Advice from A Chef: 5 Insights That Will Enhance Your Next Dining Experience

Everyone has jobs.  That is to say, if you’re paid to do something, it’s a safe assumption that you’re reasonably competent at it — at least more-so than an average person in a different occupation.  A foodservice establishment is no different.  Every time you’ve ever walked into a restaurant, you’re greeted by someone who greets people for a living.  Your order is taken by someone who gets paid to do that.  And the people cooking your food (you guessed it) get paid to do that too.  And it’s not nearly as simple as greeting you at the door, taking your order, and cooking your food.  There are hundreds of things a food-service worker can notice and/or do that can have a significant effect on your over-all experience at their establishment.  Not surprisingly, in my experience, the number of these details that are addressed tend to be directly correlated to the general quality of the establishment, and your experience.  And if an experienced professional does them well, you’ll never even know they’re happening.

Below are five things that you can do that will likely enhance your dining experience the next time you go out to a decent restaurant.  At the very least, you’ll feel like a goddamned Jedi when you notice these things happening and when you can successfully take advantage of your insider knowledge.

1. Trust the expert

The employees at any restaurant are the experts of everything in that restaurant.  Treat them as such.  Don’t presume to know their product better than they do, as you probably don’t.  Whenever I’m going out to dinner, my server is my best friend (unless I notice early on that I’ve been stuck with one of the newer, dumber ones).  If you’re polite, easygoing, and somewhat submissive, you and your server can help each other have a great night.  Unless I’m with a large group of people, my favorite thing to do is to basically ignore the menu.  If something jumps out at you, by all means try it, but I love saying to my server, “if you were sitting in my chair, about to have dinner here, what would you order?”  I only want to hear their answer to hear what I’m going to be eating.  I’m going to order whatever they say, unless it’s the most expensive thing on the menu (then they’re just trying to drive up their tips and they’ve just broken the bond of trust you had enjoyed up until that point).

This sets up a bond of trust between you and your server that they will enjoy as well.  They’ll feel more comfortable standing at your table, and you’ll notice a more relaxed, genuine and transparent person helping you through your evening.  Also, they know the menu best, and they’ve probably eaten everything on the menu a dozen times.  In addition, they know who’s working in the kitchen and where (if the guy working sauté that night isn’t great at it, they’re not going to recommend you get something cooked by the weak link in the kitchen), and they know what the flow of service is like.  If they say, “you can order as you go, but I’d recommend you order all at once so I can course it out for you,” do that.  Which leads me into…

2. Timing is not an accident

The service at a fine restaurant actually goes like this:  you order all of your items — let’s say a few different appetizers and an entree course.  Your server rings all that into the kitchen on one ticket, with each course delineated.  Your first course is prepared and brought out.  While you’re eating your first course, your subsequent courses are being prepared for pick-up.  Let’s say course three actually takes fifteen minutes to cook/prepare.  It’s started after they send out your first course.  Throughout your meal, as you finish each course (and once your plates are cleared from that course), your server then goes and sends a “fire” ticket to the kitchen.  The kitchen sees a ticket that says “fire course two” for your table, they look at your table’s ticket, see what course two is, and the goal is that within five minutes of the fire ticket, the food is at your table.  The methods for accommodating this fast pick-up style are varied and all are pretty fascinating.  There can, however be hiccups in that five minute pick-up time, some of which you have control over and some of which you won’t, but you (the diner) can tell when it’s happening.

3. The best time for a restroom break is at the end of a course, not when you’re waiting for food

(Also, if you are stepping away for a cigarette or a phone call, tell your server before-hand)

The impetus for this post came about recently, when I was talking with my girlfriend about a dining experience she had recently.  She was at dinner with a group of business colleagues, and it was taking forever for their entrees to come out.  I asked if people were generally seated or if people were getting up to move around or go to the bathroom a lot.  She said mostly the latter, and I told her that’s why.  She looked confused, and I told her what had been happening in the kitchen:  the food was probably ready a while before it came out.   The problem is, when it’s sitting in the pass/pick-up window, and the server notices a guest is up from the table, they delay the delivery, because of a very steadfast rule of fine dining service: you don’t serve food to a partial table.  I’ve worked at restaurants where the kitchen will literally get a ticket that says “guest up,” letting them know to stall that pick-up, until either a verbal go-ahead or a “guest back” ticket.  Sometimes if you’re food is taking a while, it’s because someone fucked up: either your server forgot to send a “fire” ticket for your next course, or maybe the Chef didn’t like what was on your plate and he/she ordered it be re-made before it made it to your table.  In those cases, one of two things will usually happen: they’ll either comp you something (usually dessert or a glass of wine), or send you something free — usually a small bite of something whereupon delivery, the server or runner will say something to the effect of, “with our compliments,” or “the Chef really wanted you to try this.”  At the very least, they will acknowledge your food will be a bit late.  There are built-in safe-guards against almost every mishap imaginable, and they’re very effective, barring a barrage of fuck-ups all at once.

