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FOOD FOR THOUGHT - Sept 15, 2004 - Mark R. Vogel -


The other day I went to lunch early at this nearby tavern.  Seated at the bar, more interested in the latest issue of “Fine Cooking” than the menu, I simply ordered a cheeseburger medium-rare and fries.  When my meal arrived the burger was overcooked and the fries were undercooked. The burger was not even medium.  It was completely well done and dry with no pink it sight.  The fries were completely soft on the outside and semi-raw on the inside.  And to make matters worse, I was the only patron in the place.  They couldn’t even use the lunchtime rush as an excuse.

     Such staggering culinary blunders boggle my mind. I’m always left wondering whether it’s due to overwhelming incompetence or indifference.  The cook, (I won’t even use the term chef), was either a mentally challenged miscreant or simply doesn’t give a damn. Or maybe it’s a little of both.  I mean anybody, even a non-cook, could have merely looked at my fries and seen they were way underdone.

     Incorrectly cooked meat has been the bane of my existence. I truly cannot count the times my medium-rare steak or burger ends up overcooked.  I can leave a little leeway for medium but well done is out of the question.  Like the day I ordered the $30 rack of lamb medium rare and received it well done. That’s inexcusable and I of course sent it back.

     Hey, I work in a restaurant too and I certainly make my share of mistakes. But serving a mistake is a compound error. Before the food goes out you should check it to determine quality. A simple poke will quickly differentiate a medium-rare from a well-done piece of meat. 

     One day I was having dinner at one of those chain steakhouses.   I requested a side of sautéed onions. Can you believe they didn’t peel the onions? I kid you not. They sliced whole onions with the skin on and then sautéed them.  When I showed the manager he shrunk in embarrassment and then gave me my entire meal for free.  I’ve been served ice-cold soup, brown lettuce, over-cooked shrimp, stale bread, mushy pasta, and one bowl of Chinese noodles with a cockroach of prehistoric proportions.

     I must admit, seldom do errors of such magnitude occur at upscale restaurants.  Most of the time they happen at your everyday eateries, particularly the chain restaurants.  Sometimes your fellow diners will admonish you for your outrage and remind you that you’re in a run-of-the-mill restaurant and not a fine dining establishment.  To some extent, the general public has come to accept below average standards from average restaurants.  I believe it’s precisely this resignation that enables them to wallow in their ineptitude.  The only way we as the dining public can do anything about it is to inform the manager or send the food back. Many people don’t wish to “make a scene” or cause trouble. They suffer with their inadequate food and the establishment is never enlightened to its failings. 

     Ultimately it is the chef you wish to inform about problems with the food.  The server is merely the intermediary.  Some servers don’t inform the cooks about their blunders.  They don’t wish to create tension with a coworker via a “shooting the messenger” displacement of anger. Or they may not care. Returning the food has a far greater chance of getting the chef’s attention than keeping it and merely informing the server of the error.  The server is then forced to have to inform the cooking staff. So send it back!  And if it’s a major problem, (like the aforementioned cockroach), I would definitely inform the manager.

     Maintaining quality at any restaurant is a tremendous and arduous task.  With so many meals being prepared at the same time, mistakes are sometimes inevitable.  I am not suggesting you hassle your neighborhood eatery over minor slip-ups.  And yes, you can’t accept the same standard of quality from the cost-effective family restaurant as you would from a four star establishment. But I don’t care how inexpensive or casual a restaurant is, there’s no excuse for significantly over or under cooked food, spoiled food, or grossly impaired culinary judgment. Even as a child I knew you had to peel an onion before cooking it.

     More than half of all new restaurants go out of business within two years.  Without feedback they are likely to perpetuate their pitfalls. Business slowly deteriorates as the management staff, ignorant to some of the problems, quizzically remains searching for the whys.  So tell’em what you think and then be fair.  Give them a chance to correct it and try them again.


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