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Chefs Bite Back


vengroff
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Mind if I respond to this?

  People already have ways to critique the critics or their work: they can write letters to the editor or (in my case) follow published restaurant reviews that appear online with mini-reviews of their own. The latter option doesn't thrill me,  because posters get to remain anonymous (and who KNOWS who they might be?)

  Equal time for chefs and others sounds like a good idea in theory, but it could also turn out to be this back and forth ping pong game of write/rebutt, write/rebutt. Where would it all end? Newspapers have limited space, after all. (The same is obviously not true of this medium, where discussions can go on for, well, miles.)

    Just my two cents.

You could and did respond. :biggrin:

I respect your points, but have you ever seen a newspaper publish a letter by a musician debunking ignorant distortions of what they did and why in a concert that was reviewed? I admit to a personal stake in this: I'm a musician and my father's a painter. I don't recall the Times ever publishing an artist's expose of Hilton Kramer's ignorance, for example. So my point is broader than restaurant reviews, but what's the Washington Post's policy on publishing letters to the editor about restaurant reviews? My impression is that you and your editors take a very enlightened view, what with your participation in online chat and, indeed, your Q&A session here.

Edited by Pan (log)

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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So... I walk into an art gallery and see a beautiful painting which I am willing to pay for.  It's a pastoral scene with two maple trees.  Do I have the right to call the artist and say I'll buy the painting if he/she replaces the maples with oaks?  If the artist refuses my request should I complain about poor customer service?  What sort of artist would he/she be if they complied with my request?  Just thoughts.  Anna N

It'd be nice if customers were forced to eat the food the way we "artists" intended it to be eaten. But it's bad form to act like a primadonna in most places. Trust me, I had plenty of time to think about this one day when I refused to cook an owner's friend's yellowfin well-done. The only place I've seen it done sucessfully was at The French Laundry. I think someone wanted Peas and Carrots and Keller flat out said no. I'm sure there were extenuating circumstances however. You can be sure that if the chef says no he hasn't been in the business that long.

FOOD is NOT ART. CHEFS ARE NOT ARTISTS.

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Restaurants, far more than most businesses, are about civility and hospitality--indeed they are almost civility and manners codified. They are not art museums or art galleries. Good manners and even a rudimentary sense of hospitality would suggest that the proprietor and staff of a restaurant would welcome the opportunity to meet any reasonable request by a diner.

But it cuts both ways. It is clearly not reasonable to make absurdly complicated, unnecessary or insulting requests for changes simply because you are paying for it.

Does anyone else recall the movie Five Easy Pieces, in which Jack Nicholson and the waitress from hell enact the most priceless clash between restaurant rules and customer desire?

Edited by fresco (log)
Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"
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FOOD is NOT ART.  CHEFS ARE NOT ARTISTS.

Speak for yourself. :laugh:

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Actually, this isn't too far off: consider the ridiculous popularity of Thomas Kinkade.  He's the most successful painter in the world today, and works exactly like this.  You see a painting (actually, a reproduction, but let's not quibble) of his in a gallery, and then you have an in-house artist "touch it up" to your specifications.  If you're lucky (and have the ca$h), Kinkade himself will adjust your painting to match your sofa!

So if a real artist, who has his paintings in real galleries in malls across the country, is willing to adjust his art to his customers' specifications, well shucks, why shouldn't a cook do the same?

Make up your mind, are you talking about a specific painter or a real artist.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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So... I walk into an art gallery and see a beautiful painting which I am willing to pay for.  It's a pastoral scene with two maple trees.  Do I have the right to call the artist and say I'll buy the painting if he/she replaces the maples with oaks?  If the artist refuses my request should I complain about poor customer service?  What sort of artist would he/she be if they complied with my request?  Just thoughts.  Anna N

I've never been comfortable with the "food as art" analogy. Art in a gallery is a static medium, wheras food cooked to order is a living, evolving piece. You can discuss and argue about a painter's intentions, but there is not likely to be an element in a painting that will affect your health. You will not be hospitalized for being allergic to images of maple trees.

I also feel there is a need for a little latitude here. Simple requests that don't totally change the nature of a complex preparation should be allowed, but simply refusing to cook a steak beyond medium rare is rather arrogant. As was said elsewhere, it's the customer's $30.

