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Ken's Salt and Pepper Rant

  • c

One of my pet peeves, as both a professional (I'm Chef/Owner of Ken's Place in PDX) and as a diner, is many restaurant's attitude towards salt and pepper.
First, it seems to be a trend these days among some upper end restaurants (Tabla I know, Ripe's restaurants, Fife and others I've heard do it) to not put salt and pepper on the tables. This is extremely arrogant on the part of either the chef or the owner, whoever is the instigator, and they need to get over themselves and remember that the restaurant is about serving the public, not their own egos. Taste for seasoning is a personal thing, and it's the chef's job to turn out the best food he or she can produce, seasoned as they see fit. Once it gets to the table, it is out of the chef's hands. If the patron wants to swallow the food whole without chewing, follow his fish with red wine instead of white, throw up the main course 5 minutes after eating it, or douse it in salt before even tasting it, it's none of the chef's business, scoff as he may (and we do scoff). To make the patron have to ask for salt, sometimes having to wait to track down the waiter while his food gets cold, and sometimes having the waiter give attitude about the request, and sometimes having to then wait again while said waiter tracks down the shaker, is rude, inconvenient and greatly detracts from the dining experience. This isn't art, it's dinner...get over it.
Pepper - At some other otherwise very fine restaurants, you'll notice a shaker of a pre-ground, usually inferior pepper product on the table. Then, as soon as your food has been brought, the waiter comes by with an oversized, somewhat phallic, grinder of the "good" pepper. What's up with that? Why put an inferior product on the table in the first place? And in the second place, why not treat your patrons as adults and give them their own little grinder? How do they know the food they haven't even tasted yet even needs pepper? And if it does, what if it needs more once they've eaten the top layer? And then you have to track them down again? Ridiculous.
I had one waiter (all right, it was at Tabla) haughtily tell me - after I quizzed him about why they don't put little pepper grinders on the table - that they were too much trouble. Excuse me? Uh, you fill them and wipe them down occasionaly.
Restaurants should be about diners enjoying themselves and the food, not about the chef or owner making a point at the diners' expense.

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  1. I agree with your rant. My restaurant has little pepper grinders with salt shakers on the tables. But my staff still insists on bringing the big gridners with them to the table. oh well. We are a casual restaurant in seattle. Erin

    1 Reply
    1. re: Erin

      The restaurant I work in does have the grinders on the table. Unfortunately quite a few have walked off, but ofcourse that's part of the business. It was worse when we had those cool iron teapots. I remember one of my tables stole two of them, and they were heavy! The funny thing about the little grinders is you still get people who ask for pepper and expect you to bring out that fallic symbol instead of pointing to the midget on the table, or even funnier, picking it up and grinding it for them. :)

    2. I know the biggest problem some places have with putting the little grinders on the table is theft...

      1 Reply
      1. re: deibu

        I've owned and managed restaurants for about 18 years in New York City and Portland, and have always put those little Peugeot grinders on each table. In all that time I've lost one by theft and 2 broke. At $15-20 each that's not a bad cost of doing business.

        1. re: GooGLeR

          Portland, Oregon...sorry!

        2. Ken,

          You write, "To make the patron have to ask for salt...is rude, inconvenient and greatly detracts from the dining experience."

          Is salt on the table at the French Laundry? Trotter's? Inn at Little Washington? Or any other fine dining destination in the US? Restaurants of this caliber will provide salt (of good quality and often in several varieties), when asked. But it isn't the default. Granted, none of the restaurants you mention are fine dining destinations. Maybe they're mistaken in their belief that the food they serve is seasoned properly. But it's not like this is a new or unheard of concept.

          You write, "And in the second place, why not treat your patrons as adults and give them their own little grinder?"

          Because people will steal them.

          I'm much more concerned with the *quality* of the salt, pepper, butter, and other condiments at restaurants than I am with whether or not I have to request them.


          11 Replies
          1. re: Scott

            Obviously the quality of the condiments is important. But why treat your customers as thieves? As I said in a later post, I've lost one grinder in 18 years. Not a big price to pay for treating clients well. Why not give them paper plates and plastic cups - those items break.

