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Oct 23, 2010 10:25 AM

What "chef-y" things do you do at a restaurant?

I was just curious about how CH'ers "game" their dining experiences for the better by the "chef-y" things that they do at a restaurant.

What are your tricks to maximize the CH-worthiness of a meal that seem "chef-y" (chef-like) to you. For instance do you travel with your own condiments, is there a trick in how you order certain dishes, or is there an important detail in how you garnish your meal at the table?

Or what have you observed other people do that you consider to be "chef-y".

I have a few myself, but wanted to just kick off this topic without biasing it towards any particular practice. This should be fun; looking forward to your input!

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  1. I've seen this but I don't do anything. When I go out I expect that my food will be cooked correctly.

    When I was doing the road warrior thing I would bring things along for takeaways and grocery purchases but stopped that practice after the TSA started going nuts in some airports.

    1. I wouldn't have thought of this as "chef-y," in particular, until you mentioned bringing your own condiments, but there's a breakfast restaurant here that makes the best pancakes I've ever eaten, but they serve them with "syrup" and "spread" instead of real maple syrup and butter. They'll serve them with butter if you ask, but you have to bring your own maple syrup. So I do.

      1. The back of the house and the front of the house are completely separate matters. When chefs eat out, they are probably more polite than your average diner. They don't want to be disrespected in their house, and aren't going to be disrespectful in someone else's house.

        The only chef-y things I do is look longingly at the action on the line.

        1. I honestly cannot get the point of this--what "game" is there to play except the implicit one we need to play with a chef and restaurant: to eat their food, and come to some feeling about it? There have been loads of CH threads about bringing your own sel-de-mer or olive oil or bread or napkins or chairs or whatever to a restaurant and they all seem to me to reflect childish, boorish, look-at-me behavior. "Chef-y?" How bout playing "guest-y" as well as possible?

          2 Replies
          1. re: bob96

            Perhaps "chef-y" was the wrong word, as many of the things that I personally think about in this regard are quite simple and might be easily overlooked or perhaps would strike many as just simply obvious. And yes, perhaps "game" was a particularly bad choice, so mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa...

            What I was trying to get at, and perhaps have not explained it sufficiently well, is to solicit the various ways CH'ers actively engage in their dining in order to maximize their experience. I'm willing to bet that CH'ers above all are more likely to carefully think about, for instance, how they choose the dishes when they order at a restaurant. What are the considerations that you personally employ when ordering at the table?

            And as much as I'm sure that many CH'ers give what they order great thought, perhaps that even extends to what they do once the items arrive at their table. Whether one realizes it or not one tacitly makes many choices in the simple act of consuming their meal. This question is really directed to those in our population who do so consciously, though no pejorative connotation is intended towards those that do not. Yes, to many, dining is a very deliberate act. Why do you do the things that you do at the table? No matter how subtle it could be that you have very specific reasons for your actions. If your answer extends beyond just simply a "because I like it that way", it's likely that you have given it some thought, that you had a specific reason in mind.

            Sure, bringing condiments to the table might sound extreme to many, but I don't see much of a problem when it is done discreetly, and anyway it was just given as an example. Yes, I too agree that this can be a particularly sensitive area, and certainly there are more wrong ways of going about it than there are right... But without an understanding of the specific details and context, I don't understand how one can conclude that that should immediately be interpreted as boorish or look-at-me behavior?

            ...and BTW there was no presumption intended that this be limited to fine dining, and in fact is probably more applicable to how one finds ways to maximize their casual dining experiences. But no, even at a diner I'm not talking about recreating Jack Nickolson's role in "Five Easy Pieces"... :-) We're talking about much simpler, more discreet, things here...

            In any case let's have fun with this. Perhaps in the end we can agree to disagree, but I'm willing to bet that you will find some of the things that will be stated in this thread are not in the least bit "extreme"...

            1. re: cgfan

              i don't order fish on a monday. . . exception made for the fried-from frozen chippie shop, etc of course. :)

          2. I try not to play this at all. My assumption, when we dine out, is that the chef knows what he's doing and has his line trained to a correct standard. If I don't like the schema of the food somewhere, I'd avoid that place rather than go out of my way to embarrass the chef (and myself, and whomever I'm dining with.) If I want food that tastes like mine, well, I"ll make it at home. Once or twice I've asked for salt in places where it didn't appear on the table, and I felt awkward enough about that - probably more awkward than the chef who brought it to me. (roughly an hour later) Mr. just reminded me that I do one thing that he considers "cheffy" - whenever we visit a restaurant we enjoy, I invariably ask the servers and bartenders where the house crew's going after service to have a snack and a drink. We've found some of our best places this way. I just never considered it "cheffy", though; only common sense.