=Mark

Give a man a fish, he eats for a Day.

Teach a man to fish, he eats for Life.

Teach a man to sell fish, he eats Steak

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As a cook, I will always bend over backwards for those with unfortunate allergies. For those who want the sauce or emulsion on the side because they don't know if they will like it we always offer a taste via an amuse and most allow the dish to go as is. But for those who simply want to create their meal to their own liking simply because they are footing the bill, I grunt the same phrase: When you see a play for $60-$100 a ticket, you cannot change who plays the lead, what songs are sung, and absoultly cannot be late for your reservation. Why shouldn't the same respect be given to fine dining?

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Changing a play for one person changes it for everyone in the audience. Changing an entree for one person changes it for no one else.

No one asks an artist to change a painting once it is painted, but the artist doesn't crank our 50 versions of the exact same painting every night. A chef that let's a plate go out of his or her kitchen that is "substandard" because of a customer request, can regain their vision a second later with the next order.

Finally, if six people want to go to dinner, but one person is not an enthusiast of the chef or cuisine at the restaurant, does that mean all six have to go elsewhere, even if the person in question can be satisfied with minor change(s), of the "no garnish, please" variety, that do not interfere with service?

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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It might be worth getting back to the orginal article for a second. What pushed Gillian Clark over the edge were not requests for sauce on the side, or no garnish on top, but things like "Atkins diet followers who order the steak and potatoes..., then have the chutzpah to ask for extra steak instead of the potatoes." That strikes me as cheap, not picky. And there's, "could that be fried instead of broiled?" That's really making something an entirely different dish, not just some adjustments. And finally, "can you cook the beef 'rare but with no pink at all'?" That last question should presumably be handled by the server politely outlining the levels of doneness that are offered, and should never make it to the kitchen at all.

My theory is that when faced with too many completely outlandish requests, certain chefs may overreact and push the boundries to far back in the, "my way or the highway," direction. Chef Clark blew her top in her email, but the blame can hardly be put all on her.

Chief Scientist / Amateur Cook

MadVal, Seattle, WA

Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code

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The incident that caused Gillian to write her screed actually happened in a different restaurant (which shall remain nameless). A customer ordered an ice cream sundae. She asked if the kitchen could leave off the peanuts on top as she was highly allergic to peanuts. Word came back from the chef: Absolutely Not! The chef argued that the peanuts were integral to the dish and that is was a "signature dish" of hers. The discussion of this particular incident lead to the article. You can draw your own conclusions. Sounds silly to me.

Mark

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A chef that let's a plate go out of his or her kitchen that is "substandard" because of a customer request, can regain their vision a second later with the next order.

That leads to a thought. I wonder whether one concern the chefs in this camp have is that the customer will place an order for an "unqualified" variation and then not like it and then spread the word about their dinner being disappointing and in that case it wasn't something the chef was really responsible for.

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When you see a play for $60-$100 a ticket, you cannot change who plays the lead, what songs are sung, and absolutly cannot be late for your reservation.  Why shouldn't the same respect be given to fine dining?

You would think so, but you would be wrong. I worked at the Kennedy Center here in Washington for years, and in this age of entitlement, ticketholders think nothing of calling up and explaining that they "missed their performance - could they get another ticket?" for free, of course. Some had legit excuses, but many just plain forgot. Others would attend the ballet and if a particular dance wasn't performed that evening would demand their money back. I'm sure they're the same people asking for rare steak but with no redness. :smile:

Edit: emphasis added

Edited by hjshorter (log)

Heather Johnson

In Good Thyme

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That leads to a thought. I wonder whether one concern the chefs in this camp have is that the customer will place an order for an "unqualified" variation and then not like it and then spread the word about their dinner being disappointing and in that case it wasn't something the chef was really responsible for.

In my time as a waiter, I found that the vast majority of these requests came either from the kind of unsophisticated diners who are unlikely to be disappointed because they didn't get the "right" preparation -- the "steak well done" crowd -- and those who simply didn't like or were allergic to a certain part of the preparation. Usually, they were obviously pleased that they had been accommodated. There are always assholes, but I found that 95% of the time, people asked politely and responded graciously, and I'm sure word of mouth benefitted. Think of it: if you respond to a request, you may get dissed. If you don't, you surely will.

