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Is it insulting to the chef to special order in fine dining?

mygirlbakes AL Sep 13, 2009 06:44 PM

There's not really a specific reason I'm asking this question, just something I was thinking about. In a restaurant run by a well-known chef, with carefully put-together menus and dishes, do you think it's rude or insulting to make special requests or substitutions for a dish simply because you don't like certain ingredients, or some other similar reason? I know how carefully chefs work to compose a dish, and something like leaving out an ingredient could really affect the its integrity in the eyes of the chef. Is it better to taste the dish as the chef envisioned it, risking that you won't like it as a result, or to order it the way you would prefer and thereby disregarding the chef's own feelings about it?

For the purpose of this question, moral or dietary restrictions, such as vegetarian or dairy-free, are a separate topic.

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  1. c oliver RE: mygirlbakes AL Sep 13, 2009 06:58 PM

    Well, you could always ask.

    When we went to Babbo, I wanted the beef cheek ravioli but it included "crushed squab liver" (I'm pretty sure that's it). I told the server that I don't like many livers. He said he didn't either but that he didn't notice it as livery at all in that dish. He was right and I LOVED every bite. I think if you know you're going to retch and gag, then either speak up or order something else. If, like me, you're not 100% sure, I'd order it. I don't want to keep my world - food or anything else - too narrow.

    1. bagelman01 RE: mygirlbakes AL Sep 13, 2009 07:00 PM

      If I am paying for the meal, chef's 'feelings' don't even rank second in importance.

      EXCEPT-if dining at the chef's table or a tatsting menu-then you are specifically coming to eat the chef's creation as presented. Try it, eat or leave it, it's your choice.

      1. d
        dmd_kc RE: mygirlbakes AL Sep 13, 2009 07:03 PM

        In general, I don't know about insulting per se (though many chefs would probably be insulted). But, yeah, a friend was just the other day telling me about a customer who wanted the daily pasta-and-mussels special prepared with shrimp instead. They rolled their eyes (in the back room) and did it for her -- charging her handsomely for the privilege, thank you very much.

        But if you want a short-order cook, don't go to a fine-dining restaurant. And if you want the skate but not the celery root puree on the side, just choose a different dish altogether. It's not "one from column A, two from column B."

        3 Replies
        1. re: dmd_kc
          goodhealthgourmet RE: dmd_kc Sep 13, 2009 07:26 PM

          "It's not "one from column A, two from column B."
          i like that :)

          i'm on the fence about this one - i think it depends on the nature of the request. if you're asking the chef to omit or substitute an ingredient that's really integral to the soul of the dish, you might as well just order something else. i'll never understand why people *want* to order something that contains several flavors or textures they don't like. why would it even appeal to them? but if it's a simple swap, such as asking for a different vegetable on the side, then as long as you've seen the vegetable you're requesting somewhere else on the menu so you know it's not a real chore for the kitchen to do it, i don't think it's a big deal.

          1. re: goodhealthgourmet
            dmd_kc RE: goodhealthgourmet Sep 13, 2009 08:58 PM

            I really have such conflicting thoughts about it. Like the same friend tells me he's gotten requests like "Hollandaise, but no butter," or the steak with the chicken's sauce. That's just silly.

            I tend to try to rock the boat as little as possible when it's a chef I respect, or one I'm trying for the first time. And knowing what a major PITA a lot of customers can be, I want to be on my best behavior usually!

            And on the other hand, it's true you're a customer buying a product. One of my frequent dining companions loves good food, but isn't big on "rules," and isn't much of a drinker. Sometimes he wants a danged soda with his $39 entree, and I'm not going to hassle him about it. To be honest, Dr Pepper does taste pretty good with a steak, so more power to him. I bet the restaurant makes a better margin on that $2.75 soda than on my $9 pinot noir.

            1. re: dmd_kc
              goodhealthgourmet RE: dmd_kc Sep 14, 2009 01:25 PM

              "And knowing what a major PITA a lot of customers can be, I want to be on my best behavior usually!"
              yeah, unfortunately for me, i *have* to be a PITA because of my gluten & soy issues...but the last thing i want to do is ask the kitchen to go above and beyond my health/safety requirements to accommodate requests in addition to that!