            And the restaurants I mentioned are fine dining establishments. I don't know the policies at the restaurants you mentioned. But why, oh why make diners have to ask for something that is not trouble - except perhaps to the ego of the chef - to place on the table in the first place. I, for one, don't like to sit there like an idiot while my food gets cold waiting for a waiter to fetch the salt shaker.

            1. re: chefken

              Oh, and you write: "Maybe they're mistaken in their belief that the food they serve is seasoned properly. But it's not like this is a new or unheard of concept."
              What does "seasoned properly" mean? Is there one standard that exists? I don't believe so. And I've eaten my way across Europe and have dined in perhaps 8-10 Michelin 3-stars, and perhaps 5 times that many 1 or 2-stars, and I've never encountered one that left the s & p off the table. So yes, I do believe this is a new thing.

              1. re: chefken

                It's the new restaurant owner arrogance: "WE will tell YOU what you like. Now sit down, shut up and hand over your credit card"

                Like I am supposed to be sooooo very grateful that I am...ummmm....a customer????

                1. re: chefken

                  Actually today many 3 stars in Paris don't have the salt and pepper on the table. Would be nice to see it there when you think of it. But I am sceptical about those little bowls with salt that you pick up with your fingers, God knows what other fingers have been in there.

                  1. re: mdibiaso

                    when I've used salt bowls in Germany, there is a spoon in the dish.

              2. re: Scott

                I love how they come out with the huge grinders and before you have even tasted your food, "Would you like some freshly ground pepper sir?". I am always tempted to ask them if they have tasted my food already and think it needs pepper. Why stop at salt and pepper, might as well give them the whole condiment tray if you want to make your customers happy these days.

                1. re: Pablo

                  Actually, I think the huge grinder thing was the invention of the late Joe Baum at his Cafe des Artistes in New York about 25 years ago. So he could charge more and waiters could make more tips.

                  1. re: chefken
                    Carpetbagger (John C)

                    I'm waiting for the day when restaurants start putting a meter on the pepper mill...

                    you'll get your bill and there will be a charge for 4 twists of pepper, say $1 per twist? ;)

                    1. re: Carpetbagger (John C)

                      What a great idea, I think I'll implement it immediately! And if you order, for example, steak au poivre, there will be a flat fee of $8 to put the pepper on anywhere in the five boroughs...

                      And if you feel like the pepper was inferior or if you feel ripped off, you can file a complaint with the Pepper and Seasoning Commission, which means you and the waiter will have to appear at the P&SC offices on Eleventh Avenue -- if you don't show up, the case is dismissed, but if he doesn't show up, they revoke his pepper medallion.


                      1. re: Das Ubergeek

                        And you can always call on Sargent Pepper, or if he's not available, Sgt. Pepper Johnson (Angie Dickinson on Police Woman) to issue a summons to the offending joint! (g)

                        1. re: WLA

                          hee hee hee hee

              3. re: pepper at table
                If a restaurant is serious about food, it should mean everything, including condiments. I agree about seasoning your meal being a personal thing (Some of my Mexican friends carry a small bottle of their own favorite hot sauce with them instead of relying on what's on the table) that the kitchen should not get fussed up about. Egos!
                Individual pepper grinders might walk off the table too often, but why not a small salt cellar-sized dish of freshly ground pepper at teach table? Like the one I keep at the stove so I can just grab a pinch instead of goo-ing up the Perfex?

                1. i like your stance on this. i, for one, find it very frustrating when i need pepper and have to wait for someone to return to the table, ask for it, then wait for them to return with it. meanwhile my food, as you point out, gets cold.

                  i've taken to carrying around a bottle of hot sauce for similar reasons.

                  the theft thing can ba a valid point, but i think it depends on the vessel. i've seen plenty of those little, pre-filled, disposable pepper grinders (oftentimes complete with establishment names) in people's kitchens, camping supplies, dorms, etc to know they are considered fair game by many. i've watched a few walk out of restaurants. i have not, however, seen anyone make off with nicer grinders. maybe some consider the little ones to be souvenirs?