4. Pay attention to the specials

It’s true that historically, specials are a great way for a kitchen to get rid of aging or surplus product and get some money for what may have just gone in the trash.  This tends to be something that leads to the general dismissal of the specials card or the server’s sales pitch.  But know this: these days, almost no restaurant will try to serve you food that is actually going bad (at least to the point where you can tell or will make you ill).  Restaurants tend to figure out what dishes sell and what dishes work after only being open a few months, and these establish themselves as steady menu items.  While there is always going to be some turn-over in menu items (usually based on product availability/seasonality), for the most part menus tend to be somewhat stagnant.  This can be incredibly boring for a cook or a Chef, which is another reason why a special might come to be.  Either way, they give the workers in the kitchen a chance to play around a little and be creative.  Remember that part earlier about how they’re paid professionals? Yeah.  They’re probably gonna come up with something that even if it’s not amazing, it will at least be fun and interesting.  They also are likely to be showcasing a seasonal item.  For example, if in late August (the height of tomato season), you get pitched a dish that is an exploration of different things you can do with tomatoes, it’s probably because the Chef’s tomato farmer asked if they could buy some of their surplus at the end of harvest season.  Order that shit! It will probably be both delicious and interesting.

5. Arrive on time — leave on time

Please interpret this as, “make a reservation that is accurately reflective of your dining party, and be sure that all of you are there by the time of your reservation.  And at the end of the meal, don’t sit around talking for another hour (unless you’re continuing to buy food/drinks, or it’s late enough that there are multiple empty tables that were full when you sat down).”  The host staff doesn’t just greet you at the door and show you to your table.  They are also in charge of pacing the flow of service and therefore can make or break a given night for everyone else in the restaurant — employees and customers alike.

For example, let’s say they operate under the strategy of seating no more than twelve covers (guests) per fifteen minute window — because that’s what they’ve decided the restaurant can accommodate without sacrificing quality.  You and your party of six have a reservation at 7:30.  The restaurant has a very transparent and stringent policy against seating incomplete parties, and has probably shared this with the party’s host.  Your last guest arrives at 7:50.  This seems like a small issue to you: after all, the restaurant is no busier now than it was when you walked in the door.  The thing you don’t know is that they booked a 12-person party at 8:00, many of whom are already starting to show up.  If you sit down at the same time as them, there’s a good chance that two servers will be all but monopolized for the two large tables, and their orders will hit the kitchen at the same time, and that’s in addition to everything else that’s happening in the restaurant and at all the other tables.  Your twenty minute tardiness has just disrupted the entire flow of service, and probably is detracting from the experience of not only your group, but other diners, whether either of you know it or not.

Then to address the other point, let’s say your six-person reservation at 7:30 is at a table earmarked for a late eight-person party at 9:00.  Restaurants tend to allocate an hour and a half per table/party.  You’ve now cut that time to 1:10, which is pushing it to begin with.  Let’s say though that you take your full 1:30, and then take your time paying the bill, and leaving.  That party who had the 9:00 reservation is now waiting up to a half an hour while the service staff scrambles to push two vacated tables together to accommodate them, because “that six-top is still fucking sitting there!” (I’ve heard this in the kitchen many times in a single night from a server just trying to turn their table).  This makes the service staff look incompetent to the 9:00 8-top, when all that’s happening is a party of six was late and now they’re being discourteous.  So many times has my kitchen ticket printer just exploded with tickets out of nowhere, and I start cursing the idiot hostesses, only to learn that the exact situation I just outlined happened, and idiot though she may be, this time it wasn’t her fault.

In closing:

Yes, it’s true: it’s not your job as a diner to optimize your own experience.  After all, you’re the one paying the bill.  But keep in mind that as in any business transaction, there are goods and services exchanged for your money and in the case of a seated meal, not all of those services will appear on your itemized receipt.  The cost of your food and drinks plus tax and tip might not list all of the intangible variables I just outline (or the ones I didn’t), but many of them are implied.  Among the things that aren’t, many of them can benefit you as much or more as they can the restaurant.  Nobody can put a price on entrusting your meal selection to your server or on the value of being on time.  There are always things you can’t control, but when it comes to things you can, you should probably trust a professional.

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