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Is it safe to send food back?

I was at a Thai restaurant recently and requested clearly (and the server acknowledged my request) that my curry be made very spicy. It arrived "warm," and I asked the server if there was anything I could add to it at the table to make it hotter, since many Thai places have those little trays with various hot pepper garnishes. She whisked it away instead, and it came back not much changed.
I didn't try again, in part because I was dining with friends, but mostly because I've heard so many warnings against sending food back, especially more than once. The service was otherwise good, and very pleasant. My meal was by no means ruined, but I don't think I'd have send the dish back again even if it had been, because I'd be too nervous to enjoy even an improved dish.

Is it ever safe to send food back? Is tampering with returned food common in kitchens? Does anything (the server's demeanor, for example, or the "fanciness" of the place) give a reliable indication?
Responses from anyone in the business would be especially welcome.

Whippet

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  1. Any reasonably good kitchen who takes pride in their food won't taint your food when refiring it.

    1. I worked in restaurants/catering for more than 12 years and only saw food tampering at one very casual, alcohol-focused place. There were a few times the servers messed with a particularly obnoxious drunk's food. I've never seen a kitchen do it.

      1. As a seasoned restaurant worker, I have never seen food tampering.

        1. I worked in restaurants for 15 years. I never saw anyone tamper with a customer's food. I'm sure it has happened at some point in the history of the world. I doubt it happens often.

          To tamper with someone's food is just wrong, and honestly, I've always found the repeated suggestions (not by you specifically, but the common "warnings" you mention) that restaurant workers would so freely do such a thing insulting. (I'm not saying that you're being insulting or trying to flame you, just offering a perspective from someone who worked in the business.)

          Would you spit in or otherwise mess with someone's food? Would you expect that your friends or family members would do such a thing?

          6 Replies
          1. re: nc213

            I can understand the sense of insult, and, instinctively, I feel the same way, though I've never worked in food service. It hadn't really occurred to me (especially since I am generally, I think a very "easy" customer) until Chowhound became a regular haunt, actually, and I saw so many posts saying things like "After working in restaurants for X years, I would NEVER send anything back" or "You don't want to know what happens to food that goes back to the kitchen," etc.
            Why is the idea so prevalent?

            1. re: Whippet

              Didn't Anthony Bourdain right a kitchen expose of sorts a few years ago? Perhaps that has people paranoid on the subject.

              1. re: Gio

                He wrote a book called Kitchen Confidential. I don't recall anything in the book about people tampering with food. I've read quite a bit of what Bourdain's written, and I can't imagine him doing such a thing. He's quite a character in a number of ways, but he also seems to have a deep sense of personal integrity when it comes to food.

                1. re: nc213

                  I just read Kitchen Confidential this past weekend. With all the stories he did relate, there was nothing about tainting peoples food, and I doub't he would have held back on that considering some of the other things he did mention. Doesn't mean it doesn't happen, but he didn't talk about it.

                  1. re: KaimukiMan

                    Actually he does mention how some chefs delight in someone asking for a steak well done and will burn the living hell out of it. But I mostly remember cautionary stories about buffets, hollandaise, etc.

                    1. re: bryan

                      Yes and to never order fish on a Monday...i think it was. Something about it being leftover from Fri/Sat fresh market that didn't sell.

          2. it all depends on the circumstances. if you have a good rapport with the staff, and the meal has been fine otherwise, then sending back a dish won't be a problem as long as you have a legitimate complaint (ie over/under-cooked, not what you ordered, cold, contaminated, etc). they will fix or replace it. even sending it back a second time with a demonstrable complaint will be handled graciously. in your specific example, since it's a matter of taste, i would have pursued, as you mentioned, condiments to adjust it myself.

            on the other hand, if you do not have a rapport with the staff, if you've been bitching and demanding and impossible to please, and you give the staff an opportunity to exact a little revenge, then you might be wise to expect a little something extra with your meal. i've worked boh in restaurants, and have a large number of friends and acquaintances who work(ed) foh & boh. i've seen it happen, and have heard plenty of stories, even if only a fraction are true. my experience is that it's more common in corporate-type restos that rely on young staffs (face it, the 18 year old waiting tables to earn pot and tuition money is generally less mature and faces fewer consequences than the 40 year old professional server with 20 years experience under her belt).

            the people working in restos are human too. just like the rest of us, they know that mistakes happen. treat them humanely, and they'll respond in kind. treat them poorly, push them far enough (and it can be a very high stress job, so it might not take much of a push for some), and they, just like most others, will react in petty ways. it always comes back to do unto others...

            1. As a chef of over 30 years I have never tampered with food and in my early days only saw it done once by a rather juvinille cook to a rather nasty patron.
              I believe 99% of workers in the industry have to much pride in what they do to do anything so childish.

              1 Reply
              1. re: chefstu

                A few years ago I was dining with friends, and someone (not me) found a dead fly in her salad. She reported this to the waitress, who, begrudgingly, took the salad away and returned with the same salad, without the fly. Ugh.....

              2. Worked in a popular casual restaurant all through college and never saw food tampering. I politely send food back if something is really wrong with it and never worry. However, I did notice two other things while in the biz:

                1. When servers are in a hurry they often grab your silverware by the wrong end. Meaning, when silver is being rolled, the part that goes in your mouth has been in people's hands. Same with straws and cups. When it is carried out to you, most have the sense to be more sanitary but in the kitchen it is about speed. Nothing malicous about it, just hard-working folks trying to do a job in a hurry.

