Word of Mouth

Hey, David Chang and Anthony Bourdain, no off-menu requests? Get over it.

I'm seeing a lot of commentary about this New York Post story detailing how a growing group of chefs, including Momofuku's David Chang and Anthony Bourdain, are refusing off-menu requests from diners. Their comments are mostly triumphant validations, declarations of an era in which the restaurant-goer will finally acknowledge that the cook, not the customer, is right.

I've got something different, and potentially incredibly unpopular, to say to those chefs:

Get over it.

Hear me out before you spit in my food and blacklist me from your restaurant forever.

Philosophically, I'm with you. I'm not a modification kind of a girl. In fact, I'd rather the fate of my entire dinner be left in the hands of my chef, making it an affair comprised of dishes the capable kitchen finds particularly exciting. I'm the weird diner telling my waiter to have the kitchen just send me whatever they want while secretly praying for offal or snails or some exotic ingredient I've never before eaten.

I'm also the one having an aneurism if my dining companion insists on changes to a dish, mentally vowing never to invite that person out for a meal again. Which, given my one-dimensional interests, means we're probably never going to see each other. A girl's gotta cut her losses. Doesn't matter if we went to elementary school together or we're related by blood: If you're not willing to dine correctly in my company, it's been nice knowing you.

Moreover, I've waited tables in Boulder, a city to which diners with dietary restrictions flock like moths to the flame. Admittedly, every time someone asked me to hold the bacon, put the sauce on the side, see if the kitchen could do a Caesar salad, substitute gluten-free bread, or ensure that not one single molecule of butter touched their boring-ass bed of no-salt no-fun sautéed greens, a little part of me died inside. And I'd be right back there in the kitchen, giving a pithy, long-winded diatribe on how maybe those whiny, palate-less guests should go cook for themselves, or find a different restaurant, or--to invoke a phrase from one of my favorite cranky restaurateurs, Kenny Shopsin--eat in a hospital.

But you know what I'd do after I got that off my chest? I'd serve my diner that boring-ass bed of no-salt no-fun sautéed greens with a 100-watt smile on my face, checking back to make sure the pile of rabbit food had been prepared to his or her liking. You know why? Because we're in the service industry, and we exist for the guest, not the other way around.

Yeah, I realize it's a little different being in the back of the house. You don't interface with the eater. It's easy to refuse to oblige a request, sending a server scampering off to an unseen party to deal with the fall-out. But refusing all modifications is very likely going to cost your restaurant a return diner as well as a host of potential new diners who hear poisonous comments about your spot. And over time, that's going to hurt your eatery, your livelihood, and your wallet.

You're right, those finicky eaters can absolutely go eat somewhere else. But that's a chunk of cash they're not spending to keep you in business. Is that really what you want? Do you really want to limit your customer base to the food enthusiasts that respect your hard-ass attitude and, thus, will continue to patronize your place? I've got news for you: assuming your food is tasty, those people will be there, anyway, and they don't care whether or not you're accommodating other people, so long as their bone marrow and chicken liver and escargot comes out perfectly, every time.

Hey, we all have to do things we don't want to do sometimes. But do you really think a contractor is going to tell a homeowner who wants to tweak design plans to work with someone else? How about a lawyer preparing a deal? You think they're going to refuse to make modifications to make both parties happy? No. They're going to go back to the drawing board, laboring over work they thought was perfect while cursing the idiocy of their customer, and then present it whilst whistling zippity doo dah and saying, "Please, sir, may I have another." And so should you. Because you provide a service, just like them.

So suck it up. Swear under your breath all you want back there, and then do what you can to make the customer happy. Because ultimately, this isn't about you or me or diners that "get it." This is about charming guests enough to keep them coming back for more, reeling them in until they trust you enough to let you expand their horizons, one pinch of salt, one slab of bacon, one dab of butter at a time.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk