Of all the questions I’ve answered on Quora and Reddit, I didn’t expect my answer to the following question to gain the traction that it did, but here we are:
If I ordered a steak at a restaurant and said “cook it however the chef prefers”, how would it be cooked, and what would the chef think?
My answer generated over 300k views, with over 1000 upvotes, both numbers of which are still on the rise (at least at the time that I’m writing this). The comments have been all over the place, many of which with ideas expressed that I could not have predicted. So, my wife astutely suggested I write more extensively on the matter.
Years ago, I published a post on things you can do as a guest that will enhance your dining experience, and my very first suggestion was right in line with the question at hand. It’s my resolute belief that entrusting the specifics of your meal with the professionals providing it to you will lead you to a wholly more enjoyable experience. However some folks seem to bristle at the tactic, citing among other things, a distrust in the professionals in question, or a need to have things exactly as they want them.
First, let me clarify that my suggestion is implicitly for particular types of restaurants; namely, those where this type of behavior would be welcomed and rewarded. This would not work to anyone’s advantage at a Sizzler or Applebee’s, and it likewise wouldn’t go over well at a restaurant where a coursed tasting menu is already predetermined for each diner. I’m not denigrating or discounting either these types of restaurants, or those who prefer/frequent them. But this is a practice meant for privately owned, chef-inspired restaurants, where the people working there are both approachable and passionate about the food they’re serving. To put it practically, think of a restaurant you’re excited about going to, probably on a date or with a small/medium sized group of friends, where the food will be just as much the focus as the company. These places are usually (though not always) in/around major cities, and have varying (but existing) amounts of critical acclaim.
Now that we’ve cleared that up a bit…
I’ve been on both sides of the restaurant – guest interaction. I’ve been a professional cook/chef for 14 years, during which time I’ve worked the more pedestrian short-order, banquet, and cafeteria type places. I’ve worked the more nice-ish steakhouse and bistro places, and I’ve worked high level fine dining restaurants. I’ve worked grill, prep, sauté, cold-side (aka: garde manger), butchery, fish, expo, point, and the pass, just to name a few, and have occupied every role in the kitchen shy of executive chef. Suffice it to say, I have the back-of-house perspective in spades.
What comes with a career in foodservice (if you pay attention, at least) is not only a profound respect for your industry peers, but also a developed understanding of how to get the best out of the dining experience. Because of this, I’ve gotten to enjoy some absolutely phenomenal meals that have gone above and beyond what the normal guest would probably receive. And no, most of these dinners were not an exclusive result of me being “industry”. They were the result of engaging with the servers, sommeliers, bartenders and even (albeit usually indirectly) the cooks/chefs on a level that acknowledges and respects their expertise.
Skipping the long versions of many stories, the best meals I’ve ever had have come from me and my dining parters asking the server what they would order (and in pertinent cases, how they would order it), and going with whatever they say. Yes, this approach requires a unique brand of trust, in both your server, and the kitchen, so it’s the sort of thing I only do at restaurants where creativity is likely to be welcomed.
As I mentioned, not every restaurant is the kind of place that would respond so gracefully to this type of behavior. Even at the places that would, leaving your meal (and the specifics therein) in the hands of a stranger (even if that stranger is a qualified professional) is not necessarily something everyone is keen to do. And that’s okay. You don’t have to. In fact I’ve observed that most people (at least think they) know what they like, and that’s what they want to eat. If that’s who you are, and your mind won’t be changed, bless you, but my perspective on this matter probably irritates such people more than just a little.
I will however submit my theory on the matter of peoples’ openness to trying new foods: I believe that the majority of the global population has yet to try their favorite food. What I mean by that is I think the food/flavor that a given person would like the most in the world, lies in a food they have yet to try. This is a big reason why I encourage people to try anything/everything at least once — and probably at least once every 8-10 years, as palates are known to evolve with age.
Bringing it back to the question at hand, my perspective of open interaction is one I’ve noticed that tends to be held (at least on some level) by most culinary professionals — and many people who work in the broader foodservice/hospitality world. This attitude of trust mixed with passive curiosity is a bit more playful and whimsical than some people are willing to be with their food. But when it comes to the question of how the “chef” in question would respond to a guest deferring to them on a decision about their meal, he/she certainly wouldn’t be upset.
On the contrary, chefs love cooking for people who want to enjoy what they create, particularly those who give them carte blanche to offer their best version of exactly that. Now, this is different from requesting a special dish/item be prepared for you that isn’t listed on the menu. That is very rude, inconsiderate, tacky and ignorant. Now, if you are given something that isn’t on the menu, that’s a different story, as this will often be a dish that the chef is working on, or something they’ve made in the past that happens to involve the ingredients (and time) that they have at their disposal. Otherwise, the chef has already carefully designed dishes that they feel they can make well, and in such a way that is conducive to their smoothly functioning restaurant. They even were so considerate as to have them all written down on a nice piece of paper — in many cases, they’ve turned it into a little leather-bound booklet — to give you a handy guide from which you can request any/all of whatever you like. This is what’s commonly known as a menu, and as the diner, those are the options that you have the right to request at that given establishment.
As I gravitate back to the original question, if you take a step back and think about it objectively, the fact that guests are even offered input on how a steak or a piece of fish should be cooked for them is pretty outlandish, if not ridiculous. We don’t do that with any other food or menu item — just red meat and sometimes fish. Why? If we treated those things like all other foods, you would just get it the way the chef thinks it should be prepared anyway. Because that’s how literally every other menu item is given to you!
Again, I’m not trying to tell anyone how to eat or how to order their food. I’m simply saying this: If you’re someone who just goes to a restaurant to eat what you like to eat, the way you like to have it, then I guess that’s how you’re going to “enjoy” dining out. On the other hand, if you’re someone who relishes the idea of immersing yourself in a dining experience — and find yourself at a place where this is welcomed — then surrender your menu selections to the people who spend all day every day thinking about them. It just might result in some of the best meals of your life!
One thought on “Surrender Yourself: Deferring to the expert”
This is a great and interesting post. Thank you for sharing! We definitely agree that a chef’s recommendation and a willingness to try something new can lead to some great culinary finds sometimes.