When I worked at Le Pavillon (old Washington hands will remember that one) the chef was always accomodating despite the difficulty and expense of his menu, a tiny kitchen and cooking that was, on occasion, pretty dang visionary. Call me a snot, but I can't figure out why a place that serves meatloaf can't be as accomodating as a place that serves foie gras.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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So... I walk into an art gallery and see a beautiful painting which I am willing to pay for.  It's a pastoral scene with two maple trees.  Do I have the right to call the artist and say I'll buy the painting if he/she replaces the maples with oaks?  If the artist refuses my request should I complain about poor customer service?  What sort of artist would he/she be if they complied with my request?  Just thoughts.  Anna N

It'd be nice if customers were forced to eat the food the way we "artists" intended it to be eaten. But it's bad form to act like a primadonna in most places. Trust me, I had plenty of time to think about this one day when I refused to cook an owner's friend's yellowfin well-done. The only place I've seen it done sucessfully was at The French Laundry. I think someone wanted Peas and Carrots and Keller flat out said no. I'm sure there were extenuating circumstances however. You can be sure that if the chef says no he hasn't been in the business that long.

FOOD is NOT ART. CHEFS ARE NOT ARTISTS.

or an even more compelling point against this analogy....

painters for the most part are not as heavily into customer service as a restaurant own has to be.

a painter can paint for himself, and people will buy it...or not...or he can paint commercial paintings that people will eat up...where the chef or restaunt owner can do the same, and people may react to their food in a certain way, they most certainly will not tolerate rude service or inflexibility by the chef or general manager.

customer service is far more a part of our game than it is the painter/customer game...

Nothing quite like a meal with my beautiful wife.

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something that i think gets overlooked these days is that a chef works for only one purpose: to please you, the customer. to do that, he draws on all of the skills and experience he can. but in the end, he's a craftsman, not an artist (unless you want to extend your definition of artist to include thomas kinkeade or, say, christina aguilera). that is not to say that the customer is always right. special requests may require a chef to draw on his experience (and diplomacy) to advise you that that combination just isn't likely to be pleasing to you. but in the end, his goal is pleasing you, not satisfying his artistic demons.

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something that i think gets overlooked these days is that a chef works for only one purpose: to please you, the customer.

I have to disagree. The chef, at his most base level, is in it for him/herself. That's not to say that we don't appreciate customers and their criticisms and praise but creation must be a totally selfish thing for it to transcend into the magical realm. God, I shudder to think that I could be creating food for MY customers. They'd be just as happy sucking down sesame crusted chicken tenders with Cattleman's barbeque sauce than foie torchon with huckleberry schmutz. I scratch the recesses of my mind to come up with new stuff to satisfy a natural curiosity. This is where the artist analogy may be valid. Any good artist, if they're worth a shit, isn't concerned with trends, popular opinion, etc. They want to extend a hand into the abyss and see if, by using their God given talents, they can yield any tangible beauty.

Of course, however, without customers all of the Ferran Adrias and Thomas Keller's of the world would be cooking at unknown diners in Alaska or dead of broken hearts.

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creation must be a totally selfish thing for it to transcend into the magical realm.... 

I scratch the recesses of my mind to come up with new stuff to satisfy a natural curiosity.... extend a hand into the abyss and see if, by using their God given talents, they can yield any tangible beauty. 

OK, given.

Why the fit, though, when one customer out of a hundred dares to tinker, and say, "leave the huckleberry sauce off, I'll have the foie gras without it."

Genius and megalomania, though often found together, are different.

Is this a self-esteem thing?

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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creation must be a totally selfish thing for it to transcend into the magical realm.... 

I scratch the recesses of my mind to come up with new stuff to satisfy a natural curiosity.... extend a hand into the abyss and see if, by using their God given talents, they can yield any tangible beauty. 

OK, given.

Why the fit, though, when one customer out of a hundred dares to tinker, and say, "leave the huckleberry sauce off, I'll have the foie gras without it."

I don't throw a fit...I'e been doing this long enough to know that getting pissed about a diner's preferences is only going to cause me furthur discomfort. I have to take it with a grain of salt and move on. If the waiters were really doing their jobs though, they could get the SOSers of the world to give in. It's fear as much as anything else. No one wants to pay 25 dollars for seabass with verjus if they have no idea what verjus is. But, if the waiter would bring the customer out a ramekin of the sauce to taste it that'd probably do the trick.

