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The customer is NOT always right


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#1 xxchef

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Posted 05 March 2011 - 01:01 PM

The New York Times had an article yesterday highlighting the growing trend of chefs and restaurants who "just say no" to customer special requests from ingredient substitution to dietary requests.

From the article: "David Chang, whose small empire of Momofuku restaurants is known for refusing to make substitutions or provide vegetarian options. “Instead of trying to make a menu that’s for everyone, let’s make a menu that works best for what we want to do.” He added, “The customer is not always right.”"

Is he right? Is this a good trend or bad?
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#2 Boilerfood

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Posted 05 March 2011 - 01:06 PM

I think it's ultimately his choice. If the chef feels that he can still turn a profit even after the more persnickety customers write him off as unwilling to accommodate, more power to him. I think there are some people, and Chang hinted at this, that feel the public doesn't know what the dishes are meant to taste like, so he doesn't want them changing it to taste how they think it should.

#3 Jenni

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Posted 05 March 2011 - 01:14 PM

Hmm, I don't know about this. Firstly it depends on the restaurant. If you're going to a fine dining establishment where the chef has spent hours designing a specific tasting course menu then I think the customer should be aware that subistitutions/alterations may well be impossible (unless perhaps you have arranged in advance with the restaurant).

For smaller places that are cooking to order from a large menu, then I don't think it's always unreasonable for a customer to make a request, depending on what it is. If a customer comes in with a whole list of things they want changed about a dish, then it's up to the chef if they want to do that or not. But if someone orders a dish and then asks politely "is it possible to leave the bell peppers out of that?", and if it wouldn't actually be difficult to do so, then I would consider it rather churlish of the chef to refuse to. Of course, this is if the bell peppers were a small part of the dish, not a huge fundamental ingredient.

#4 gfweb

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Posted 05 March 2011 - 01:29 PM

Hard to see this becoming widespread. I'd only accept this from a genius.

Which isn't to say I change an order often. But if I want mayo for my fries then give me the damn Mayo.

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#5 Jeffery C

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Posted 05 March 2011 - 01:30 PM

I think it entirely depends on how the request is made. If no vegetarian or vegan options are available on an a la carte menu, but obviously items are available for the kitchen to do so, then by all means, I feel a restaurant should not only honor the request, but be bound to do so. This is the service industry. Without having read the article or understanding Chef Chang's point of view, I could see where a kitchen would be unable to honor a particular special request in a reasonable amount of time. My restaurant has the benefit(?) of having a grocery store 10 feet from our back door. If I am able to honor a request for a particular vegetable or other item i do not have, I feel compelled to do so. I also have no problem with refusing the request if it puts the kitchen, staff, & service to the other diners at risk to subpar standards.

Edited by Jeffery C, 05 March 2011 - 01:30 PM.


#6 Mjx

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Posted 05 March 2011 - 01:48 PM

There are a number of things I tolerate poorly, and a few things that I find positively disgusting in food.

So, if I eat out somewhere, I look at the menu first; if it doesn't work for me, I go elsewhere; if I'm in doubt, I ask (phone, ask waitstaff if it's looking quiet).

True, restaurants are service industry, and I expect restaurants to be sanitary, deliver what they promise, and have courteous (which includes being polite about saying 'No, we aren't able to accommodate that request', as long as the customer is being polite, too) and hard-working staff. I don't expect them to jump through hoops as though they exist in my (or anyone else's) private Sims universe.

Am I pleased if they offer me options? Certainly. But every business does try to perform within certain parameters, and if they end up trying to accomodate requests that stretch their time and other resources, it's going to affect what they're actually trying to do.

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#7 BadRabbit

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Posted 05 March 2011 - 05:03 PM

I have no problem with it. If you want it your way, go to Burger King. I imagine the only people that this will really anger are the authors of "princess tickets" and they are really more trouble than they are worth anyway.

#8 David A. Goldfarb

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Posted 05 March 2011 - 05:05 PM

I can see in a place like the Momofuku restaurants that are basically concept driven, if you're not there to take part in the concept 100%, then Chang has a point--why go there? As long as he's got enough business, and he certainly does, then it's his prerogative to run his restaurant as he pleases.