                  1. If I were ever in the position of owning my own place, I would HAVE to have salt (and to a lesser extent pepper) on the table because the one thing I am always bad at as a home cook is salting food.

                    I tend to (read as ALWAYS) under salt when I cook.

                    Not because I don't like salt or avoid it for health reasons, but I am so worried I will ruin a great soup or nice cut of meat if I make it too salty.

                    It is the one ingredient I do not feel comfortable using in large amounts. Or, I guess, even in the proper amount.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Tugboat

                      Y'see...there really isn't a "proper" amount. Palates range so widely. I happen to like more salt than many people do, but in my restaurant I tend to undersalt for my palate, which I think is good for most other peoples. But not everyone. So give the people a break and let them have an option handy.

                    2. Here here! I often think that haughty waitstaff make up their own responses to simple requests like these.

                      FWIW, I've enjoyed Tabla's 3 courses for $20 a few times recently, but I've always dined at the bar, where it's more relaxed. I guess when you're eating inches away from the people serving you (and overhearing their gossip) it's harder for them to carry off a snobby attitude.

                      That said, one may last visit, we ordered one of their special cocktails which we've had several times, the Diablo. The bartender substituted an ingredient without telling us first. It tasted totally different, and we didn't much like it but drank it anyway. (My wife toiled for years in food service and just can't bear to inconvenience waitstaff in any way.)

                      Afterwards, I politely suggested to the bartender that she let folks know about the change *before* she makes the drink. What was supposed to be a tart, citrusy drink had a sweet, medicinal flavor. Besides, the drink ingredients are printed on the drink menu; change ingredients, and you change the drink, right?

                      Her response? Silence, with a raised eyebrow and a smirk. Well, F-that. We haven't been back since.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Sir Loins

                        I wouldn't go back either. In fact I'd be tempted to call the manager and tell them what happened.

                      2. I don't like needless things to clutter the table. You have bread plates, knives, forks, water glasses, wine glasses, water bottle, wine bottle, bread basket, butter/oil, appetizers, candle, etc. all on your table at once. Do me a favor and leave the salt and pepper off. If I want it, I'll ask for it. And if it's a restaurant with good service, you'll get it in a matter of seconds. Don't leave it on the table and assume every customer will need it. Because every customer doesn't. For me, having salt and pepper set out on a table is a sign of laziness.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: ivie

                          Actually, why pick on the salt and pepper. They really needn't have wine glasses on the table until, or if, yu order wine. And perhaps your entree is something that doesn't require a knife. And my wife rarely drinks her water, they could leave that off. The candle is pretty superfluous if the restaurant has good lighting. And they can have the wine bottle elsewhere if they'll just pour it for you.
                          Now...I've made lots of room for the seasnings and don't have to track down the waiter, which has happened enough - even in good restaurants with otherwise good service - to make those of us that do like salt on the table anxious and annoyed.
                          Just teasing...but you can see how everybody likes what they like. Why should the restaurant annoy some of their customers just to make some point about how perfect they think their palates are, when in fact, there really isn't a precise standard?

                          1. re: chefken

                            it varies between restaurants what you'll find ready on the table when you sit. at finer restaurants, i don't think it's appropriate to have the salt and pepper out on the table. i'd like to think that my food was prepared well enough that i don't need to "taint" it with extra spices/seasonings. i don't see it as arrogance. if they refuse to provide salt and pepper when you request it, then that's arrogant.

                            i generally have a pet peeve with the amount of "clutter" on the table. i don't like wine glasses on the table before i order wine. (but, that's a whole other topic) i pick on the salt and pepper b/c it makes an assumption about my food and how it taste before i even ordered it. and yes, everyone has a different palate. if you know you like your food overly salted, why not ask for the salt when your food is ordered? is that too much of an inconvenience?