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something that i think gets overlooked these days is that a chef works for only one purpose: to please you, the customer.

I have to disagree. The chef, at his most base level, is in it for him/herself.

Of course, however, without customers all of the Ferran Adrias and Thomas Keller's of the world would be cooking at unknown diners in Alaska or dead of broken hearts.

point 1: you're only cooking for yourself when you're cooking for yourself. if you're serving it to other people (and especially if you're charging them for it), then you'd damned sure better be sure they like what you're doing.

point 2: i don't know adria, but i know thomas keller pretty well and there is no one who would dispute your point more than he. if the french laundry is the best restaurant in the country (as i believe it to be), it's due more to keller's fanatical, obsessive devotion to serving his customers than to his brilliant cuisine. of course, without the cuisine, it wouldn't be the FL, but without the devotion to his customers, it would be just another really good restaurant.

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Of course, however, without customers all of the Ferran Adrias and Thomas Keller's of the world would be cooking at unknown diners in Alaska or dead of broken hearts.

Okay, THAT would get me to move back home.

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I don't throw a fit...I've been doing this long enough to know that getting pissed about a diner's preferences is only going to cause me furthur discomfort. 

I guess if every chef had this attitude, we wouldn't have a thread.

But -- not with you, perhaps -- there's still the sense that a single adjustment is a personal affront. It's as though a politician weren't satisfied with 60% of the vote -- he had to have every vote. I think the self-righteousness some chefs express irritates people much more than not being able to always get exactly what they want. That, and the inability to take even the smallest bit of what they percieve as criticism. In the rest of the world, people get negative feedback every day, and they either learn from it or disregard it.

In all the writing about this, there's a lot of "get over yourself" in the pro-change group, and they have a point.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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point 2: i don't know adria, but i know thomas keller pretty well and there is no one who would dispute your point more than he. if the french laundry is the best restaurant in the country (as i believe it to be), it's due more to keller's fanatical, obsessive devotion to serving his customers than to his brilliant cuisine. of course, without the cuisine, it wouldn't be the FL, but without the devotion to his customers, it would be just another really good restaurant.

As far as Keller goes you're going to be fighting an uphill battle here SA. Yes, Thomas Keller is the genuine article. He cares about the whole experience from the parking lot, to the shrubs, the foie, to the table linens. He wants you to feel like you're the only person in the dining room. He cares about your preferences, your dislikes, your interest in what's going on behind the scenes...

BUT

As far as what makes him tick...What makes him work 16 hour days, standing on his bad knees, scrubbing counter tops "like there was caramelized sugar holding on in a death grip and he had a plane to catch" is his ultimate respect for food. He wants those counters clean because there's more of a chance of ruining the presentation, his idea of perfection, with smudges and grease spots. Did you see him eying that fava bean in a Cook's Tour? He's all about products and what he can do with them. Part of the confidence that is Thomas Keller is his utter disregard for pandering to his customers--in the sense that you'll never see Keller putting the sauce on the side. He just won't do it.

Case in point...read one of his menus...not the tasting per se, but the a la carte. There's so much going on there with NO explanations. Taupinere a la Charentis with Roasted Heirloom Beets and Red Beet Essence? I'm sure very few know what the hell that is. And the french translations? Come on. Don't you think if he was worried about confusing the customers he'd be using the English counterparts.

It's all about his Metier...his place in the realm of food and how he can put forth his best foot. As a result of his passion for food (a selfish thing) customers get treated to the ultimate experience available. As a chef you've got to align yourself with your own selfish desires to see perfection on a plate or you'll ultimately end up barking like a dog on the Food Network.

By "giving in" to customers differing palates he offers more than one menu. But still, nothing on those resemble anything that could be considered pedestrian.

Edited by Chef/Writer Spencer (log)
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i see nothing contradictory about taking pride in your craft and working to please your customers. and while thomas is in a wonderful position now, after 30 years in the business, you can bet he served a lot of sauces on the side to get there. the kind of trust that exists between customer and chef at the french laundry that allows him to take the chances he does is a goal, not a given.

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