At the same time, there is a certain virtuosity in being able to respond to all kinds of special requests and still turn out something interesting, and that's also impressive in its own way, so I don't see one approach as inherently better than the other.

The alternative one often sees is the kind of menu where there are items meant to cater to all tastes, with a few uncharacteristic selections provided grudgingly and not done well.

#9 IndyRob

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Posted 05 March 2011 - 05:40 PM

I haven't been able to read the article, as it requires registration, but it seems to me that the old saw that "the customer is always right" is having it's meaning extended - or at least some are attempting to accomplish this.

In a dispute regarding whether a given steak was cooked med-rare or rare, the customer is indeed always right (even if they aren't).

When a customer looks at a menu and doesn't find what they want, they are not ever right -except perhaps by excusing themselves, or asking for small accomodations.

#10 Holly Moore

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Posted 05 March 2011 - 05:46 PM

The ability to accommodate reasonable customer requests is one measure of the chef and his/her kitchen, as well as the hospitality of the restaurant.

The nature of the request and the circumstances define reasonable. Is the request one of medical necessity or whim? Is the kitchen in the weeds or running smoothly. How busy is the restaurant? Is the request within the skill set of the kitchen? Will it take too much time?

Such inflexibility is also often an indication of the chef's and the restaurant's smugness - "I'm so good (self-important) that I don't need to honor customer requests." It is also a policy that seems to change as the lines, over time, shorten.

I'd be curious if one of Michelin's considerations in awarding stars is a restaurant's willingness and ability to handle customer requests.

A bit of semi-relevant ancient history... At the start of my career I worked corporately for McDonald's and, later, Burger King. At McDonald's Hamburger University we were taught that counter personnel should call out specials as "grills" so other customers in line would not realize they could customize their 15 cent hamburgers. Later, I was with Burger King when they came out with "Have it your way." Marketing genius. The ad agency identified a weakness in McDonald's batch preparation system that was not present with Burger King's conveyor belt broiler. It was such a powerful campaign that McDonald's had to adapt their system and promote special orders.
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#11 Jeffery C

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Posted 05 March 2011 - 06:02 PM

Such inflexibility is also often an indication of the chef's and the restaurant's smugness - "I'm so good (self-important) that I don't need to honor customer requests." It is also a policy that seems to change as the lines, over time, shorten.

I couldnt agree more. If the kitchen has the items, then honor the request! I think thats what gives small ma 'n pa places such appeal because a "regular" can go into an establishment and receive their "special" off menu item without having to ask for it. Makes them feel like someone cares, and there is no place else in that particular city/town that can deliver that item like they can get at that establishment.

#12 Bonnie Ruth

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Posted 05 March 2011 - 08:22 PM

I read the article and thought Chang sounded very arrogant. The article didn't even talk about reasons for the customer's requests, which of course could be health-related. But even aside from that, it is becoming pretty well-known that tastes are extremely individual, and genetic. So, come on, there is no one "right" way of preparing anything. If a customer request is easily accommodated, it seems to me it is sheer inhospitality, and unworthy of any fine restaurant, not to accommodate it. Shouldn't such a restaurant be courteous enough to do what most of us would do for a guest in our own home? I wonder how the wait staff in Chang's restaurant is instructed to respond to such requests.

#13 Jeffery C

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Posted 05 March 2011 - 09:20 PM

The article didn't even talk about reasons for the customer's requests, which of course could be health-related.

many requests can be accommodated without compromising menu/food integrity. as chef/restaurant owners, we have to remember who actually pays our bills and writes our checks. the nice thing about the foodie/food-as-art side of the business is that it allows the quirky, head strong character traits this profession nurtures to be just that, true to their nature, as long as they have a large enough following to keep the doors open.

#14 David A. Goldfarb

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Posted 05 March 2011 - 09:44 PM

The article also mentions Shopsin's, which had all kinds of quirky rules, and that was part of the attraction of the place. They never lacked for customers. Unfortunately he wasn't so lucky with landlords.