                2. I did witness unscrupulous servers changing their credit/debit card tips at the end of the night. They would pad the tip indicated on the charge slip by a dollar or two when they entered it into the credit card machine to run their reports . When the monthly bill or bank statement is received, most people don't reconcile it with their eating out receipts. Additionally, most of us are not going to notice a dollar or two difference. People did get fired over this, but I doubt it was unique to the restaurant where I worked.

                1. Having worked in many restaurants I have never seen any type of food tampering AT ALL. There is always a superior of some sort overlooking the staff, which would discourage that type of behavior to begin with. But the bottom line is that the restaurants have too much dignity to do anything that disgraceful. I know some movies or shows have depicted waitstaff or chefs "messing or tampering" with a persons dish, but I believe that it has been blown out of preportion. That is not how it really is, just a made up marketing ploy.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: cocktailqueen77

                    You hit the nail re: dignity. Restaurant owners, servers, dishwashers, cooks, hosts, bartends, bussers, preps, or whoever--I'm guessing that no one in the industry would admit having done something disgusting to a patron's food in this forum (I think you'll find plenty of proud admissions in this regard on craigslist or in Yahoo! Answers). So, you will never know. Just use your own judgment about the restaurant, the server, and the overall situation.

                  2. After reading some food workers blogs, bitterwaitress.com or waiterrant.com, etc,. some times I don't even want to go out for dinner.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: care2

                      I think waiterrant.com is another good example (I haven't read bitterwaitress). I've read most, if not all, of the blog. He often talks about having a great deal of contempt for customers. (To be fair, he does talk about customers he likes as well.) He's mentioned not giving them a table they want because they're so obnoxious. He's mentioned giving them decaf instead of regular late at night, but notes he would never, ever do the opposite for fear of making people sick. I'm pretty sure he's never spoken about food tampering.

                      I firmly believe that it's a line that no one but *the* most unethical people would ever cross. Yes, I'm sure there are some people who are that unethical in the restaurant business, just like there are some accountants who would steal all of your money, but these people are truly few and far between.

                      1. re: nc213

                        To your second paragraph, I agree and what I've been thinking about this is that anyone who would tamper with food would do so regardless of whether it was sent back. That is, insofar as the danger of someone in a restaurant messing with food, it exists apart from the actions of the diner.

                    2. I realize your question was about sending food back, but I'll share some advice on getting spicy Thai food, which is a challenge I share.

                      The basic problem is that many Americans don't "get" the whole spicy thing, and Thai chefs are not keen on the idea of throwing food away after some ignorant wanna-be orders spicy when they really mean mildly spicy. The american taste for spice is so far subdued below what is normal in Thailand that the Thais simply don't know what to do other than just make it as mild as possible. Unfortunately, there is a prejudice among Thai chefs that if a "white guy" says spicy, he probably doesn't really mean it. They are just responding to their experience, so its hard to blame them.

                      The solution I've found to work very well is to ask in Thai. I don't know why this works, but for some reason I find that saying "very spicy please" gets ignored, but saying "peht mak mak, khrup" (Thai for "very spicy please") usually works much better. I guess they figure if you can speak a little Thai then maybe you really mean what you say. Some basic Thai expressions:

                      peht: Spicy (pronounced like "pet")
                      mak: Very (often used twice, as in "peht mak mak", meaning very very spicy)
                      peht Thai: Thai Spicy (be careful - national pride may yield spice you can't handle!)
                      arroy: Delicious (often used as a compliment, e.g. "Arroy mak mak!")
                      assan: Food
                      khrup: Used by MEN at the end of a sentence to indicate politeness ("please")
                      kaah: Same as khrup but used when a woman is speaking

                      The full sentence to use at the end of your order...

                      "Khao assan peht mak mak, khrup/kaah" (I would like my food very spicy, please)

                      One more... "Mai Peht" means NOT SPICY. If ordering in Thai isn't enough to get them to believe me, when I receive mild food rather than asking them to send it back, I (politely) throw up my hands in dismay and say "Mai peht!". This generally evokes a sense of pride in the Thais, and they immediately take the food away and bring it back with a whole new level of spice. Use with caution, as you might get more spice than you bargained for!

                      A funny story... In Thailand I once got very frustrated with bland food after asking for spicy. I said to the (thai) waitress, "Khao assan mai peht, mai peht mak, mai peht mak mak. Khao assan PEHT THAI!" (Translation: I don't want it spicy, I don't want it very spicy, and I don't want it very very spicy. I WANT IT THAI SPICY!") She responded, in perfect english, "If I tell the chef you said that, you'll be taken away in an ambulance with your mouth on fire. I'll ask them to spice it up a little for you." It came back more spicy than any dish I'd ever eaten anywhere before.

                      Hope this helps!

                      Erik

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: ErikT

                        I do have a feeling that the problem is not only that I'm Eastern European (though for countries known for liking food not spicy...), but that I'm young (and look younger), female and slight of build, and therefore am used to not being taken seriously in most contexts until I prove myself. This is a a great idea, and very helpful.
                        How many syllables in "kaah?" And "mak" rhymes with "back" or "smock?"
                        Thanks so much -- and that IS a good story.