        2. b
          brooklynkoshereater RE: mygirlbakes AL Sep 13, 2009 07:13 PM

          A restauranteur friend says "if you don't want to try the food the way that the Chef has prepared it, don't go to the restaurant" - but to be honest, I'm not really fully in agreement wtih that. Every chef, while an artist at heart - must be pragmatic. They know that, at the end of the day, it's more important that the customer like the taste of the food than that the chef does.

          1. PeterL RE: mygirlbakes AL Sep 13, 2009 09:19 PM

            Are you going to Gordon Ramsey's restaurant? If not, I wouldn't worry about it. It also depends a lot on the degree of substitution. If someone is deadly allergic to a certain ingredient, I don't see why not ask for a substitution.

            1 Reply
            1. re: PeterL
              NellyNel RE: PeterL Sep 18, 2009 12:15 PM

              The OP specifies "fine dining".....
              where the food that is prepared is essentially "edible art"..
              so yes I think it IS insulting to the chef.
              Having said that - if you are paying $500 for a meal - I really believe you are entitled to request something or other if you really must!
              I personally wouldnt only because i am extremely adventurous and am willing to try everything...in the way that it was created to be....
              But if you are forking over a small fortune, I supposed you have every right to enjoy your meal to the fullest - sorry if it does insult the chef!

            2. Soop RE: mygirlbakes AL Sep 14, 2009 03:35 AM

              There's this restaurant/bar that I quite like, but they have the oddest ideas sometimes. I had lemon chicken, that was more or less smothered in what was basically lemon curd. I picked the thing up and cleaned it with a napkin. They also do a great chicken and chorizo salad, but it comes with a foul pomegranite dressing. I ask for the dressing to be served on the side, and then I don't eat it.

              However, I'd generally agree with dmd. Sure, if it's in any way integral to the dish, don't order it. It's a massive pain in the bum for the chef who's prepped for specific dishes, and if he does conceed, you're probably going to back up other peoples orders, which is a bit selfish. I guess there's a difference between substitution and ommission too.

              1. q
                queencru RE: mygirlbakes AL Sep 14, 2009 05:35 AM

                Even in fine dining, there's going to be some portion of the guests who may not be that thrilled by the food. They're still paying customers and sometimes the chef just needs to get over it. If you're going to a fine dining as part of a business lunch, it looks worse not to order anything than to try to ask for some sort of substitution. I think it's less common now than it was a few years back to do the big bucks wining and dining, but it's still an issue.

                2 Replies
                1. re: queencru
                  Soop RE: queencru Sep 14, 2009 06:43 AM

                  I'd liken it to going to a gallery and liking a painting, but then telling the artist you like it, but you think it needs more red.

                  1. re: Soop
                    shorebilly RE: Soop Sep 15, 2009 05:04 AM

                    "I'd liken it to going to a gallery and liking a painting, but then telling the artist you like it, but you think it needs more red."

                    That is the best description ever!!! Especially in an establishment that has many choices, if you don't think you will like a dish the way it is prepared, order something else!

                2. h
                  Harters RE: mygirlbakes AL Sep 14, 2009 06:55 AM

                  On another well known board that I use, someone posted a thread dissing a well known London restaurant and, in particular, it's chef/owner.

                  Story is that the punter had emailed the chef, asking for special dishes (not, I hasten to add, for any dietary reason - just wanted something to himself). Chef forwarded the email to an assistant with words to the effect of "tell this **** to **** off. He can either eat the tasting menu or go **** himself." Unfortunately chef included the punter in the message address.

                  Such is life. One lost customer. Idiot punter decided to post this story on the board to gain support of members in dissing the place (actually my fave London restaurant). Didnt work. Many happy board readers - most of us were impressed at the (foreign) chef's command of English.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: Harters
                    buttertart RE: Harters Sep 15, 2009 10:18 AM

                    Great story. Many have been laid low by the "reply all" key. What restaurant may I ask? Planning London next spring.

                    1. re: buttertart
                      Harters RE: buttertart Sep 16, 2009 12:03 PM

                      Seeing as the remark was put in the public domain by the punter, I've no hesitation in telling you that the chef was Claude Bosi, owner of Hibiscus (currently two Michelin stars). Fab place, please try it.

