Chef’s Roundtable: Special requests for the chef
March 3, 2014
Pro Tips for Diners: Special Requests
Give as much advance notice as you can. Make the request with your reservation when possible, and confirm it again with your waiter before your table orders.
Be as specific as possible. If you’re seriously allergic to any ingredient, say so. Ask your server to be diligent about all forms (like nut oils in vinaigrettes, marinades and sauces, for instance). A printed list of ingredients to avoid can be helpful.
Be honest. It’s okay to just say you don’t want something; you don’t have to make up a reason. It can be discouraging when diners request no mushrooms on their steak because they’re allergic, and then order the mushroom appetizer.
Trust the chef. When challenged with a dietary restriction, most professional chefs can create something much more delicious and memorable than what the average diner can piece together off a menu. Rather than mixing and matching, describe the restrictions to your server, and put yourself in the kitchen’s hands. After all, isn’t that why you’re eating out in the first place?
The culinary arts are a unique combination of creative expression and consumer accommodation, which sometimes presents a unique conflict. Passionate chefs start with a specific vision, and combine ingredients so components of flavor, texture, aroma and color come together to achieve the precise effect they imagined. Their goal is twofold: first, to actualize their vision, and second, to delight and inspire the palate of the person who orders it.
But what if that vision is central to, say, smoky, dense prosciutto ham, and the vegetarian who orders the dish asks for no prosciutto? What should the chef do — compromise the vision, or deny the customer?
It's hard to imagine imposing our personal preferences on other artists the way we impose them on chefs. (Imagine going to a Rolling Stones concert, saying you're allergic to vocals, and requesting that Mick not sing.) We go to restaurants, though, to not just experience, but literally consume the creation; to eat well and be well taken care of. This interdependence between artist and consumer defines hospitality.
So back to the artistic dilemma: How do chefs respond to guests who make special requests that might result in a dish that not only won't be delicious by their standards, but might not even be good by anyone's?
The Fine Dining Line
Even if their menus don't feature them, chefs in most fine dining restaurants are prepared to construct a deliciously thought-out meal for the most common special requests.
"We absolutely accommodate allergies and dietary restrictions," said David Dein, sous chef at Vail's Larkspur. "We always have gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options on hand that deliver the complexity of flavor and texture we create in all our menu items. But when guests think this entree would be better with that sauce and that starch — and we know the changes will compromise the dish — it's a conflict. Our kitchen team puts hours and hours of work into developing everything on our menu. Each ingredient is chosen to create balance, and when a component is omitted or replaced, the dish is out of balance. We don't want to send something out we're not proud of, most of all, we don't want any guest to be disappointed."
So rather than trying to construct your own dish by mixing and matching components from different entrees, it's much better to put yourself in the chef's hands.
"When guests tell us they have dietary restrictions, our servers ask detailed questions — not just about what they don't want, but what flavors and ingredients they like most. That way, we can create a custom dining experience we know they'll love," said Erica Lennertson, Larkspur's dining room director.
Give The People What They Want
"Changing ingredients, coming up with something specific — it doesn't throw us off. We're pretty seasoned here," said Charles Hayes, executive chef at Avon's Vin48.
Hayes said it helps when requests are made as soon as customers sit down. Gluten-free is the most common restriction he hears about.
"It's very big, and we've got several options on our menu with asterisks that note them. The next request we hear most often is vegan, which we can also accommodate pretty easily."
Do special requests cramp his creative style?
"Not at all," Hayes said. "My policy's pretty simple: I try to give my customers whatever they want, so they'll be happy and come back. Ultimately, we're in the hospitality business. "
Restaurant Away From Home
Doug McAvity, executive chef at Vail's Up The Creek, recognizes not only the unique hospitality component of the culinary arts, but also the unique dynamic of the resort-area restaurants.
"Dining out in Vail is different than dining out in New York, Chicago, or Denver," he said. "Most of our customers here are visiting. They're staying in hotels. They're far away from their favorite restaurants at home, and they have to eat out. We recognize that and try to take a different approach — we want our customers to be comfortable."
As it happens, McAvity has a lot of experience accommodating special diets.
"My mother is celiac, and my wife is the pickiest eater on the planet," he said. "So most of our menu items are already gluten-free, and as far as other special requests or allergies, I think I've heard them all. Nothing is new to me. The only thing we really can't do is kosher, but beyond that, I try to make everyone's experience as enjoyable as possible. Basically, that's my job."
Madeleine Berenson is a freelance writer contracted by Larkspur Restaurant. Larkspur, located at the base of Vail Mountain, has been serving American classics with a fresh interpretation since 1999. Visit http://www.larkspurvail.com.