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"Est-ce que le chef peut créer un menu spécial pour nous?"

[above quote from Parigi]

Currently active thread on Chez L'Ami Jean got me curious as I would usually prefer this for a restaurant that I am visiting for the first time.

What other restaurants in and out of Paris would this work not only for the regulars but especially for the first time visitors who are adventurous and willing without being served the "daily special?" Any experiences?

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  1. Welcome back, Kurtis. This is a brilliant question. I look forward to answers.

    I think that Le Cep in Fleurie used to be the kind of place where you could do this. I'm not sure how it would work under the new kitchen.

    The more I muse this, the more Jego's singular talent becomes apparent.

    3 Replies
    1. re: mangeur

      There are plenty of singularly talented chefs in Paris, but very few seem to have persisted in being a hands-on owner-chef of a small place for many years, in the face of publicity, popularity and alternative commercial opportunities, as Jego has done.

      I will also say I admire the generosity with which the kitchen economics seems to be run. It is a very large team in there relative to the number of seats and the buying/ provisioning is clearly lavish as well to support the many menu options (I'm guessing the expensive proteins - game, wild-caught fish - are not being hauled out of the freezer and de-frosted on demand).

      1. re: shakti2

        Well said. An imporant aspect to point out.

        1. re: shakti2

          "the generosity with which the kitchen economics seems to be run."

          One of the most illuminating of recent comments was Ptipois' reminder that waste is the mortal enemy of any kitchen. When small quantities of product can be developed into an off-menu course in a carte blanche, you have win-win situation.

          This is an area in which Jego excells.

      2. Honestly I can't think of any places where that is done. Not everybody has Jégo's talent for improvisation and in other places (not all), regulars or friends get that treatment.

        However that does not mean it's not possible, and it would be interesting to find out how, generally, restaurants would react when confronted to that request from first-time customers.

        5 Replies
        1. re: Ptipois

          Indeed the question is the translation of a question phrased by Kelly.
          The way it happend in Chez l'Ami Jean, it was Mario who suggested to us the first time and every time: would you like the chef to take care of you ? Voulez-vous que le chef s'occupe de vous ? or Voulez-vous que le chef crée un menu spécial pour vous ?

          1. re: Parigi

            I love the French language. Makes my toes curl in anticipation.

            Understanding it would undoubtedly remove the thrill.

            1. re: Parigi

              Parigi, it does seem to me to be the usual question asked at CAJ. Not intrusively or with any kind of pressure, just the question.

            2. re: Ptipois

              Although it's not uncommon to have tasting menu's based in the days produce, chefs whims. Some are written down, some are not - you simply trust the kitchen. True this tends to be in the more leading edge kitchens rather than traditional.

              And I though CLJ had formalized this by introducing the Carte Blanche menu as a menu option where the chef cooks his choice of dishes for you - maybe not as romantic as saying let the the chef take care of me.

              1. re: Ptipois

                "Honestly I can't think of any places where that is done."
                Perhaps, but I love to do it.

              2. Not just in France, but in the States, UK, Australia, Germany, and Italy, I've had great success for many years saying basically, "I'll have whatever the chef feels like cooking for me." Have rarely been disappointed.

                1. Chef J-F Renard will do this at Tintilou, I nearly always request it when I go.

                  1. Even at japanese sushi places (I'm talking about restaurants with real japanese chefs obviously) the phrase "okamase onegaishimasu" has gotten me strange looks and a point at the menu with a "Please choose what you want"...

                    So, unfortunately I doubt that there are a lot of places like CAJ that would accept this request... But it is worth trying, the worst that can happen is the waiter saying that it is not possible.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Rio Yeti

                      Indeed, even chez l'ami Jean, it started with Mario proposing it first. It would not have occurred to us to ask such a thing. But after the first two times, we got into the habit of snapping the menu shut and turning to Mario or to Jégo saying: Do it, do it to us.

