Pinch of Salt: Menus – who needs ’em?

By Pete Goffe-Wood.

“Can I have the Caesar Salad without anchovies, please?”

“Sure, while I’m at it why don’t I just  remove the nasty smelling lactose-infected Parmesan and those awful gluten-laden croutons and bring you a bowl of  f@#%ing lettuce!”

It doesn’t matter how many Stars, Chef’s Hats, Blazons, Grammys, Oscars or Eat Out awards your establishment has garnered; there will always be someone who walks in, sits down and decides they know better. Someone who feels that their years of experience of shopping at Woolworths, watching Food Network and “travelling darling, travelling” give them carte blanche to come in and literally ignore the entire kitchen’s reason for living.

I’m never sure if these people are just picky eaters, attention-seekers or on some egomaniacal power trip, but they always feel they have some God-given right to use the menu as a shopping list rather than a bill of fare: they want a starter portion of the squid with the trout garnish but without the potatoes (they “don’t do” protein and starch), and they also want the sauce from the mussels off the set menu but can it be made without butter and olives instead of capers?

They don’t fancy asparagus but they like risotto – can you not do the asparagus risotto with something else?

Banters – you’ve chosen the gluten-free path; fabulous, our hats go off to you, but that means you don’t get any bread. Our bakers toil, sometimes through the night, tending to temperamental sourdough starters, waters of varying alkalinity, and flours that show characteristics of terroir, and now you want them to knock you up some tasteless shite just so you can satisfy a craving and please, you’re old enough to eat around the potatoes (if they’re “too much of a temptation” for you – seek counselling!).

Then of course there’s the egg white omelette – if you want to lose weight eat a bowl of muesli or, God forbid, some fruit. I’m sure people order this anathema because they saw it in a movie somewhere. If you want to eat eggs then order eggs but if all you want is a bit of tasteless foam to chomp on then we’ll heat up a seat cover for you. [Eds note: But will you though?]

“Ooh, what about a salad for the table”, unless you have spinach in which case can they rather have that than the salad, sautéed in a hint of olive oil with some chopped garlic but not too much, mind you!

We work very hard to present not only tasty and balanced dishes, but also dishes that have been costed in order for us to earn a living. So when you as a diner want to remove an element from a dish, you don’t automatically get more of an existing ingredient or something else that strikes your fancy.

It’s almost as if the chefs have nothing better to do than to bend to your every whim and fad – why do we even need a menu; why not just send out a list of ingredients and a mood ring and you can tell us what you had in mind – perhaps a tarot reading with pre-dinner drinks will help us to foresee what you might fancy this evening. Better yet, we could employ clairvoyants as wait staff who’ll be able to put through the order to the kitchen before you even sit down.

Why not bring along your feng shui master to help us with the plating, we’d hate to upset your Chi because one of the profiteroles was facing the bathroom.

It’s not like you can walk into a showroom to buy a car and ask for red seats in the back and white in the front, go to a cinema and demand to see something else or plonk yourself down in 29F on the flight to Cape Town and make it know that you’d like to go to Mauritius.

Don’t even get me started on the myriad of allergies –  when did we all get so sick? If you are allergic to wheat, garlic, animal protein, dairy products, alcohol, raisins, nuts, seeds, clowns, spiders, midgets in red shoes, left-handed golf clubs or cracks in the pavement, my advice is to stay at home and eat some quinoa and alfalfa sprouts. Please don’t bring your insecurities and idiosyncrasies to the restaurant – keep them locked up in the closet or on the psychiatrists couch where they belong (or at least phone ahead).

It sometimes amazes me a how little people know about professional food preparation. I’m not sure what people think chefs do all day apart from smoke, snort espresso, drink heavily, compare tattoos, fornicate in the cold room and swear a lot.

In actual fact an awful lot of preparation, if not the bulk of it goes on before service: while the main protein may be cooked to order the rest of the dish (i.e. most of the garnish and the sauce or dressing) will have been made before service begins.

In an average 10-hour day; seven hours are spent on preparation whereas there are only 3 hours of actual service.

In some top-notch restaurants there may be as many as two or three chefs on each section because there are so many elements to the dishes they are responsible for – one on starch, one on sauce and garnish, and one cooking the protein. So your “off the menu” call for a Caprese salad during a busy service –  especially in the middle of winter when there isn’t a ripe tomato in sight – is going to piss them off.

But let’s make one thing abundantly clear – the anecdotal stories you may hear about what chefs do to food from complaining or difficult customers is exactly that, anecdotal, unless you eat in a cheap-arsed shit hole and then you get what you deserve.

Most chefs hold their ingredients and their resultant creations in the highest regard, sometimes so much so that even their respective partners have to vie for attention – so they are never going to defile these labours of love just because some ignoramus on table 5 doesn’t get it.

Then there are the weeks spent conjuring up a balanced menu, and the hours (if not days) testing and tasting to perfect each combination of ingredients.

Not to mention the years of literal blood, sweat and tears – the missed Christmases, broken relationships, charred forearms, irate bank managers, unreliable suppliers, incompetent reviewers, thieving staff, transport strikes, long sweaty hours in chef pants that not only chafe but make your bum look big that a chef has had to endure before being able to put his or her name above the door.

“Can I have the Pork and Pistachio Terrine without the pistachios?”

“Can you – F@&k!”