The View from The Other Side: Chefs

 By Kari Lloyd (apopquizkid)

Photo "Chef flame" by JWolff-STL | CC BY 2.0
Photo “Chef flame” by JWolff-STL | CC BY 2.0

Back in my youth, approximately another lifetime ago, working in restaurants was one of the many ways I earned my keep. I did everything from dishwashing to waitressing and working on the line in the kitchen. I also cooked in my own restaurant just outside of London, sharing the stove with a fair few entertaining individuals. Once restaurants are in your blood, getting out can feel a little like a betrayal. Or detox.

Years later, though I now make my living as a laugh-in-the-face-of-death freelance writer, a healthy portion of my friends are still in the trade. A favored post-work activity for restaurant lifers is the post-work bitch session, where they’re all too willing to share, in hilarious detail, the day’s problems, customers and the little complaints that irk them on a daily basis. Despite my time in the restaurant game, most of the stories still frankly amaze me.

While the customer-facing branch of this army, the servers, get a lot of coverage regarding the bothersome properties of the great dining public, the chefs don’t. I began to wonder what diners do that might make a chef blind with rage  – or even just ever-so-slightly annoyed. Seeing as I’ve been out of the life for so long, I spoke to many chef pals and asked that question, and while everyone had their own stories and irritations, there were a few overriding themes that nearly all mentioned.

Photo "Cooking at the Restaurant" by Lplatebigcheese | CC BY 2.0
Photo “Cooking at the Restaurant” by Lplatebigcheese | CC BY 2.0

Unsurprisingly, 100 percent of the chefs did not wish to be named, or even have dishes mentioned, for fear of getting on the business end of an unholy bollocking by both management and owners alike. I promised them anonymity – they promised me the dirt. Chefs from Chicago, London, Atlanta and NYC reached into the darkest recesses of their souls for all their bile, and after a few late night phone calls, some after-work drinking sessions and a whole lot of laughter, let it all out in the open.

So here are some things about dealing with chefs that you need to know.

Chefs don’t screw with returned dishes.

Sure, we know you’ve all heard about that friend of a friend who returned a dish only to have it come back after extremely inappropriate bodily contact with the chef’s nether regions. To be honest, we don’t know too many places like that. When you order our food, we’re putting ourselves on the plate. We want you to enjoy it. Don’t just sit there not saying anything. If it’s not right, we want to know. But…

Be specific when you’re letting us know what’s wrong.

The ever-popular “I don’t know… I don’t like this” doesn’t help us at all, and we’ll spend valuable time pumping some poor server for extra info when we hear it. We’re not mind readers. Tell us the fish was overcooked, the sauce was too salty or that the carrots were so underdone that one shot across the room when you tried to cut it. Do this instead of just heading right over to whatever whiny review site you’re bawling to at the moment. The more detail we get, the better off you and other diners will be for future dishes.

You say “allergy.” We say “bullsh*t.”

Believe it or not, we take allergies pretty seriously. None of us has any desire to poison or kill our customers (much), or wind up on an episode of “Judge Judy” where you sue us. We’re trained to deal with allergies. If you genuinely do have an allergy, let your server know immediately. Better yet, call ahead. We’ll happily work with you so you still get good chow. However, don’t claim an allergy just because you don’t like something. When you ask us to remove a tomato-based sauce because of your tomato allergy, then order the tomato salad, it insults our intelligence.

“Nothing induces more eye-rolling in the kitchen than an allergy,” says one disgruntled chef I spoke to. “Obviously we want to make sure that genuine allergies are taken care of, but usually those people know how to order in a restaurant to make sure they don’t get sick. It’s the ones who go to a Mexican restaurant and say they’re allergic to cilantro while ordering something that’s clearly advertised as containing it, like ‘cilantro lime chicken.’ I think it’s pretty safe to assume a guy who’s allergic to peanuts wouldn’t order up a peanut butter parfait and ask for it to be changed.”

