Monday, 10 November 2008

Devising your menu

Had a really interesting conversation with Subi at Sip on Saturday about menus. We on the blog have broached that subject a few times, both on Rita's and Gobbler’s blogs, and I remember the chefs amongst us getting reasonably het up about customers wanting the kitchen to leave something out, or amend something on the menu.

Subi related the story of a recent customer of theirs in the café, who was a member of a party of four requiring breakfast. The other three were fine, but Mr 4, whose trendy, mover & shaker looks belied his demeanour, was one of those customers whose vocabulary definitely does not include the word ‘compromise’ or ‘apology’ or anything even slightly hinting at the fact that he may well have made a bit of a mistake persisting with his views.

He stated at ordering time that he wanted Scrambled Eggs. On being told that they only did Poached Eggs (as indicated on the menu in his hand), he resolutely insisted that as they obviously had eggs, there was no excuse for them not providing him with same, and by the way, weren’t they aware that the customer is always right. They carefully explained that the café down the road did many breakfast items, scrambled eggs being amongst them, and that basically was that. If he didn’t want Poached Eggs, he could go without – I don’t know if that salient point was actually verbally expressed, but the inference was there if it wasn’t!

Now the question under debate was how far should a café owner be prepared to go to accommodate the desires/whims/whatever of the customers?

Subi made the point that if there is a reason for why they want/need the dish amended (ie some kind of allergy or intolerance) then obviously that is totally acceptable. But if it’s just that they don’t like ‘a’ ingredient, or ‘b’ ingredient, well that’s a different matter. The menu items were designed to highlight various ingredients, with the combination of textures and flavours having been carefully thought out, and executed. The full effects of that forethought would be totally lost by adjusting the ingredients of the dish at someone’s random whim.

Mr 4 chose to go without, so had to sit and watch his companions eat their breakfast, which I would imagine would have proved most frustrating for him.

An interesting conversation, and conundrum, but one of which you should be aware next time you take it into your head to ask the chef to leave the garlic out of your lunch dish because you have a dental appointment after lunch and don’t want to breathe garlic over the dentist!
Posted on by Rita


Anonymous said...

Priceless Rita Priceless.

Look a kitchen is usually prepared to accommodate a customer, but of course there are exceptions.
When designing a menu there are many factors at play. The more experienced are looking at the whole package, and part of that is the kitchens ability to produce a quality product that is achievable given the constraints. It is the front of house ability to act as a conduit between customer and kitchen that is also vital, and an ability of the chef not to have a fit of pique if a customer is going off menu.
On a personal note, if I think their idea of heaven is going to taste vile, then I either ask for more information, offer a suggestion or outright lie my way out of doing it. The latter is its better to get out of it rather than have them walk out because you interpreted it wrong.

Lots of thought goes in to menus, more than most think (won't bore you all), but a bit of trust in the kitchen who have dedicated their lives to taste, would be a good start. After all, you would'nt tell the nurse stitching your scrotum after a vasectomy what to do..?


ut si said...

Chef & me are menu styling today Rita! I dunno, I think I would have just scrambled the prat an egg. And trying to eat my muesli & NOT think about your scrotum!

Rita said...

I'm with you ut si! Cartouche's scrotum thoughts are filling my head! My Annual Report at work today now looks welcoming in comparison, and I never thought I'd ever say that!

Anonymous said...

From a service point of view - if you can do it, do it. That guy may have been a dick, but at least he would have left saying "Hey that place was OK I might tell someone".
There is something fundementally wrong with hospitality staff who provide a stunning product but only do so within a certain set of rules. Flexibility whether it be in a restaurant, hotel or bar is as important as knowing your product and being able to relate to customers. Yes it is a pain in the arse but after personally coming full circle in my hospitality career, I can say it is far nicer to have someone go away having had a killer time after exceeding their expectations than it is to provide some great service but "I'm sorry you can't have that extra with your meal because the kitchen only makes xxxxxx portions every day", or "No you can't ask to have the corriander without the meal just because you don't like it".
As far as practically telling someone to go somewhere else because they wouldn't make scrambled eggs!

Glad that's off my chest!

Anonymous said...