                      1. re: Harters
                        buttertart RE: Harters Sep 16, 2009 12:18 PM

                        Thanks! Was actually planning to have my birthday dinner there this year until circumstances changed (nothing bad, new furry addition to the family). Had lunch there last year and absolutely loved it. Dinner it is next trip.

                  2. limster RE: mygirlbakes AL Sep 14, 2009 05:09 PM

                    It doesn't hurt if the request is made politely and ahead of time (sauces etc might take a long time prepare). It's a negotiation of sorts, and it helps if both sides are willing to offer alternatives and reasons -- e.g.:

                    "I was wondering if you could omit the spinach in that dish or substitute it with a different dish that has no spinach."

                    "I think the sauce in that dish might clash with the bottle of wine I'm bringing. Is it possible to get a dish that matches this wine better, since it seems like a good match with the courses right before and after it."

                    You may not get the dish with your specific substitutions, but you might get alternative dishes that would suit your tastes better. Plus if you know the outcome ahead of time, you could decide whether or not to eat at the restaurant.

                    There are some cases where negotiations are normal to optimize the selection and progression of dishes. For example, when organising a Chinese banquet -- these often need to be concluded a few days to a week or so ahead of time as the preparation can be labour-intensive and certain dishes require a few days to cook.

                    Another example is when you're planning to open several bottles of wine and want dishes to be cooked around them (e.g. if you're planning to drink all burgundies, you might want to reduce the number of courses that don't match those wines).

                    1. babette feasts RE: mygirlbakes AL Sep 14, 2009 08:37 PM

                      Not really. Inconvenient at times, but we do generally want to please you as long as you're not a jerk about it. Be polite about it, and give the information in advance. But if you hate mushrooms, then you hate mushrooms, and most places would rather take the extra few minutes to make you feel special and give you something you'll like better and have you come back. If you are really picky and hate mushrooms, beets, celery, onions, spinach, and chocolate, then the kitchen may think ill of you. But it's still not insulting, just inconvenient.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: babette feasts
                        Normandie RE: babette feasts Sep 18, 2009 11:56 AM

                        Of course I'm saying this from the diner's perspective, which is different from yours, but what you describe has been my own experience.

                        It's the rare fine dining establishment that doesn't place excellent service right up there with excellent cuisine. I've had only one experience at a serious restaurant, in my whole life, in which the chef refused to prepare the entree to my desired degree of doneness. Other than that, I've always found that earnest restaurants will do whatever they can to accommodate patrons, if possible--e.g., provided they have the ingredients on-hand and provided what the patron asks for doesn't violate food safety standards.

                        As an example, I have serious allergies to most shellfish, but not shrimp. Now and then I've explained as discretely as I can and asked the server if the chef would be amenable to using shrimp or chicken, instead of the crab or scallops, in a certain treatment that looks appealing or I happen to know is one of the chef's signature dishes. The only circumstances under which I've known a chef to turn me down is when he knows that the shrimp or the equipment used to store or prepare the shrimp have any possibility of having been in contact with other varieties of shellfish that could make me ill. Obviously, I've appreciated the chef's caution in those cases, very much.

                        There's always a polite, positive way to ask for a change, and that is the client's responsibility. Better to say to the server, "Gee, that preparation looks wonderful--absolutely delicious! Would the chef agree to serve it with the veal cutlets, instead of the chicken?" rather than, "Oh, ugh, I don't like chicken! Could I get veal instead?" It's common sense, much of it. Treat people the way you'd like to be treated. Show respect and appreciation for the server's effort and time, and take an interest in the chef's skills and artistry, and places worth visiting will return the good will, with pride and genuine pleasure in having pleased the customer.