The whole Momofuku experience involves accepting the policies of the establishment, such as waiting in line in the restaurants that don't take reservations, or dealing with the computerized reservation system for Ko (parties of 1, 2, or 4 only), or accepting whatever they happen to be serving as the lunch to go at Ma Peche. They attract customers who want the whole package.

Likewise the espresso place that refuses to serve coffee in paper cups--there are plenty of places that will make a coffee to go in a paper cup. If there is one place that can stay in business by refusing to serve coffee in a paper cup, it seems to me not so different from the better pizza places that refuse to serve slices.

#15 gfweb

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Posted 06 March 2011 - 08:02 AM

Some pretty bad pizza places also have a no slice rule eg domino's.

#16 Mjx

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Posted 06 March 2011 - 08:18 AM

. . . . I think thats what gives small ma 'n pa places such appeal because a "regular" can go into an establishment and receive their "special" off menu item without having to ask for it. Makes them feel like someone cares, and there is no place else in that particular city/town that can deliver that item like they can get at that establishment.


But ma 'n pa establishments specialize in being accomodating, at least within given parameters; it's pretty much their 'thing', whether the food they make is terrififc, or frankly lousy. And if someone were to go in to such a place and harangue them if they couldn't or wouldn't rustle up a home-made mayonnaise, or Pommes Anna (even if they had the ingredients; I'm speaking of a place where the chef/cook isn't familiar with these things), any regulars present would probably strongly resent the rude interloper. And they'd be right.
While I agree that an arrogant or smug refusal to accommodate certain requests is unacceptable, it's the attitude, in my opinion, not the refusal itself that is the problem. After all, who would go to Chanel and ask them to whip them up something Thierry Mugler-ish?

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#17 Tri2Cook

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Posted 06 March 2011 - 09:51 AM

This isn't a case of the customer being right or wrong, it's a case of the customer being accommodated or not. If the owner is willing to accept the risks that can/will accompany that type of policy, I have no problem with it.
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#18 Yajna Patni

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Posted 06 March 2011 - 11:37 AM

I have not eaten meat for 30 years. I would never to a restaurant that did not have at least some kind of focus on vegetables on my own time. But what about when my friends and family celebrate occasions? Am I supposed to sit there with nothing on my plate, and embarrass me and my hosts? Or should I stay home and pretend I do not care who graduated etc. All it takes is a small plate of some steamed vegetables or salad or god forbid frys to make it so I can sit there. I would never hold the quality of what they turn out against the restaurant, but sometimes I need them to bend their stiff necks so I can go along with a party.

#19 hathor

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Posted 06 March 2011 - 12:40 PM

A few months ago, we were invited to a dinner party at a restaurant. Most of the 10 attendees are vegetarians, a vegetarian selected the restaurant. When it came time to order every single person, except my husband and myself, requested something off menu. It was so bad, the waitress had to get the chef to come out and verify what could and could not be done.
To a certain extent, this is about control. The following is only an observation. There is a certain righteousness in the vegetarian world, a sense that they are eating a kinder, gentler diet and making the world a better place. I'm not here to debate this...I'm only observing, ok?? When 8 out of 10 diners all have special needs, is this really special needs or about the need to feel special, to have the chef specially prepare your meal?

I'm with David Chang on this one. If I go out to eat, I want to see what the chef is doing. Thrill me, inspire me. The worst that happens is that I won't like the dish and I'll go home hungry. The best thing that happens is I find out I can like chick peas.

#20 Holly Moore

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Posted 06 March 2011 - 12:53 PM

I'm with David Chang on this one. If I go out to eat, I want to see what the chef is doing. Thrill me, inspire me. The worst that happens is that I won't like the dish and I'll go home hungry. The best thing that happens is I find out I can like chick peas.


That implies a chef is incapable of ad libbig and still thrilling, inspiring. I'd also think that after preparing the same food all day, week or month, a chef and the kitchen would welcome an occasional opportunity to stray a bit.
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#21 xxchef

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Posted 06 March 2011 - 12:54 PM

I have not eaten meat for 30 years. <snip>. I would never hold the quality of what they turn out against the restaurant, but sometimes I need them to bend their stiff necks so I can go along with a party.