                        2. I agree with you -- for example, with soup, I almost always want pepper in it.

                          The problem I have is that the opposite extreme can be just as obnoxious. I was at a steakhouse in Los Angeles once and my steak arrived. About twenty seconds after the delivery of the steak, a dessert-type cart rolled up with seven different kinds of salt on it. I got to listen to a short treatise on each of the salts (sel de Camargue, Hawaiian lava salt, etc.) and was then expected to choose one. I picked one at random, because I do like salt on my steak, but my thought was "How pretentious!"

                          I have a friend that carries salt, pepper and a small bottle of Tapatio sauce with her at all times.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Das Ubergeek

                            Hmmm...do I know you??

                            Actually, I just carry salt and pepper. But now that you mention it, a small bottle of Tapatio is a damn fine idea....

                            1. re: LT from LF

                              I have a friend who carries a baggie of peppercorns that have been given a few whacks with a hammer or something. And then there's the one with the leather holster that contains tobasco. We all want what we want - so if it's going to be a problem, just go prepared.

                          2. s

                            I've given up expecting seamless service in restaurants. The last time I dined out and noticed that S&P were not available, I asked for them immediately after ordering. When the food arrived, I was ready.

                            1. Wow...can't imagine not having salt & pepper on a restaurant table...geez! I will say that freshly ground black pepper is so good (to ME) that I use less salt when the black pepper is freshly ground...I do wish more restaurants would offer peppermills on the tables. I recently ordered crab cakes at a French restaurant...had to ASK for freshly ground black pepper...to me, it makes all the difference. But, there you go, it's a personal preference!

                              1. I completely agree. I have owned a cafe and an upscale restaurant and bar in Seattle and had to insist on the S and P on the table. I wanted the individual grinders but the expense made me a bit shy, then the thought of having to replace them regularly when they get stolen (a reality, unfortunately) stopped me.

                                1. Very nicely articulated & supported rant, Ken.

                                  Most chefs UNDERsalt & UNDERpepper (in proportion) their dishes specifically because folks who prefer more salt &/or pepper can add more to their personal preference at the table. No one, however, can remove some to their preference.

                                  If the s&p are not at the table, you are correct that the server chase must begin & the dishes of which the chef is properly proud become warm, lukewarm, cool. The enjoyment of the entire meal may be jeopardized simply because of some effete desire to be classier-than-thou.

                                  S&p rantette: in many mid- to low-end restos, those lovely metal topped pepper shakers are nightly scooped full to overflowing & capped, so that the pepper is packed so tightly that no amount of shaking can jar it loose. It's not exactly rocket science to fill 'em 1/2 to 3/4 full so customers can actually use them.

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: Mr Grub

                                    Most chefs UNDERsalt & UNDERpepper (in proportion) their dishes specifically because folks who prefer more salt &/ or pepper can add more to their personal preference at the table.

                                    Never found that to be true with chefs. Cooks who are just there for a job yes-the ones who don't taste their own food and could care less. Just my experience in kitchens though...

                                    1. re: dano

                                      It surprises me how many chefs are smokers. I used to walk by CCA every weekday and there would always be students outside smoking.

                                      Isn't smoking supposed to affect your taste buds? Any former smokers care to comment on how food tasted before and after quitting?

                                      1. re: semmel

                                        a couple of the best chefs i studied under were 1-2pack a day smokers. One camels, the other gauloise. Never found either of their food to be overseasoned(me a non-smoker for life).

                                  2. I have 2 points:

                                    1) To the pepper grinder thieving point: some restaurants I have been in (casual of course) have what is clearly fresh ground pepper in a dish like loose salt in a dish. This is not as good as having a grinder, but I like it much better than those awful shakers.

                                    2) Salt: not only do people's tastes differ, but they also differ depending on their activity level. If I've just been at the gym, sweated up a storm, showered, and gone to dinner, I CRAVE salt. Yes, I'm going to salt my fries before I touch them, because if I can't see the salt, it isn't enough after a good workout. I think salt should always be on the table without exceptions.

                                    I hate having to ask for salt/pepper, for the reason that food gets cold.