            23 Replies
            1. re: mamachef

              I'm with you. At least awkward and going on up to rude. Now, I can see if you're a regular at a breakfast joint and bring your own syrup, that's kinda funny and they obviously don't have a problem with it. But no. Kinda gives me the icks.

              1. re: c oliver

                I frequently share my maple syrup. The tables are very close together.

                  1. re: c oliver

                    Oh, I didn't think of that.

                    Now I did.

                    1. re: Jay F

                      I meant that in a friendly way. There are a few touchy people out and about today :)

                      1. re: c oliver

                        And I took it in a friendly way. I like you.

              2. re: mamachef

                What a great idea! (Asking for recs from the staff for an after-dinner fave...) And as I said in my reply to bob96 above, "chef-y" was probably a poor choice of words...

                Yes, I suspect that a lot of the things that I'm thinking of would seem like common sense to many CH'ers, but as we know a CH'ers common sense is not at all common! (Otherwise everyone would be employing the same strategy that you talk of to find good after-dinner recs...)

                1. re: cgfan

                  Okay, go ahead and tell us what you do cause I don't think we're getting your point. Don't worry about biasing us :)

                  1. re: c oliver

                    Agreed c oliver; this seems to be a most appropriate time to do so...

                    One of my most frequently used practices is at a Pho shop. Now this can likely only be done at a Pho shop that has a VN staff, but in my San Diego that's an easy call...

                    My standard order would be for a Pho Tai Gan Sach, (Pho with rare steak, tendon, and tripe), which by itself is not what I'm taking about. However without specifying any further the rare (raw) steak would be directly placed into the broth right before service, and due to the very thin cut used it almost always overcooks, which for me defeats the purpose. It also has the effect of clouding up the soup (and hence the taste) with the rendered proteins from the blood.

                    What I almost always do at a VN-run Pho shop is to ask for the rare steak on the side (Tai Rieng) so that it is served separately on a plate as raw beef. I also usually order a small side bowl of broth, (Chen Soup), so that the Tai can be cooked to your desired level of doneness, which for me is very rare, and also has the benefit of keeping the main broth clear, and importantly keeps the broth hot for far longer. You can clearly taste the natural sweetness of beef when consumed in this manner, rather than the cardboardy taste, nearly leathery texture, and the deathly pale look of an overcooked Tai...

                    (...overcooked oxymoron if I ever heard one, but that is the way it almost always arrives...) And one can leisurely enjoy their meal without the mad rush of "rescuing" their rapidly cooking Tai out from the hot broth less it turn into toothy pieces of cardboard.

                    What initially got me to order the separate bowl of soup was first simply regretting how cool the Pho broth got after adding in the Tai. As in most Japanese, for me a very (very) hot broth is absolutely essential to a soup. Then I thought, why not order a separate bowl of soup? When I started doing that it immediately became obvious that there were many other advantages beyond simply a hotter soup. It literally transformed the dish! For me the extra order is worth it, and perhaps it will be for you as well when you experience the difference!

                    The difference is amazing, and once a fan of Tai has had it this way and prefers their Tai on the rare side, it is likely that one would not go back to their standard order.

                    After all the most important part of the Pho and where most of the magic occurs is in the broth. Pho restaurants fail or succeed on the basis of a winning broth. I'd say if anything it is a sign of respect when a customer respects the broth to the point of requesting these extras. I challenge all Pho Tai fans to consider if they are really tasting the broth at its best if the Tai is cooked in the main bowl, the very broth that your Pho shop has hopefully spent all of their best efforts into creating.

                    I think a cultural parallel is in order here. Just as much as I can no longer imagine cooking the Tai in the main bowl, I cannot imagine, as most Japanese, the logic behind soaking oneself in the same bathwater that was used to wash. Here the soap scum in the bath is the equivalent of the protein scum in the soup. Yuk! And in many of the traditional soup styles in Japanese cooking, clarity is paramount to a well-constructed soup.

                    (I'll have to remember next time to take pictures of the Chen Soup before and after the Tai has been cooked and post it here... I tell you just by looking at the cloudy soup after cooking the Tai I cannot get myself to eat it, but yet customers essentially are doing the same thing everyday with their Pho Tai..)