I get the point, and fully endorse it, that dishes on a menu are designed a certain way and to alter that composition will compromise the integrity of the product ( a good example is a request of the chef to over-cook a piece of meat or fish - no chef worth his/her salt feels comfortable doing this and is in my mind quite entitled to deny such a request).

But this example is bloody ridiculous, in my opinion. Scrambled eggs on toast / poached eggs on toast. It's hardly THAT much of an issue!!!! For god's sake, if the kitchen's not too busy and the chef has the ingredients, why the hell not???

Sounds more like the owners of the cafe were the ones with "attitude" than the customer.

sir grumpy said...

That guy may have been ``diffcult'' for the kitchen, Rita but I think they should have looked after him.
Sure if the dish calls for meat and not fish it may be daft to substitute in cases such as that.
But I think the chef may be losing the plot a bit by NOT scambling eggs.
I feel if a customer ventured into a small place in France or Italy the idea that they could NOT scramble eggs for him would be beyond ludicrous.
If I have guests at home they can have their eggs anyway they want.
Eggs is eggs. We are not talking Paul Bocuse and a degustation menu here.
And I like my steak well done. Sorry, childhood conditioning and all that but at least it kills the E Coli.
maggie Beer and Simon, Huey etc etc all undercook their meat in my view.
I remember Jamie Oliver cooking a farmer and his wife steaks from their own herd.
He did it that way for THEM and said he personally would have preferred it less well done.
This was obviously a sop to his London cronies who would have seen that steak NOT DRIPPING BLOOD.
Good on the farmers.
I don't tell chefs how to eat their meat so why should they tell me?
It's just a PREFERENCE. So there!

Stephen said...

If the place is open at breakfast, then I'd expect that 99 out of 100 potential breakfast diners would expect multiple ways to prepare eggs.

It smacks of a certain cheese shop:

"Do you have Cheddar?"
"Not much call for it around here Sir"
"But its the single most popular cheese in the world!"
"Not around here Sir"
"Not much of a cheese shop is it?
"Finest in the county. Very clean."
"Its certainly uncontaminated by cheese."

ut si said...

Love that skit.

Kris said...

I'll have to join the "they should have scrambled some eggs for him" brigade.

If he's obstinate enough to sit there while his friends eat, he'll damn sure rubbish the place to everyone he can for the rest of his life!

RacerB said...

My partner will only eat breakfast eggs if scrambled. It looks like Sip is off our menu when next in Bicheno

Susannah said...

It sounds as if the customer was a bit unpleasant, and that may have provoked a less accommodating response from the restaurant. I suspect that if he had asked politely if there was any chance of the eggs being scrambled, and added a "please", the chef would have produced the requested dish (it would hardly have been difficult!). I think I may have volunteered similar sentiments in the past, Rita. A customer has every right to request some menu variation (which should always be done politely), and a restaurant that cares about its reputation should respect the request and either accommodate it, or explain politely why it would be difficult to do so (ie, the garlic is already in the marinate, etc). I have requested menu variations in the past, and have often been able to work out an appropriate menu selection that resulted in all the diners being happy (especially when accompanied by children or elderly family members who may be a bit fussy). The restaurants where my requests have been met with politeness and an attempt to get a happy solution have had the benefit of my return custom, and positive recommendations to others. Where restaurants are inflexible (I am sorry, madam, Chef refuses to prepare smaller serves of pasta cabonara, or anything else on the menu. Perhaps your children would be happier with a bowl of deep fried junk food with artificially coloured red glue??) - Well, I just don't go back. And I tell everyone what an unpleasant experience it was. (I can't see what the problem is with trying to bring up children to eat and enjoy good food, and to appreciate civilised dining - my two loved it)

It is really up to the restaurant to choose which way they want to operate.


sir grumpy said...

Yes, I cannot imagine going into any cafe/restaurant in Europe or America and not getting scrambled eggs.
In France they'd make sure they were the bloody best scrambled eggs you ever ate, with the finest toast _ and you wouldn't have to look at the menu for that.
Then perhaps madame et monsieur would return for dinner.
I think Sip has to look at the whole philosophy of hospitality.
Sure, you can't expect the house to have everything for lunch or dinner. But anything with eggs should be a given.
I mean the bloke didn't ask for elephant trunk soup with mongoose stuffing...just some scrambled eggs.
Sip please listen.

the Gobbler said...

I think its not unreasonable for a punter to order this especially if eggs are on the menu.
Sure I 'get' not wanting to compromise but is the bad PR really worth it.
In fact this is a really good example of how overly simplistic the cafe world may seem to the punter. 'Why cant I get eggs this way when they have eggs on the menu already, I mean, how hard can it be?' is not an reasonable request.
The fact is scrambled eggs often take an extra egg (3) plus the addition of cream or milk or buter & add considerably to the cost.
All this aside, to me, this is a small cost to bear in order to make this particular punter happy.
However at times a simple request though sounding quite basic might not translate as well to the dining room.
For instance: we had 'real chips' on the menu for a garnish for a steak. We did the required amount for each portion plus a few extra, is our practice.
As the spuds are ordered for their fryability, peeled, hand cut, blanched in water, dried then blanched in low temp oil then fially fried to their golden finale, producing what I believe to be a superior chip, they are not exactly easy to just 'knock-up' especially when we are already using the fryer for another dish that requires a higher cooking temp.
So to summise, what may seem as a reasonable request for a 'bowl of chips' may not be as simple as it seems to the customer.
'Why cant we get MORE chips when they are on the menu?" they ask reasonably.
Yes they could, but it would use up all the pre prepared ones for the steak. Do you see the dilemma?
Obviously I ALWAYS do more when I put them on a menu but often I'll run out as chips have so much currency on a menu!
It would be easy just to slash a bag of McCains steak fries but I dont do this for many reasons that you are already familiar with.

But back to this cafe in question.

Surely whatever their philosophy or doctrine that keeps them on their chosen course must never dispute the fact that being hospitable might often include doing things that they might find being on the periphery of their mission statement. My guess is though, no matter how unpaletable that might be to them at the time, it just may make all the difererence to that particular person & this just might have much wider ramifications?

sir grumpy said...

The price wasn't necessarilly a factor, Gobbler.
Had the restaurant said yes, I'm sure there would have been (or should have been) a ``but that will cost extra''.
Actually, best of all: ``We don't have scrambled eggs on the menu but I'm sure we could rustle you up some, no problem The price may be higher than poached eggs, however, I'll check.
``Is that okay?''
Happy customer: ``Thanks, that'll be fine''.
See how bloody easy it could be.
As for chips, Gobbler, it's always a good idea to have a bigger batch de-starching in cold water somewhere.
Me gran used to do this for her hungry charges.
Out the water, good drying with a linen towel and into the fryer.
What's the bleedin' problem?
Can't do chips, can't do scrambled eggs, fuck sake. Any chance of some potato cakes with that?

hrv said...

I'm really puzled by these two hospitality 'legends' not bending their own rules for a simple request like scrambled eggs. Obviously the had the makings, equipment and a heat source so what was the problem? I can't see it as laziness or disregard for customers given their reputation.

I get many funny requests in the restaurant be they dietary, religious observance or just a matter of personal taste. I don't take it as afrontto my training that a customer may want to change something, our wait staff are certainly confident enough to explain that could potentially change the dish and may make the experience less than we are trying to achieve, ie, overcooking game or fish or paring a sauce that may not go. It to me as the same as someone drinking chardonnay with a steak - purely a matter of personal taste.

But I will disagree with what Mister Scrambled Eggs said - The customer is not always right. An example of this is when upon finishing a meal the customer will then tell the waitstaff it was cooked wrong. I recently did a menu tasting for a large christening, something I normally don't do, and the couple told the waitress that I obviously didn't read the menu (which I had written) or knew what I was cooking. Luckily for me the waitress had the experience and common sense to explain the dish corresponding to the description, after which the guests desparted red faced and quickly.

With a new found educated foodie revolution happening, chef's must now be prepared to come up against more'savvy and well read' diners and be prepared for enevitable criticisms. But with all this the dinner should remember that the chef/owner is running the establishment and has either written the menu based on staff and kitchen capabilities or pitching at the market they are trying to target. The chef has also being training and refining throughout their careers to bring you the best they can, sans those that cook for ego alone.