In the 1970s, Burger King had a great advertising campaign called, “Have It Your Way.”
Some restaurants aren’t nearly so willing these days to say such a thing. They want to decide how we’ll have it, and they expect us to live with it. For some, that’s a life-threatening proposition.
It seems that more and more chefs are concerned about the integrity of the dishes they are preparing, many of which have recipes that have been perfected over time with great dedication and attention to the nuance of flavor. I can cook fairly well, but I’m no chef. I admire those who have the additional skills to turn culinary delights that are far beyond my ability.
In reporting this trend, NBC News quoted one chef who put it this way:
“Would you ask Picasso to change his painting?”
Let’s get real.
We’re not talking about a delicate work of art that will be admired for centuries by legions of art enthusiasts. We’re talking about a meal that may be remembered or may not be. And chances are that if it is remembered, it’ll be more because of the atmosphere and events of which the actual meal was part.
When I was little, there was a delightful man named Luigi who ran his own Italian restaurant. He retired and closed his kitchen for good when I was about 15 or so. I haven’t had his lasagna in more than 25 years. He even gave me his recipe and I followed it to the letter. But Luigi was an expert at cooking, and when you reach that status, you no longer follow a written recipe; as Marie Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond put it, you cook with love, not with a recipe. No attempt I’ve yet made at Luigi’s recipe came close to his phenomenal lasagna.
In Charleston, Fleet Landing has the best shrimp and grits I’ve yet tasted. (If you can’t quite wrap your head around the notion of those two items put together in the same plate, I can sympathize. I was right there where you are until I tried it for the first time about 10 years ago and realized how much I’d been missing.)
But those two items are so fondly remembered because they’re already prepared the way I want them prepared.
My biggest food difficulty is raw tomatoes. I know that’s a strange statement coming from someone who just waxed poetic about a plate of lasagna. But note that I said, raw.
There is a level of acid in an uncooked tomato (an acid that seems to cook away when heated, according to my doctor) that irritates the lining of my mouth. It’s a mild inconvenience, but I’ve not yet found any dish featuring raw tomatoes that is worth the inconvenience.
So if I encounter a dish — from sandwich to pasta to salad — that contains pieces of raw tomato as a main ingredient or garnish, I ask the server to have mine made without. That has never been a problem before; no one has had an issue with granting that request. The first time someone does, I’ll make one of two choices: I’ll select something else or I’ll leave without ordering anything.
For some people, however, food allergies are a lot more serious than a mild, temporary irritation. They’re potentially deadly.
I don’t believe a food allergy should allow someone to demand that a chef completely remake a dish; but I also don’t believe that minor changes — if the food is not already prepared and such changes are thereby possible — should be viewed as such a problem, either.
Sure, the chefs have every right to consider their dishes as works of Picasso. But I guarantee you that those who are serious about that comparison are already charging you entirely too much money. And for what you’re paying, I think it’s reasonable that you have some say. Especially if it’s a health issue.
Chefs who take that hard of a stand may be satisfied by what they make from people who are willing to put up with their high opinions of their own ability. But in our world of convenience, in which everyone wants everything their way right that minute, they’re unquestionably going to cost themselves some business.