                    1. re: cgfan

                      Ah, so it's like ordering your salad dressing on the side. Got it.

                      1. re: c oliver

                        Yes, and a hurrah for the hopefully more positive evolution of this thread!

                        And actually I'd consider that to be "chef-y" as well, as what mindful chef would go out of their way to dress a salad early? No, they'd dress it as late as possible, and if a customer doesn't mind dressing it themselves, I'd say that if anything it again pays respect to the chef and to the restaurant for the customer to care enough.

                        And as simple as it might seem it's by no means obvious, particularly when considering the general population. If it were more people would be requesting their salad dressing on the side! :)

                        1. re: cgfan

                          You can get alot of disagreement here on CH regarding asking for salad dressing "on the side" at higher end restaurants. Sure, at Applebees and the like where they put too much on. But at "nicer" places many consider it an insult to the chef. Saying that s/he doesn't know what's correct. Not sure what you want by "positive evolution." You may find that alot of us don't do those types of things.

                          ETA: Karl S and others have commented that at dinner parties in private homes, it's the guest responsibility to be the guest and not usurp the hosts responsiblities. So maybe I feel the same in a restaurant. My "job" is to be the diner not the chef.

                          1. re: c oliver

                            Agreed as well. I was responding to your post in the context of a casual dining restaurant.

                            And as to "positive evolution", my phrase was more completely "positive evolution of this thread" where I was referring to the overall mood and reception (misunderstanding?) of my original post which I felt was in danger of heading off in a decidedly negative direction. I certainly was not talking about anything so high and mighty as the evolution of dining and cuisine! :-0

                            1. re: cgfan

                              I think some of us just don't do those types of things. That's neither positive nor negative. Just what we do or don't do.

                      2. re: cgfan

                        Your practice of requesting rare beef served on a separate plate rather than in the broth is a very common among pho eaters. Others prefer it in the soup because they want it a little more cooked while others can't be bother. This is an accepted practice as no waiter or other diners will give you a second look. It is like requesting salad dressing on the side. This is very different than if someone brings their own bottle of Sriracha and douce it all over a plate of food. By the way, my mother hates raw bean sprouts in pho so she always request them cooked. And like all her lady friends, she gives all fried dim sum a light squeeze with her napkin to remove some of the oil before eating it, a funny scene when the entire table of ten are doing it.

                        1. re: PBSF

                          Is that along with "polishing" one's plate in advance of putting food on it?

                          1. re: PBSF

                            Yes, and that is essentially my point. We are not talking about a "Five Easy Pieces" moment here. Just a little something that reflects a thoughtful approach by the diner, again not to put any negative spin if one does not.

                            I do know it is practiced; witness the occasional inclusion of these options on the menus themselves. However it has been my experience that this is not a "common " practice, in the sense that I very rarely see it being done by the customers at a Pho shop. Just curious, what percentage of Pho Tai diners would you estimate practices this? Personally from what I have seen I'd put it at less than 10%, and probably even less than 5.

                            Regardless, however common or not was not the point of this thread. The main point here was the deliberate things one does to maximize their experience at a restaurant.

                            1. re: cgfan

                              When I get noodle soup at the Cambodian hole-in-the-wall, one of the options is to get the soup "dry." The broth comes out separately with a pork bone in it, then the noodles meat and vegetable come out in the big bowl; cooked, but dry.

                              I don't say this because it's "chef-y" (or whatever)--about half the clientele orders this way--but that you might enjoy this if you see it on a menu.

                              1. re: barryg

                                About half the time when I order a bowl of Mi at a VN restaurant, I'll also request it dry. Curious, with what kind of noodles would the Cambodians serve it dry? (I have no experience with Cambodian food...) Would it be similar to the Mi dishes (Chinese-style egg noodles) at a VN restaurant, by chance?

                                1. re: cgfan

                                  The popular soup is Hu Tieu Nam Vang aka Phnom Penh Noodle Soup. Where I go it's offered with an option of rice or egg noodles.

                            2. re: PBSF

                              My daughter blots the oil off a greasy pizza, but only at home. I've never seen anyone squeeze their dim sum, but would probably find it very funny to watch!

                            3. re: cgfan

                              Now this, I can totally understand and get behind, and I've seen it done by more than one person at Pho houses, and it seems to be a complete non-issue there.