other sauces could be put in these ramekins, or even better, could the other dishes that kitchen was preparing be altered as well?

Obviously, I don't know the answers to the questions above, but I am certain that this dining trend has grown way out of control. I think it's safe to say that when a preteen is making modifications to his or her chicken fingers, we have bigger problems than we would care to admit. Perhaps the individual isn't to blame. Maybe the very the society in which we live is the biggest culprit. Turn on the television; you are immediately overwhelmed by messages and images of instant self-gratification. Maybe I should lighten up. After all, at Burger King you can "have it your way" (funny, I can't even get shake after 10 p.m. because "the machine ain't workin"), and, of course, if we want it, "there's an app for that." We are basically trained that we can get almost anything we want, at any given time.

So let's get a few things straight. My kitchen is just that: a kitchen, equipped and staffed to prepare the food on my menu, a menu that was carefully planned around factors such as the season, what foods are currently available, and what I think our guests will enjoy and not mind paying money for. It's not a magic laboratory waiting for you to walk in the door and challenge us with what you're craving. Moreover, the next time that you walk into a restaurant and close your eyes and start dreaming about the flavor combinations that you're going to request from the kitchen, take just a moment to keep your eyes open and notice that there are other people around, also paying money for food, and most of them are simply ordering off the menu. Why should their experience be impacted by your demands?

Because that's exactly what happens when a "sauce on the side, no this, sub that, see server" ticket comes across the kitchen printer and the chef and his cooks have to have a tribunal to discuss how the needs of this asshole are going to be met. You know what's happening during that tribunal? Absolutely nothing; the wheels on the bus are not going round and round. When the chef finally gets the cooks on the right course for this one check, all of the other food is literally on the back burner. And while all is not lost for service, the rhythm has definitely been interrupted and the kitchen's focus has been distracted.

Would you even consider demonstrating this level of selfishness when being hosted for dinner at someone's house? So how did this become accepted behavior in a restaurant?

A menu, by definition, is "a printed list of dishes offered in a restaurant." It's not a general inventory of ingredients, nor is it a suggested list of available food pairings. If you're too reluctant to invest some trust in a restaurant to properly prepare a meal for you, what are you doing here in the first place?

Going out to eat should be an experience. Don't worry, I'm not getting all Ritz-Carlton and Joël on you, I'm just saying that on any given night that you decide to venture out to eat at a restaurant, you should maximize your experience and willingly accept all the intangible amenities that are available to you at that restaurant, such as the way a chef intends a dish to be prepared.

click to enlarge food_angry3-1_51.jpg

Ron owns and operates Rosebud restaurant and
Family Dog bar in Morningside. He also makes people
laugh and incensed on Twitter.

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