                        1. re: Normandie
                          babette feasts RE: Normandie Sep 19, 2009 01:15 AM

                          And these days OpenTable makes it so easy to make or keep notes, either when you make the reservation or if you are a regular and we make notes for how to better serve you next time. Our nightly printout of the reservation sheet includes if people are celebrating a birthday or anniversary, allergies, water preferences (always drinks tap, always drinks Pellegrino). Sometimes there will be a long list, sometimes a request for something unusual like brains if we have them. Of course it is best to make special requests by calling and talking to someone who will then put the note on your reservation just to make sure it is possible, rather than just adding your own note and hoping it gets noticed. The kitchen is much, much happier to know about your gluten free, vegan, kosher, peanut allergy whatever in advance, and will try to accomodate you.

                      2. j
                        juantanamera RE: mygirlbakes AL Sep 15, 2009 02:40 AM


                        1. m
                          morla RE: mygirlbakes AL Sep 15, 2009 07:01 AM

                          In a restaurant where the menu is carefully thought out and with sides and sauces that may take days to make, it can be very difficult to change or substitute. There are exceptions (please leave out 1 item , etc). If someone makes a reservation and lets the restaurant know in ADVANCE that they have an allergy/aversion, it can usually be accomodated.
                          But on a very busy night, it can be VERY difficult to change something.
                          A friend of mine once told me, "It's a *** menu, NOT an ingredient list!"
                          And, this has NOTHING to do with the chef's "feelings." It is simply how an efficient kitchen is run.
                          If everyone wanted the potato that goes with the chicken, then sooner or later the kitchen will run out and even the chicken won't have any potato. Get it?
                          While we try to make everyone happy, there are DEFINITELY certain guests that NOBODY cares if they ever come back! But, our restaurant is full every night:)

                          1. a
                            akq RE: mygirlbakes AL Sep 15, 2009 03:09 PM

                            I agree with most other posters that it depends on the degree to which your request would change the dish and that the request should be made nicely and if the resto declines, order something else. One of my favorite things about going to great restos and ordering the tasting menu is that I am often surprised to find that my favorite dishes are things that would never had appealed to me "on paper" and I would never have ordered them ala carte. If you like the resto, I'd err on the side of asking the waiter about the dish and explaining the reason behind your question (like another poster's example of the sqab liver in the dish). A good server will be able to tell you whether the item is a large component of the dish, suggest a modification or a different dish, etc. On the other hand, I have asked for a sub on a side dish - if my entree comes with broccoli and I'd rather have the spinach side from another dish, there's no real harm in asking if they can sub the one you want. Just be pleasant about it and graciously accept a no, even if you think it's stupid. :)

                            1. k
                              kwjd RE: mygirlbakes AL Sep 16, 2009 08:34 AM

                              I usually will never do substitutions at nice restaurants. I want to eat the food exactly how the chef thinks it should be.

                              However, when I went to nice restaurant with a tasting menu for my birthday last year we had asked the waiter before ordering if it was possible to have an offal course in the tasting menu (offal was on the list of appetizers for the à la carte, but the tasting menu was completely blind). I do enjoy the surprise of not knowing what is coming next, but since we are adventurous eaters, I really wanted to have some unique courses.

                              The waiter went back and asked the chef if it would be ok and he said it was. So they ended up giving us 2 out of the 7 courses of offal and the chef even came out to talk to us after the offal courses to see how we liked them. The fried lamb brain was spectacular, so I'm glad we asked for it! If they said no to the request we would have understood though.

                              1. c
                                CrazyOne RE: mygirlbakes AL Sep 16, 2009 11:57 AM

                                Hm, I just avoid things that have ingredients that I don't want. The chef has taken the time to create these specific flavor combinations, and I really don't feel good making a request that wrecks that. Obviously it depends upon the restaurant, but the implication here is a restaurant where such care is taken with the food.

                                If for some reason I was in such a place and every choice was somehow unappealing (can't imagine the chances of that, but for the sake of describing this) and I couldn't just go somewhere else (perhaps I was someone's guest there) I would ask if there was a way I could get xyz main ingredient in a simpler preparation, rather than asking to alter the dish. While the chef may not wish to do something so pedestrian, that seems like it would go over better than an alteration, and the taste might be better anyway.

                                This makes it similar to a dietary restriction, really. Usually that can be accommodated, although, if you were stuck going somewhere and weren't sure about the menu it would be best to arrange ahead of time. I've seen a couple of really good vegetarian dishes prepared at restaurants that otherwise don't have such an option on the menu.

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