I don't understand. What kind of restaurant doesn't have a variety of sides of vegetables and salads you could order right off the menu? Even fast food places these days have enough choices to make a meatless meal out of.

We're talking about about someone who, despite having these choices wants something different/special/not on the menu. It would be like going to a place offering "spinach lasagna" and "5-meat lasagna" and asking for the 5-meat lasagna without meat, because you don't care for spinach.

I suppose that with a tasting-type menu there would be courses, or parts of courses, that you would chose not to eat (with a fish allergy I empathize) but aside from feeling like I perhaps didn't get my full money's worth, I'm pretty sure I'd still be happy and get enough to eat.

Certainly some of the burden for ensuring your dining success and pleasure falls to you, your friends and family in how a restaurant is chosen. My sister eats out regularly with a vegetarian friend and has the courtesy to always chose places that can accommodate (if not specifically cater to) her preferences. To do otherwise would be rude, to say the least.
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#22 xxchef

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Posted 06 March 2011 - 01:11 PM

...I'm not here to debate this...I'm only observing, ok?? When 8 out of 10 diners all have special needs, is this really special needs or about the need to feel special, to have the chef specially prepare your meal?...


And at the end of the meal, when the eight sat smugly, thinking they had taught the chef a thing or two, you were embarrassed to the point that you over-tipped significantly and sent a bottle of wine to the kitchen.

Been there.
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#23 The Apostate

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Posted 06 March 2011 - 02:03 PM

I'll admit to mixed feelings about this.

While we all recognize that we're in the hospitality business, I always think back to one of the first ( certainly not the last ) chewing outs I received from my first chef.
I received it when I left my station to get something for a special request that a waitress made to me directly without going through chef first. After service, chef pulled me aside and had a little talk with me. He explained that in this industry, we are here to provide the best experience for all our customers, not necessarily for each individual customer. By which he meant that our goal was to do the best for the most and when the demands of single individual was going to compromise the experience for the rest of the guests, then it was better to risk losing one customer, or even the whole table, than pissing off an entire dining room.

As in Hathors example, when the chef had to leave the kitchen and go to the table to explain things, who was running the kitchen and did that compromise its performance? And how was that fair to the rest of the guests in the restaurant who weren't being so demanding?

I suppose that the answer here as with so many things is in taking responsibility for yourself. If you really want to be a diva, or if you simply have dietary restrictions, or simply have strong food preferences, then make some phone calls and make sure that the place your going is willing to indulge them, but don't assume automatically that what seems reasonable to you, will automatically seem as reasonable to someone else.
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#24 ermintrude

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Posted 06 March 2011 - 03:47 PM

A few months ago, we were invited to a dinner party at a restaurant. Most of the 10 attendees are vegetarians, a vegetarian selected the restaurant. When it came time to order every single person, except my husband and myself, requested something off menu. It was so bad, the waitress had to get the chef to come out and verify what could and could not be done.
To a certain extent, this is about control. The following is only an observation. There is a certain righteousness in the vegetarian world, a sense that they are eating a kinder, gentler diet and making the world a better place. I'm not here to debate this...I'm only observing, ok?? When 8 out of 10 diners all have special needs, is this really special needs or about the need to feel special, to have the chef specially prepare your meal?


I remember as I had done some work for a fine dining restaurant in London and as an extra thank you they let me take my office colleagues there for our Christmas meal with a major discount on everything. We were in total 16 with 3 vegetarians. For the vegetarians explained there would be at least 3 starters and 3 mains on the vegetarian menu (you have to ask) in addition to any vegetarian items on the main menu. As the menus are decided on the day depending on the produce available I could not detail exactly what but gave an example and everyone was happy except one, who constantly demanded to know what was going to be on the menu (we're talking starting 2 months in advance here), was strict that they would not eat risotto (it was a cop out to them) and a point blank hatred of broad (fava) beans I was asked to communicate and ensure that this did not happen. Yeah right, on the day everything went as normal except for my picky colleague who received a special (joke) vegetarian menu with every combination of risotto an/or fava beans you could think of.

