This is a very valid question that has caused a lot of heated discussions, both in kitchens, and out of them, and I’d like to try to provide a little insight on the matter.
First of all, I’ve met/worked with a lot of people (most of whom were young), who held the belief that overcooked steak tasted better, most of whom had never tried it cooked less than medium. I realize this was/is almost always due to the way it was cooked in the home in which they grew up, so that’s what was familiar to them, and it’s human nature to prefer what you know. But I like to step out of my comfort zones as frequently as possible, and I actively encourage others to do the same; I would always try to get people who’d been living that well-done life, to try a piece of medium-rare meat.
In the cases where they actually would, I never got a reaction of “eew! This is gross!”, or “oh, that’s much worse!” or “yeah, the well-done shit is so much better!”. At worst, it would be more along the lines of a raised-eyebrow surprise: “huh… not what I thought it would taste like.” But more often than not, it would be closer to “oh damn! This is good!”, and I’d wind up converting people.
The reason is that the more you cook a steak (notice, we’re specifically talking about steak, not other tougher cuts of meat that require long cooking times, and cannot be pleasantly eaten medium-rare), not only are you tensing up the muscle fibers in the meat, making it more difficult to chew, but you’re also cooking/rendering more fat out of the meat, and fat is what helps give meat its flavor and juiciness. So further cooking of steak means tense meat that is less juicy, and less flavorful. Now that we’ve objectively established that cooking a steak past medium-ish will scientifically make it less pleasant to eat, let’s just go ahead and say it is the incorrect way to cook a steak. You can say it’s still how you prefer it — that is your right, and not what we’re here to discuss…
As to why cooks take offense to being asked to cook steaks well-done: First of all, it should be noted that the cooking temperatures of various pieces of meat are the only things in cooking that really allow for variance, without transitioning into a new dish entirely. I believe this is really just to allow for the cultural differences alluded to above, as well as health liability reasons; every restaurant or food-service establishment has something posted in view of the customers that advises about the potential health hazards of eating raw/undercooked protein: it’s so that they can come ask you how you want your steak cooked, and if you say rare, eat their rare steak, and get sick, you can’t accuse the restaurant of not warning you of potential risks. But I’m getting off-topic.
As chefs, we get offended because for one, most good cooks feel it’s disrespectful to any product/ingredient — meat or produce — to not cook it perfectly, because it will have died in vane. That might not mean much to the cow or carrot in question, but you will be disrespecting all of the time, care and resources that went into raising that cow, or growing that carrot. You owe it to the farmers responsible for everything you cook with, to cook it as perfectly as you can, because they worked hard to supply us with a perfect product to cook (and honestly, just not fuck up), in order for you to eat it.
Speaking of perfection, when asking a chef to cook a steak medium-well (or beyond), you’re asking us to do something we take pride in doing as close to perfectly as we can, absolutely fucking wrong. And we still have to cook it that way, and send it out. As a cook, it’s made clear to you very early on in your career that the only thing you’re judged on is the food that leaves the kitchen. Even though it’s how the guest requested it to be cooked, we feel that an overcooked steak reflects poorly on us — and we have to do it anyway.
Now, I am not speaking for my current self. It may not seem like it, but I realized long ago that my job as a cook is to give the guest what they want, to the best of my ability. In order to do that, I had to learn how to shed my ego when what that is, might be different from what I think they should be eating. Like so many other cooks, I used to throw a hissy fit any time a ticket came in for a heavily mod’ed menu item — or when an order for a well-done steak came in — but then I started working at Oceanique, a chef-owned fine dining French-American seafood restaurant in Evanston, IL.
I think my second shift working there, in the middle of dinner service, a server came to the pass and explained to the chef, that one of their tables had a child, for whom the parents requested a plate of fried calamari. I immediately became eager to see how this iconic chef, who’d been running this kitchen almost 25 uninterrupted years, was going to respond to such a request: for one, while we did have baby squid on multiple menu items, it wasn’t fried for any of them. Secondly, chefs generally hate when guests ask for things that aren’t on the menu. But third, and most importantly, the kitchen didn’t have a deep fryer! Much to my surprise, the chef simply said, “Of course we can do that”. He called for a pot with fryer oil and a candy thermometer, ordered another cook to make a flour and spice dredge, and called to me, “Hey! New guy! You know how to make cocktail sauce?”
I was floored by all this, but responded with, “Yes, Chef!” and I started gathering ingredients, and making cocktail sauce. Fifteen minutes later, some spoiled kid was sitting in the dining room, eating fried calamari, prepared a la minute by one of the most accomplished seafood chefs in the Chicagoland area. Later on after the rush, I asked the chef why he went so out of his way to accommodate the off-menu request. His response has dictated my feelings on the matter since: “I know that people pay a lot of money for my food, so if someone asks for something that we can do, then we’re going to give it to them.”
This chef took this philosophy of hospitality to such a level that he had the standing policy, that if a guest was booked for dinner and wanted something we didn’t ordinarily have in-house, that as long as they asked for it within 48 hours of their seating time, the chef would make sure he had it available for them.
I realized he was right: that our job is to cook the food that the guest wants, to the best of our ability. Nobody cares about how the chef thinks something should be cooked, if that’s not how the guest prefers it. An ego never paid the bills. But I still sigh every time I see a ticket that says “well-done”, or a ticket that says, “no salt”, or “sauce on side”, instead of that guest venturing outside of their comfort zone to see how that chef would cook it for them. It’s our job to make food as close to ‘perfect’ as possible, and every such order modification is an example of a person who doesn’t trust a professional to do their job.