The Picky Eater And The Irritated Waiter

Ruhlman wrote a piece on food allergies calling America A Nation Of Culinary Sissies. In his self described rant, he talks about the number of people who alert servers about food allergies vs. the number of people who actually have a food allergy. A comment-storm erupted, with people choosing sides and bickering. It is, after all, the Internet.

Eventually, it devolved but there was one salient point that I think merits further discussion:

Some patrons lie to get the chef to do what they want.

And, of course, that pisses a lot of servers, chefs and restauranteurs off. Because what they really want is to have their already difficult jobs not made more difficult, and of course, everyone involved wants to be able to continue to work and make a living. How is their life made easier when someone comes in and asks them to change the way they do things?

I used to be a vegetarian. I would start by telling a server that I was a vegetarian. Some knew what the term meant, others would say things like: “But they’re just little clams” to “No sir, I assure you, all vegetarians eat fish.” As I got more strict I started asking more specific questions (which would ultimately eliminate dishes I thought jived with my diet). Is there any shrimp paste, fish sauce, chicken stock. During this barrage of questions, some servers answered in a way that gave you a high degree of confidence, others would answer with “No… I don’t think so…” followed with an uncomfortable silence before going and asking.

I never got to the point where I lied, but if I went back to being a vegetarian today, I probably would. Too many businesses don’t really care if they serve you something you didn’t want (especially since you probably won’t notice). But the potential nightmare of having me convulse on their floor with someone slamming an adrenaline needle ala Pulp Fiction during the middle of service will get everyone’s attention.

In other words, the people who complain about people who utilize allergies as their weapon, are complaining about a situation they created. And here is why they created it:

No restaurant wants to say no to money.

It is easier to not care or deceive a customer rather than accommodate the request or tell a customer that you simple can’t or don’t want to honor their request. The result is that restaurant workers are incented to keep you there, and if the kitchen can’t accommodate you, the server can always lie, if they think it won’t really cause any harm. I am not saying that all waiters and chefs lie, because it isn’t true. What I am saying is, if you don’t want to accommodate requests, but you don’t want a party to leave because one doesn’t like carrots, lying is a damned good option compared to watching money walk out of the restaurant.

At the end of the day, a meal at a restaurant is a business arrangement. Customers provide money, restaurant provide dining experiences. If either side thinks it’s not going to get what it wants, they should walk away. Restaurants make less money if they say no. You can even put something on the menu saying, “We do not honor substitutions. Do not ask.”

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