                    2. Actually, now that I re-read the sentence "Est-ce que le chef peut créer un menu spécial pour nous?", I wouldn't ask it like that... the "menu spécial" part may seem like you're asking for "preferential treatment" and could rub the waiter and/or chef the wrong way...
                      I would say "Nous aimerions donner carte-blanche au chef, si cela est possible." This way you're pointing the chef's creativity in front of your "specialness", you're being courteous about it ("if it is possible"), and you're discretely hinting at the fact that the chef can do whatever he wants but without implying that you absolutely want dishes that are not on the menu. So worst case scenario, he just chooses from the menu what he prefers to serve you.

                      10 Replies
                      1. re: Rio Yeti

                        1. I don't know if asking carte-blanche is humbler. :)
                        2. I also was streamlining my French, in a way that would be easy for a visitor to say. I don't necessarily phrase my question that way. I formulated the question to make it uncomplicated and also easy to say, that should be easy to understand even if said with an accent. ;)

                        1. re: Parigi

                          You're initial answer was specifically targeted at CAJ, and in that case it works fine as the place is used to the request (and in fact as you mentioned, it is often suggested). But since the OP has started a new thread about all restaurants including ones that may never have this kind of request, I do feel that asking for a special menu versus giving the chef carte-blanche is a subtle but important difference... but maybe that's just me.

                          1. re: Rio Yeti

                            You are right.
                            Indeed it never occurs to me to ask this question to any restaurant other than CLAJ, becasue I do not have such a history with any restaurant other than CLAJ.
                            Yes, in a handful of Chinese restaurants, I do specifically ask what is available "hors carte", what are the "envies" of the chef.

                        2. re: Rio Yeti

                          Yes. When I first saw this sentence, I had thought : the chef's best assessment of what's good and fresh is already on his carte/ specials/ degustation menu. You are at risk of getting a meal laden with inappropriate luxe ingredients provided by a well-intentioned kitchen to an unknown dinner who wants something EVEN MORE SPECIAL than what's on the menu (as is done by restaurants in Manhattan, London, HK and wherever else there are a lot of banker and hedge-fund types).

                          Or even worse, de-frosted less-fresh AND inappropriate luxe ingredients !

                          The second version is closer to what Kurtis is trying to say, I think.

                          1. re: shakti2

                            The title is imported directly from a specifically Chez L'Ami Jean context.
                            I think it was Kelly who first thought it was a question that I would ask Jégo or other chefs, when it was Jégo who had proposed first.
                            Then Kurtis quotes me in the title intimating that it was a standard question to ask.
                            They are both quoting me, but have veered very far from what I meant. I have never even said this. I just translated a question.
                            May I suggest that everyone read the CLAJ thread first, from which this thread is derived, before shooting the pianist. Jeeezus, give me a break.

                            1. re: Parigi

                              Hi Parigi,

                              I would love to accompany you to CLAJ once!

                              1. re: bcc

                                Yes, we've had that sort of request before...
                                We SO love to be loved for our own sake ;D

                                A few remarks, to clarify:

                                - The polite sentence would be "Est-ce que le chef peut créer un menu spécial pour nous ?", indeed.
                                - The usual dialogue is:
                                Waiter: "Le chef s'occupe de vous ?"
                                Patient: "Ouiiiii !"
                                And ritually, it is always asked by the waiter. No first step from the customer, and in all restaurants where I've that that experience, I have never seen it done the other way round.

                                The experience happens in very special circumstances, naturally outside of the plainly stated "carte blanche" formulas: the chef knows you, whether you're a regular or a friend, and he likes that sort of exercise. Some are not so keen about it.

                                The only places where I have felt comfortable to ask the chef to take care of things were haute cuisine restaurants with one, two or three Michelin stars. The exercise is easier with large brigades and well-organized kitchens, and haute cuisine restaurants have no trouble functioning in that mode.

                                Jégo is a particular case since he is a formidable improviser, he comes up with recipes or preparations in seconds and you literally see them fly out of his head. For that reason it is extremely pleasant to work on a recipe book with that sort of chef. So I don't think his case should be extended to other chefs. Nevertheless, most of them can come up with an improvised menu, but it is generally on their own decision, not the customer's.

                                One important point, I believe, is related to the very nature of contemporary restaurants in Paris and France in general.

                                We have to face the truth: the only restaurants that are now really interesting in this country — and they're the ones that are commented here again and again — are the ones serving "cuisine du marché", simple preparations based on the day's offering and the freshest products. Some chefs, when they check in for lunch service, do not even know exactly what they will cook. Of course they know about the orders, but sometimes they do not get exactly what they have ordered and the suppliers have left special unexpected stuff that is particularly good that day. Or they just drop by with: "We've got great turnips / skate / lamb kidneys today, are you interested?" You get the picture.

                                So most of the time it's all on the chalkboard, or the daily menu, and if you order carte blanche or you're in a "le chef s'occupe de vous" situation, you won't get anything very different from what you could order from the chalkboard or the menu.

                                Sometimes there's extra verbal information: "It's not on the menu, but there are lamb kidneys today, are you interested?"

                                Therefore, with most good bistrots nowadays, you're already in a carte blanche situation whatever you do, especially if the menu is short (Le Galopin or Youpi et Voilà !! for instance). It does not make a lot of sense to request it.

                                1. re: Ptipois

                                  "Yes, we've had that sort of request before...
                                  We SO love to be loved for our own sake ;D"


                              2. re: Parigi

                                May I apologise most humbly for sparking this star-crossed conversation? The next time I go to CLAJ, I'm just going to grin ingratiatingly and see what happens.

                                1. re: Kelly

                                  You didn't start anything, Kelly. Your input is always among the best, and always the wittiest. Everyone was about 5° off, and soon it was nearly 180°. :)

                          2. Thanks to many of your insightful replies. Here's reason for me posting this question, and it wasn't meant to seek how to, but where to, and to gather some characteristics of such place to make what can be an odd request/question a mutually beneficial and successful restaurant experience.

                            As my wife and I travel at most once in 1-2 years to France, what the residents will categorize as a neighborhood place or otherwise all become a destination dinning experience. We certainly do good amount of research and form an idea and trust of the place with help of this board. But once at the restaurant, we are faced with various pages of menu, some with daily specials and/or tasting menu. My preference in this setting is to have no preference of my own: eliminate my (un)known habits of choices and experience this restaurant under this chef in the moment. Unless the chef is continuing to perfect his 1832nd steak frites - there are places that they do and this is where we would go for it - what's fan favorite plate or on "special menu" isn't necessarily what's inspiring the chef at the moment. It's not so different from known artists making and remaking same thing for years on as it must occupy every other museums, or conductors who are forced to play the usual at certain time of the year, every year; nothing wrong with it on consumer stand point one may say, but not so for the artists or even consumers seeking inspiration. So, reading Parigi's write up on recent experience at Chez L'Ami Jean makes my heart race as it seems just the kind of a meal we are looking for. (sorry Parigi for the unintended religious experience this post put you through...) Here's the link to the Parigi's perfect meal: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/920106

                            The characteristics of what makes this possible at Chez L'Ami Jean all make sense: small room, chef-owner w/ formidable and flexible kitchen, strongly seasonal/market driven menu, and artistry (improvisational, creative, innovative, etc). And, as Ptipois points out, any good bistrot w/ market-driving short menu should achieve this without asking. With seasonal markets in and out of Paris that represent the best in western world this should be an easy marriage and not so difficult to find. Well, not necessarily.

