by: Chef Jim Berman
I have often debated aloud as well as alone the one troublesome question that just about every cook worth his or her grease stained apron has asked at one point or another: For whom am I cooking? Do I prepare food as I would art? Is it self-expression - each dish a work borne of my own insight, hard work and wonton desire? Or is cooking a medium for which to deliver food and turn a profit? This can be tumultuous if you are one of those 'type a' personalities, like myself, that likes to work with a clear goal in mind. More aptly put, when working in a restaurant and the patron wants to recreate a dish from your menu, do you oblige? Do you shirk the request and bark profanity in broken kitchen-Spanish?
In New Mexico, the brilliant, introverted chef that I was fortunate enough for which to work under was a masterful innovator of Tuscan-inspired fare. Our offerings changed daily, based on whatever was jingling around in his head, something he saw at the market or from an apparent whim. As such, when a request for some customer inspired modification was delivered by the fearful waiter crushed under the burden of knowing what was going to come next, Chef would spend the next 20 minutes on a tirade about the know-nothing customer who would be better off eating Spaghetti-Os than wasting their money on his food. At one point, a brave waiter came in bearing a note from a patron with a request substituting one item on the evening's mixed grill for another, as well as changing this sauce for that sauce, etc. Chef proceeded to open the door into the dining room and yell "This isn't 'Lets Make a F***ing Deal'. No, you can't have that sh***y combination here. If that is what I wanted to offer, that is what would be on the menu, A**hole!"
And so it goes. Did we loose a customer that night? Certainly we did. Did we loose more than one customer that night? I would think. Although as a member of the 5-man kitchen brigade, I was inspired by his devotion to his dishes. He did not let dollars get in the way of his craft. He constructed his menu from instinct; he matched flavors, textures, price, appearance and appeal from his years of experience. Later in the night, after a spell of absolute silence in the kitchen nay the occasional clang or two of plates, he said that if he allows customers to change even one item on the menu, then the time he invests in the restaurant is an enormous waste. He went on to say that the food should reflect the mission of the restaurant or, specifically, why people chose to eat there rather than somewhere else. If he relinquished, then his place would be like the cookie-cut place at the mall. Naively, I asked when would it be okay to change a dish. Would he change a dish for a customer's religious or health requirements? His response, was, "Berman, if they are that damn sick, they should stay the hell home!" I never asked again.
At the next restaurant I moved along to, not surprisingly, the topic came up again. Not a screaming madman in the kitchen, but a tightwad owner in the office was calling the shots. His take on the matter was quite the opposite. "Make 'em what they want," he grumped. Well that is fair enough, I suppose. They are paying the rent, right? "Do we draw a line?" I had to ask. Long winded and excruciatingly poignant, he told me that if I had to get in my car to go get a certain ingredient for a customer's request, that I should be careful not to get a ticket as I ran red lights to hasten my return from the store.
So, the question remains. Do we pay the bills by serving sliced tomatoes with fresh mozzarella in place of the Panzanella salad? Or do we quietly, discreetly ask the customer to try it the way it is intended? There is no compromise, by the way. If you allow one customer to make a modification and another customer's request you do not honor, that in itself is a nightmare. The wait staff will be confused. The kitchen will be in turmoil over protocol. And, most importantly, the customers will be without a clear understanding of what to expect.
In case you were wondering, here's my Panzanella salad. No substitutions, please.
2 Tablespoons, fresh squeezed lemon juice
¼ Cup, red wine vinegar
¼ Cup, balsamic vinegar
1 Tablespoon, Dijon mustard
1 Cup, Olive oil
Salt and Pepper
Whisk the juice, vinegars and mustard together. Drizzle the oil into the mixture. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
2 Cups, skinned, seeded cucumbers sliced into ¼" half-moons
3 Cups, seeded ½" diced plum tomatoes
1 Cup, chiffonade of basil leaves (use the smaller, less-licorice flavor leaves when possible)
½ Cup, scallions, in ¼" cuts, using the white and green sections
2 Cups, ½" diced crusty bread (like leftover Italian, baguette or ciabatta)
Toss the vegetables and bread with a splash of the dressing and allow to sit for a few minutes. Fold in the remaining dressing and serve before the bread has soaked up all the dressing. If you want, make extra dressing and have it handy, just in case. Any leftover dressing will store nicely in the refrigerator.