I am a chef and I work in the hospitality business. I spend some time in the dining room, but mostly you'll find me in the back-of-the-house: the kitchen. Having owned and operated a catering business for 14 years and two restaurants for the past six years, I have managed almost every aspect of each of these businesses at different times. I have worked with corporate clients, young and older couples getting married, families, groups of friends, gala fundraisers for non-profits and guests coming to eat at my restaurants for a variety of meal periods. The clients and guests I have work with all vary in personality, tastes, budgets, needs and desires. Needless to say, I have pretty much seen it all.
Everyone who comes through my doors is different. It is my main responsibility to make sure they feel cared for, appreciated and relaxed. And, as a customer, this is what I want to experience when I dine in a restaurant.
So, now there are the Alan Richman and Elizabeth Gunnison Dunn articles of late. I like them. In fact, I totally agree. Some of the food and chef craze has just gotten out of hand. Yes, I said it. And, I will say this: I don't think there is any difference between a really talented chef and a really talented musician. Both are creative, and in order to be and continue to be successful, they must push themselves constantly to be better and better, and more creative. Now, what musicians do not face, but chefs do, is the practice of hospitality. As fun or as creative as cooking at a restaurant may be, the diner's experience is paramount. All chefs know that unless you make your guests happy, they will not return to your restaurant. And, your happy and returning guests keep all of your bills paid.
That said, there are limits. You, as a chef, cannot please everyone all of the time and you have to stay true to your culinary focus and point of view. It takes a special kind of balance for sure. We are familiar with the idea of hospitality in the dining room: The focus of directly caring for guests, what everyone calls customer service, but the practice of hospitality also extends into the kitchen. (Whaaaat?) YES! It is a part of the discipline or craft of cooking in a restaurant -- and, it can be very tricky.
In the age of notations at the bottom menus reading, "Substitutions Politely Declined," it is hard for guests who have any special needs to feel a sense of hospitality. What if the guest has a heart condition and requires a low-sodium diet? Can the salt be left off of the steak prior to grilling? Or, are guests with dietary restrictions not welcome at the restaurant? As a chef who is married to someone with a dietary restriction (a medical condition, not a preference), I understand completely how much this affects a diner.
I battle with some requests, but ultimately, I want to practice hospitality in the kitchen. I want to be a role model for my cooks so they practice hospitality in the kitchen too, and so they always remember what industry we work in. We're in the people-pleasing business, and I want my guests to feel cared for in my restaurants. But, I cannot alter everything, and I cannot bend to every whim. There just has to be limits.
As a chef, I do have intention when creating dishes and pairing ingredients together. There is always a method and reason for what ends up on the plate. My choices are careful and deliberate, and I want my guests to experience the dishes as I intend them to taste. Now, I will leave nuts out of a salad to accommodate a nut allergy, but I draw the line at substituting another dressing that was not intended for the flavor profile of a specific salad. My general rule of thumb is that I will leave an ingredient out, but will not substitute or add ingredients that are not intended for a specific dish.
There are two issues I face with altering dishes:
1. Consistency matters. Cooks are taught to focus on repetition and to make the same dish over and over. This ensures consistency and that in a given evening the first and last preparation of that dish will be the same. Additionally, a dish has been tested multiple times before it makes it onto a menu. This testing in advance gives the kitchen team confidence that everything on the plate works when it comes time for service. On busy nights, alterations break cooks' rhythms, and sometimes special requests do not get the same level of attention as their order-as-is counterparts. When you are firing dishes from the line in rapid succession it is not always possible to test if a newly altered dish will work as well when compared to the original.
2. Flavor matters most. I measure heat, acidity, texture and other flavors to ensure balance in a dish. I have been cooking professionally for almost 20 years and my ingredient pairings are purposeful. The style in which I cook is a personal reflection of who I am, and I do not always want to change dishes to accommodate the whim of a guest. Specifically, when I don't feel the dish will be represented best. (In the practice of hospitality I make sure that my menu can accommodate a range of ingredients and dishes that will appeal to a variety of guests.)
Number 1 is just logistics. That's just how it works. Number 2 is more complicated. Here's the thing: not all flavors go together. And then comes the curveball: Everyone has different palates. This can be a matter of taste, and not who is right or wrong. One of the best things about being a chef is choosing what you want to pair together, and having your menu represent your experience. And, when you work chef's hours -- that's usually more hours every week than everyone else -- you tend to take your job pretty seriously and really care that you give your guests a great and delicious experience.
I care. I care a lot. In a perfect world I want every customer to be happy with every experience they have with my businesses. I want to think of hospitality as part of what we do in the kitchen. I want to write a menu with intent and confidence, knowing guests can make choices to suit their needs, but I know that doesn't always work out as perfectly as I hope.
Many times I have had guests call prior to their reservation to discuss any concerns of dietary restrictions. I am always more than happy to have a discussion with them and make sure they will be accommodated. Hospitality should not be an occasional practice, and sometimes finding the right solution takes a little give and take. The goal of the chef is to delight guests and treat them with care and hospitality, while also maintaining the integrity of their craft and the careful intention that goes into each dish.