                            We went to a restaurant in Paris past May that represents the best of farm/market to table places according to my research and it is one of the boards very favorite for this as well. It has all the characteristics less Jego himself to deliver success. Yes, the food is delicious and good, and the setting and service wonderful. But we walked out of there uninspired and unexcited. It somehow felt overly practiced and exercised, or perhaps too perfect that leaves no room for artistry, with dishes that can be reproduced without the chef on consistent basis, a sense of sterility that is opposite of organic or of the moment. It's not so different from listening to classical musicians of today whose technical perfection translate to "better" recording compared to the ones from the turn of the century whose masterly artistry easily trumped technical errors. It's not that we dislike this kind of place as we have many of similar experiences in NYC and elsewhere. But I do wish for restaurants with a what Mangeur helped me to understand as "Soul-Evident Kitchen." We do wish to experience this more when visiting France.

                            Maybe it is the likes of Parigi who allow Jego to be who he is. Perhaps we as a consumer drive chefs to produce and reproduce with such consistency which represent success and MS. Some posts on this board noted that the best time to visit a restaurant is just before it reaches the height of success. Perhaps this is the balance point between creativity and consistency. I am not sure, but it does make sense.

                            5 Replies
                            1. re: Kurtis

                              It's an interesting dilemma and I often have the same FOMO when I head for a well regarded place - am I in the know enough to order the "right" dishes or will I go for the also rans ?

                              That said I don't think there is a fail safe strategy. Asking a chef to look after you can work but I suspect even Jego can miss the mark due to all sorts of factors - mood, how service is going, what was in the market that day. Equally a place (like Youpi et Voila) that has a fixed menu should deliver the best on the day as it's should be the chefs best effort - but what happens if you don't really like something that is the core of the menu.

                              It also depends a lot on your mood that day. If it's the first big meal for a while or whether it's the sixth meal in a succession of blow outs will probably have more impact on the experience than the talent in the kitchen.......So many variables so little time!

                              1. re: PhilD

                                I am confused. I am sure that on our previous visits we ordered a la carte at Youpi et Voila. Have they changed their format? And when?

                                Actually, I would love to see what Gelbart might throw at me given free rein.

                                1. re: mangeur

                                  He'd do the same thing that's on the chalkboard since it is a small chalkboard.

                                  1. re: mangeur

                                    I don't think we got a chalk board or I even saw one (we were in the window) maybe Jean-Phillipe just asked us to let him look after us.

                                    We definitely did that with the wine - we just said you choose - and it was great (and cheap).

                                    1. re: mangeur

                                      When went it was a tasting menu at night but a few choices at lunch.

                                2. I have been rethinking this question.
                                  First I apologize for having sounded more vehement than I actually felt. I apologize esp to Kurtis and to Kelly.

                                  All new comers to this thread, or those who did not read the CLAJ thread from which this thread is derived, should be aware that :
                                  1. having the chef take care of you and create for you a special menu is something that happens very rarely.
                                  2. it is usually a thing that is proposed to you, not a thing that you take the initiative of requesting.
                                  3. An exception to point 2 is a handful of Chinese restaurants; the now defunct Au Mandarin always keeps a couple of dishes "hors carte", over which the Chinese embassy staff and I fought bitterly. The now defunct QTea (o how I miss it) which nearly always had some hors-carte goodies. Sinorama which has a 3-speed system: a bilingual menu, then the day's specialties written in black calligraphy on red crêpe paper on the wall, then the chef's own special dishes that he tells you, - if he's in the mood. (Likafo also has hors-carte specials of the day written on the wall, usually seasonal stuff or special arrivage that the resto does not bother to add to the printed menu. I don't know if the chef can be talked into "taking care of you", but I do have vibes…)

                                  1. A Paris restaurant where this will work is the Chinese- hipster- celeb spot on Rue de Richelieu, Restaurant Dave. I honestly have not been, but know a couple that have loved their spareribs. But I suppose this place would make for a good practice session before trying the phrase at L'Ami Jean ( joking, of course ).

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: vicstark

                                      Except the food at Davé is really not good. And it was a hipster joint 25 years ago. -- Did you find a guidebook in a time-machine ? :)

                                      1. re: vicstark

                                        Dave passed its prime years ago. Now it is a fussy not very friendly place, with mediocre food and no longer the star studded clientele it might have once had ...