So often food is used as a way of control. Most restaurants I know if given notice for a particular requirement (vegetarian, no dairy, lactose intolerant) can plan or have time to make adjustments to prep etc to accommodate.
However turning up on the day and dumping the customers demands on the kitchen with zero notice is not on, while this would be understandable for a walk in, when it's a party of 12 and 2 kick up a fuss sod them.

It's not just restaurants for the "control freaks" have one to dinner, you've invited them and only when they sit down do they tell you that "I can't/won't eat X" and guess what your serving "X"
Even worse if you asked before "Anything you wont eat" and they gave no clue
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#25 prasantrin

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Posted 06 March 2011 - 04:36 PM

I have not eaten meat for 30 years. I would never to a restaurant that did not have at least some kind of focus on vegetables on my own time. But what about when my friends and family celebrate occasions? Am I supposed to sit there with nothing on my plate, and embarrass me and my hosts? Or should I stay home and pretend I do not care who graduated etc. All it takes is a small plate of some steamed vegetables or salad or god forbid frys to make it so I can sit there. I would never hold the quality of what they turn out against the restaurant, but sometimes I need them to bend their stiff necks so I can go along with a party.


In my experience with similar situations, very few would be happy would just steamed vegetables or fries or a simple salad. I've experienced much more demanding customers (both as staff and as a diner), and in those cases, it's been all about "I". "I need", "so I can", "I want", etc. etc.

I don't believe it is up to the restaurant to make sure their food can accommodate all the different food restrictions in the world. It's nice if they do, but it's not reasonable to expect it. In the particular example given above, as a host, it would be my responsibility to make sure there were selections available to suit my guests. As a guest with restrictions, I could easily take it upon myself to call the restaurant to see what they could do to accommodate me (i.e. give them advanced notice). Should there be absolutely nothing, I would still go if the event were important enough, but perhaps just drop by for dessert (and of course I would discuss it with my hosts prior to the event), or take the celebrant out on my own to a place I know I can get what I need. The event shouldn't be about me and my needs, but about the celebrant. Maybe the "stiff neck" that should be bent sometimes is that of the diner, not of the restaurant.

I'm not trying to pick on this post in particular, I just find the demand for special requests or exceptions to be incredibly annoying, and it seems to happen more and more frequently with more and more restrictive requests. Yes, David Chang does come across as arrogant, but I admit I find myself repeating a quotation from him quite often: "It's food. Just eat it." Or don't.

(And I do make requests on occasion--runny yolks in my eggs, salad dressings on the side. . .but if I end up not getting what I request, I move on with my life because in the whole scheme of the world, it's just food and a hard yolk or overdressed salad or picking bacon out of a "vegetarian" dish is just not that big a deal. And that baptismal party I missed because of my food restrictions? I bet my presence wasn't missed nearly as much as I missed there. But then it wasn't about me, was it?)

Edited by prasantrin, 06 March 2011 - 04:36 PM.


#26 IndyRob

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Posted 06 March 2011 - 05:48 PM

Bourdain comes to my mind now. He said that cooking is an act of domination, and dining is an act of ultimate submission. He's proven his commitment to the submissive angle by eating warthog anus and African dirt-cooked egg.

#27 Jeffery C

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Posted 06 March 2011 - 08:35 PM

I'm speaking of a place where the chef/cook isn't familiar with these things), any regulars present would probably strongly resent the rude interloper. And they'd be right.

I am not saying that a restaurant should step outside of their ability to produce a particular cultural dish or preparation (i.e. dont ask for sushi at a BBQ joint). If someone makes a "reasonable" request and asks for a plate of veggies or a dish that is gluten free and a kitchen has the goods, the means & the capability, then give the guest what they want. If the restaurant opts not to, that is the choice of the "establishment" and their responsibility if they lose that customer. If a cook/chef/restaurateur cant make a requested gourgere, pasta puttenesca, or buckwheat risotto because they have neither the expertise, ingredients, nor the time, then that's not the fault of the brick and mortar. The responsibility falls upon the customer that made the "unreasonable" request. If the patron has a problem with that scenario, they need to search for sustenance at a place that either has the items they desire to eat or cook for themselves at home if they are too picky to find a restaurant menu that suits them.