“Can I just change…”

Photo “Cooking at the Restaurant” by Lplatebigcheese | CC BY 2.0

This is a tricky one for us. Chefs work hard on their dishes, creating a combination of flavors, textures and experiences. So yeah, when you ask to change something, occasionally we may get our panties in a bunch about it. Given that, you may hate brussel sprouts, or whatever ingredient we currently have an obsession with. We get like that. If you really want to make us happy, tell your server that there’s something you don’t like, and ask the chef if they can replace it with something else. It gives us a warm, fuzzy feeling that you trust us.

Of course, there are those chefs who just won’t play ball. One chef said, “Look, there are some things I just won’t do. No, I won’t cook your liver well done.” So what’s a diner to do? “Try asking for the chef’s recommendation,” says the chef. “If there is something that I genuinely feel will suck if I cook it the way they order it, I’ll usually send out an alternative suggestion anyway.”

The “Off-Menu Orderer”

As we said before, we just want you to be happy. We want to accommodate you, and we want you to go forth and sing our praises. But when you come in and try to create your own meal, we wonder if you’ve ever been to a restaurant before. You do know we prep stuff before you even set foot in our place, right? If you come in and say, “I’d like a grilled chicken breast and salad with dressing on the side” when that’s not even remotely on our menu, you’re forcing some poor line cook to schlep around the kitchen, trying to find what you want, thus holding up service and pissing us off. If you need to eat like that, take yourself to a buffet. Or better  yet, stay home.

A great example of this comes from a chef fresh out of culinary school who’s only recently joined a brigade. He says, “I work in a fine dining place – lots of Euro-inspired flashy sh*t. Yet every once in a while, somebody comes in who decides they’re on some wacky diet where they can only have steamed fish and rice or something. I mean, why even bother going out?”

The “Guy Who Orders Our Dish All Wrong”

Photo "Lisbon Chef" by Jimmy2000 | CC BY 2.0
Photo “Lisbon Chef” by Jimmy2000 | CC BY 2.0

Though this has been covered by everyone from Anthony Bourdain to your local free advertising paper, we just overwhelmingly want to confirm it: When you order your steak well done, your fish broiled to a crisp or your delicate calf’s liver incinerated, we’re judging you. True, we want you to enjoy your food. We just can’t really imagine enjoying that. In some of your nicer establishments, we’ll go so far as to prime the servers to let you know, “The chef generally serves this medium rare.” Less rare (ha!) is the chef that actually will refuse to cook things to complete obliteration, but it does happen. For the most part, if you prefer something different, well… okay. But we’re not happy about it.

In praise of…well, praise

As chefs, we’re pretty much hidden away from you (unless we’re in an open kitchen). Though a lot of stories go around that we’re loud, obnoxious and generally impolite to nearly all of society, we’re still human beings with souls that need feeding and egos that need stroking. If you liked something, ask your server to tell us. While an empty plate signals to us that you didn’t hate our dish, compliments like “That was a love letter to my tummy” or  “I don’t know if I should eat this or make love to it” make us feel like the cooking studs we set out to be.

“We once had a few grateful diners buy the kitchen a round of beers and put it on their bill they liked our food so much. That rocked. In fact, that’s a great tradition to start,” said one chef. Other chefs chimed in that on occasion they had even experienced tips making their way back to the kitchen. “This guy came back and said, ‘The service was crap, but the food was great. Here, share this with your team.’ Even though the server wasn’t happy, that made us feel like freaking rock stars,” said another.

While it’s easy to forget about the fine folks in the back who are slaving away over your dish, keeping them “on side” can only result in a better experience for you. By following just a few simple rules, you can win the love of your kitchen — important if you’re thinking of becoming a regular.

A consummate travel junkie and global gourmand, Kari Lloyd (apopquizkid) makes her living as a freelance writer and occasional raconteur. When she’s not obsessing over a recent foodie find, she can usually be found either heckling the latest hot new band or watching her beloved Arsenal Football Club. A native and recently returned Chicagoan, Kari has spent the last 10 years living in London, U.K. where she worked as a restaurant reviewer and music journalist.

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