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Feb 28, 2012 10:29 AM

How to (and should I) raise poor chef skills to a restaurant owner?

We ate at an Italian restaurant the other night, a small family-run place that we'd never been to before. It was a bit on the high-end side, nice white linens, and prices to match.

I don't usually order Carbonara because a lot of places do it with lots of cream and peas and I prefer it done with egg yolk and parsley. It was described on the menu as "Sautéed with pancetta and egg yolk, a touch of cream and pecorino cheese" so I was excited they did it the way I prefer.

When it came, it wasn't swimming in cream, so I was excited, but when I started to eat it, I realized what I'd gotten was a plate of linguini with pancetta, a bit of cream, cheese and parsley, and studded with egg whites. I double checked multiple times just eating the white bits and yes, it was definitely egg whites. I've made this myself and I know egg whites don't come anywhere near this dish... it was flat out wrong and it tasted like pasta with scrambled eggs. I just don't think whoever was making it really knew how to do so. Maybe they thought it was OK to use egg white instead of egg yolk? Maybe they used a whole egg? Whatever it was, it was not done correctly.

Both the owner and waitress did (eventually) ask how everything was, although neither seemed to notice that I only ate 1/4 of my $18 pasta entree and didn't wrap it, although I wrapped something else. I smiled and said fine. I'm not usually reluctant to speak up but this was SUCH a mistake and I felt like I'd be suggesting their chef didn't know how to do his job and I didn't know how well that would go over. Plus I was there with my young daughter who notices everything and didn't want to have to explain to her the entire situation, especially if they got upset about it. In addition, we were on a tight time frame because we had to eat and run to pick up my son from a class.

So my question is do I just let it go and not go back there (or just never order that again) or do I email the owner to let him know? I feel like a small business owner would want to know about incompetence in the kitchen, but I also don't want them to think I'm looking for a freebie or trying to tell them how to run their operation. My instinct is to just let it go. I had my chance to speak up, I didn't take it, and I should just forget it... but I'm not going to go back.

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  1. I would probably just not go back there. It sounds like the chef doesn't know how to cook, so why bother. Who knows what's really going on behind the scenes. Maybe they put in the whole egg. Maybe the chef quit and someone else is cooking who has no clue. I would have said something to the server like, "hmm, do you know why the kitchen used egg whites instead of a yolk? I've never had a carbonara before that had egg whites in it."

    If I was with someone to where it was uncomfortable bringing it up while we were there, I'd just not bother going back. I might give them one more chance if someone insisted on going there a 2nd time, but there are too many restaurants to choose from to go back to a place like that IMO.

    1 Reply
    1. re: rockandroller1

      Ya. High price mixed with incompetence makes for no return visit. Nothing to see here, move along.


    2. I have commented on food I thought wasn't very good, but it has rarely made a difference so I say little unless a dish is so bad it has to be returned. (Must admit I was surprised by your statement that "egg whites don't come anywhere near this dish." I've always made Carbonara with whole eggs, plus extra yolk/s. Checked a number of Italian chefs' cookbooks and whole eggs were part of all the recipes.)

      5 Replies
      1. re: escondido123

        Fair enough, I've never made it with whole eggs, just the yolks. I suppose if it was tempered properly, the egg whites must be able to work in it, but I've never found it that way. Although since the dish was described with "egg yolk" and not "egg", it seemed that the restaurant and I were on the same page with regards to expectations.

        1. re: Chris VR

          My husband makes a wonderful carbonara with whole eggs and no cream.

        2. re: escondido123

          I also make my carbonara with whole eggs, as do the Italians who taught me. Perfectly acceptable. Eggs lightly hand-beaten appropriately before adding to the dish, it mixes well with the cheese forming a nice coating to the pasta. You actually wouldn't "notice" egg white were involved.

          Sounds like the cook, ?broke the egg into the pasta before mixing, leading to some separation of the eggs. Ok, not so nice. But are you saying this was inedible? Perhaps thou does protest too much.

          1. re: violin

            Inedible is subjective. But I don't go to restaurants for scrambled egg pasta. It's a dish that relies on simple ingredients put together properly.

            1. re: julesrules

              Agreed. It was edible, it just wasn't good or what was promised on the menu, so I didn't eat it.

        3. Funny you should bring this up as I have been a chef in many a place like the one you describe. As others have said, it could be an unskilled or ignorant chef/cook, but often times in smaller places an owner will insist on having the final say on EVERYTHING, even if they aren't skilled at cooking. I've had my share of arguments with owners who read one cookbook, or went to one part of Italy (or France, Mexico, etc.) and insist that the version of dish X that they encountered is the one, true example (not knowing the village down the road does it completely different). Or they slip their own food prejudices into the menu (I hate egg yolks, so let's do the Carbonara with whites). Also, if you've seen shows like Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares or Restaurant Impossible on the Food Network you'll know that most of a kitchen's mistakes stem from an owner that can't recognize the problem themselves, or simply insist that things be done a certain (usually incorrect) way, which the staff is obliged to follow.

          That being said, if the Carbonara misstep was the only problem I would email the owner and constructively explain why.

          And for the record, I've seen Carbonara done with egg yolks, even whole eggs, but never with just whites.

          1. As a restaurant operator I'll tell you this: all input is important, not always appreciated, but always necessary. You don't know the circumstances, chef could have been off, cook might have snuck one by, maybe as d8200 mentioned, the owner wants it done that way because of some particularly misguided though process. Either way, a politely written email can alert the restaurant to an issue that they're not aware of, or add another vote in a debate.
            I''ve often seen a situation where the owner insists on preparing dishes a certain way, against all advice from the chef or other staff, but do a complete turnaround when under non-public critique from a customer.

            just my pennies

            1. Whether you go back to the restaurant or not is your choice, but from what I read, questioning his chef skills is not appropriate unless you are questioning his execution.....

              * What you received was different from the description you read on the menu

              * you are questioning his interpretation of the dish, which is different than yours.

              If it is indeed his execution you have a problem has nothing to do with his use of egg whites or whole eggs....but rather, with the dish presented to you, the egg mixture was either not tempered properly, or they simply were not whisked or blended thoroughly enough. Mistakes most certainly can be made, but i doubt it was made with egg whites by your description of mentioning *pasta with scrambled eggs*.

              For the record....I think the authentic recipe for egg yolks only is arguable at best. My suggestion for you is to just request you do not want egg whites, but yolks only if you want the you won't have any disappointment and your expectations could be met.

              2 Replies
              1. re: fourunder

                There were no egg yolks in the scrambled part, just whites. Sorry if my description gave the wrong impression. I said "it tasted like pasta with scrambled eggs" but all I saw, as I also described, were egg whites.

                And really, I"m not interested in arguing the with owner or anyone else about what's authentic or proper. The menu stated egg yolks, so that's what I was led to expect. The dish didn't have any yellow tinge at all, which has been what I've seen when I made it at home, but I"m not hung up on how it looked, just on how it tasted, and the cooked egg white taste was very evident. I didn't taste or feel any egg yolk.

                But really, whether it's made with egg yolks, egg whites or whole eggs, do you agree there shouldn't be any sort of solid egg in the finished dish? The egg is supposed to function as part of the sauce, not be a separate textural component to the dish.

                1. re: Chris VR

                  What I would agree with is, that the finished dish should be a creamy type of sauce in in smooth and silky, but without knowing how the dish was prepared, the solid eggs could exist and result from the preparation. If the chef makes the sauce on top of the stove, then it should definitely be smooth from constant attention and my idea of Carbonara is to pour the hot pasta into the egg mixture....depending on how quickly the pasta is mixed with the egg, I could definitely see some curds forming.

                  Ultimately, if it tastes good, I'm satisfied......