Edited by Jeffery C, 06 March 2011 - 08:40 PM.


#28 xxchef

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Posted 06 March 2011 - 10:41 PM

My first reaction after reading the article was:

"This is CRAZY! It's a service business and not supposed to be a platform where culinary demi-god-chefs dictate to the pions far below what they should eat and how. Of course chefs and restaurants should met all reasonable special requests and they should do it with a flourish and a smile!"

Then I remembered the singular best restaurant meal I've ever eaten.

I had the rare occasion to be able to personally deliver some of our cheese to a regular customer at her restaurant. It was early evening, I was 5 hours from home, and I inquired if they had room to squeeze me in for a diner reservation before the rush. The owner/chef immediately seated me in the already-crowded dining room and proceeded to bring out course, after course, after course of many of the house specialties and a few things she whipped up just for fun. Wines (wonderful wines) flowed and as she had the chance, the chef would come to the table, sit for a few minutes, sip a glass of wine and talk about her food. It was amazing. She brought me things I probably never would have ordered if left to my own devices and in combinations I would not have dreamed could be so successful. I was completely at her mercy and she helped me dine SO much better than I would have on my own.

That night she knew better than I exactly what I should be eating. It was perfect and I would, without reservation, put myself in her hands again anytime. I would not dream of asking her for a substitution.

Perhaps this is the kind of experience that David Chang and others may be trying to give their customers. Perhaps if they acted more like tour guides revealing the wonders of their art rather than dictators forcing their subjects into submission they would be better received.
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#29 Jenni

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Posted 07 March 2011 - 03:54 AM

Yes, David Chang does come across as arrogant, but I admit I find myself repeating a quotation from him quite often: "It's food. Just eat it." Or don't.


But restuarant food isn't just food. If I wanted just food I would eat at home. If I'm eating out and paying for that eating-out-experience, I want more than just food!

(And I do make requests on occasion--runny yolks in my eggs, salad dressings on the side. . .but if I end up not getting what I request, I move on with my life because in the whole scheme of the world, it's just food and a hard yolk or overdressed salad or picking bacon out of a "vegetarian" dish is just not that big a deal.


Personally I couldn't do the bacon-picking out bit, but I know what you mean.

Here are some organised thoughts on the subject:

It's the responsibility of the customer to do a little groundwork before entering a restaurant to ensure that they are happy to eat the restaurant's kind of food. This could be as simple as reading the menu outside the restaurant before going in, or perhaps doing something more in advance by checking the website. It's your money - spend it eating out somewhere where you like the food!

Where it is not possible to avoid going to a restaurant that does not have appropriate menu items, because perhaps it is a work event organised by someone else or something of that kind, it is the customer's responsibility to contact the restaurant in advance and see if they can be accomodated. Where it is not possible, perhaps it would be best not to go or just to pop in for a drink at the end of the meal.

It's the restaurant's right to refuse to make subsitutions/alterations that they feel are unreasonable. However, they should know that accomodating reasonable requests will certainly be seen in a very positive light by customers. And on the whole, small, reasonable requests often don't take much effort to do.

Edited by Jenni, 07 March 2011 - 03:56 AM.

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#30 Foodietopo

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Posted 07 March 2011 - 06:14 AM

I am getting married soon in Japan and when it came to finding a place to have our wedding dinner, we ended up deciding for a small fusion Asian restaurant where I was asked if I had any food restriction the first time I went there.
I get asked every single day if I can eat sashimi, but it was a nice touch. The waitress explained that the chef can modify any tasting menu if it's possible and they have the ingredients.

We chose this restaurant because I knew I could get something my picky parents would like. This flexibility was crucial for this particular dinner.

I've noticed some flexibility in some ryokan and traditional restaurants too. I am not a picky eater, I simply hate shishamo fishes and natto.

At the same time, I was very angry at a vegetarian friend who made a poor Japanese home cook very uncomfortable when she refused to eat the miso soup because the dashi was fish based.

I think it's all about doing you homework. If you are in a ramen shop in Fukuoka, don't expect the guy behind the counter to accomodate you too much.
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