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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.

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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...