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No Substitutions Please


FOOD FOR THOUGHT - February 2, 2005 - Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Archive

Are you one of those people who frequently request substitutions when ordering meals in restaurants?  You know who you are.  All you “sauce-on-the-siders,” ingredient changers, and “can-you-make-mine-steamed” freaks.  And if you’re not switching ingredients or cooking methods then you’re deleting them:  no anchovies, no cheese, no dressing, no mushrooms, no this, no that, etc. Or, the worse kind, the patrons who reinvent the dish: “Uh, instead of the cognac cream sauce on the steak can you make me a bordelaise?”

     The antithesis of these individuals are the restaurants that will not allow any substitutions. Many will note “no substitutions” on the menu.  While most restaurants will expend some effort to accommodate their guests, these ultra-rigid establishments have drawn a line in the sand on the shores of menu augmentation.

     Well, the proverbial coin has two sides.  On the customer’s side, individual palates vary for a plethora of reasons. Factors such as biology, psychology, and previous food experiences all contribute to the diversity in human taste preferences. Now throw in weight loss restrictions, medical ailments that affect diet, religious prescriptions against certain foods, and individual idiosyncrasies, and you have a ponderous amalgamation of forces destined to cause the person and the menu to clash. And why shouldn’t the patron have things his or her way? They are paying for it after all.  Why should someone have to spend money to eat their food the way someone else intended? 

     Flip the coin.  Because substitutions are a pain-in-the-ass and disruptive to the flow of service.  Working in a restaurant is much like being on a fast-paced, non-stop assembly line. There is an incessant stream of orders and a very narrow window for you to churn out your link in the chain on time. Your particular steps in the process are not that varied but they are overwhelmingly repetitive and relentless.  To adapt, the mind habituates to the task.  Chefs and servers work on “automatic” most of the time.  Your seemingly simple request to substitute onions for the tomatoes on the salad sends ripples through the previously seamless flow. The server must retain your request on paper or in his memory.  He or she must then inform the cooking staff. The cook must retain that information until the time comes for him to prepare your dish. Finally, he must enact a different set of motions to implement the change.  And your request is one drop of water in a sea of tasks, (and other special requests), being performed simultaneously. 


Even a simple alteration is deranging to this rehearsed concentration.  Think about how many times you’ve asked for extra lemon with your tea, no mayo on your sandwich, or this instead of that and didn’t get it. You’re left wondering why they can’t remember such a basic command. It’s because they’re so used to not doing it that way.

     Some solicitations are even more complex such as asking for an ingredient that the restaurant has, but is not on the menu.  Inevitably this product hasn’t been prepped since there was no anticipation of using it. Now it must be fabricated, (washed, trimmed, cut, etc.), in order to prepare it for cooking.  These requests definitely throw a monkey wrench into the assembly line. Now other guests may receive their food later because of your special needs.  Finally, there are requests that just can’t be done on a moment’s notice such as whipping up a bordelaise sauce.

     But, I believe there are times when these inconveniences are merely the surface, albeit plausible, explanations for a restaurant’s resistance to substitutions.  I believe the real reason, especially in establishments allowing no substitutions, is the chef’s ego.  Insecure chefs are far more likely to personalize a patron’s special request and be affronted that their creation is not being appreciated as is.  They fail to appreciate that the customer’s whims are not an appraisal of their food or culinary skills, but are a manifestation of their own strivings, i.e., the aforementioned medical, psychological, and religious influences on food choices. The “no-substitution” chef’s ego is undermining common sense and sound business management.  This is a no-brainer folks.  Which restaurant will you return to, the one that meets your needs or the one that staunchly refuses? 

     So, to invoke my trademark phrase, where does all this leave us?  Well, balance is always in the middle.  So is compromise.  Customers are paying the bill and thus, have some right to have things their way. But if you’re a little too picky, have a little consideration for the extra demands on the restaurant staff and the subsequent effects on other diner’s meals. For chefs, the restaurant is not just a showcase for their creative culinary talent; it is their livelihood.  And like it or not this is a customer service business.  Approximately 60% of restaurants will go belly up in three years.  Inflexible, temperamental chefs have a choice of cooperating with patrons’ reasonable requests or making a substitution of their own:  their ego for bankruptcy proceedings.

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