No one wants to anger or inconvenience their restaurant staff when they go out to eat. Okay, nice people do not want to anger and inconvenience their restaurant staff when they go out to eat. Everyone sometimes wants something on the menu but done a little differently. Maybe you want to hold the cheese or you have dietary requirements or allergies.
All of that is fine within reason, but what does 'within reason' mean to your server and the kitchen? When you are asking for changes, where is the line after which your server starts to sweat knowing they may not get this request past the expediter and into the kitchen?
Well, luckily your friendly chef buddy intheweeds was gracious enough to take some photos of real life customer requests during lunch service today to hopefully make some sense of this and help you be a great customer at your favorite restaurant. Bear in mind as well that this guide is meant for casual fine dining and up. Your results may vary with the endearingly surly server at your local greasy spoon.
Lets look at four chits that I received today in order from 'who cares' to 'FUCK NO'.
Chit 1: Didn't Even Bat An Eye
Allergies are always fine. As you can see, your server will pay attention to this and make sure the kitchen knows. We are all taking these things seriously. When this came in, one of the other cooks asked me "Is there gluten in worcestershire sauce?". We are paying attention. If you have an allergy, don't even worry about it.
Chit 2: Yeah, Okay, But I Might Say No Next Time If I'm Super Busy
Substitutions are sometimes okay. It depends on the substitution and it depends on the service. You have to understand that during very heavy services, the fact that you get food in a reasonable amount of time is organized down to the very second in the kitchen. I'm not kidding. The staff are dancing back there for hours. Much of what we are doing is muscle memory. During a busy service, a small sub like this can be screwed up three or four times out of habit for doing it the way it is on the menu before it's done right and screw up the timing of the next 10 tables. Your line cook is swaering the whole time. Some restaurants refuse to do substitutions for that reason.
During a less frantic service, this might not be a big deal. This is one of those things that it's fine to ask (unless the restaurant expressly states no substitutions), but you may get rejected and you need to be okay with that and not lose it on your server.
Bear in mind too that your substitution may throw off the food cost and therefore the menu price and the owner and/or chef may not be too keen on that.
Chit 3: You Are Seriously Pushing It
This customer wants only lettuce, a little ramekin of aioli on the side and salad instead of fries. This person got this, but this is seriously pushing it. We could have said no to this and I have said no to things like this in the past. Salad instead of fries is a huge cost difference (4oz of greens vs a few cents worth of potatoes). This person paid for extra salad so we were like, 'sigh, fine'. Also, it was a lot of 'don't give me [list of things]' and that's not the end of the world, although again on a busy shift, this could get screwed up four times in the back before its done right. This is right on the line getting into silly. Eyes were rolled but we weren't that busy so the grumbling was at a minimum. If we were busy (look around, are tables all full? Did you have to wait for a table when you arrived?) this kind of thing is gonna piss someone off. If there is a side salad on the menu, order that along with your food as it comes on the menu.
Chit 4: There Is No Way In Hell This Is Happening, Where Is [server]?
Come on, I don't have to explain why this isn't happening do I? Lets say you have a nice block of vintage cheddar that you want to sell and someone comes up and offers you a couple slices of tomato for it. Do you take that deal? Yeah neither did we. Where is [server]? I'm not making this until I get a chit for $2 open food.
That's what happens. When you order something you damn well know is bullshit, your server is put between a rock and a hard place and now they are getting pissed at you. Do they shut you down at the table and risk you getting all pissy(risk their tip, lets be real)? Or do they try and sneak this into the kitchen hoping the expediter will ignore it and send it through (not likely, but possible)? Don't do this to your server, please.
Other Stuff You Shouldn't Do
This next point should go without saying, but you may be surprised to hear that it doesn't:
For the love of dog, do not start looking at the menu and using it as a list of ingredients you can use to have the kitchen whip you something up. This is not happening and if you ask, you are into full on hatred at that point. You are in a restaurant not a grocery store and the line cooks are not your personal chefs.
Yes, we have cheese and we have bread, but if you do not see it on the menu, no we do not have grilled cheese sandwiches, get out of here with that. Last time something like this happened to me (of course the server just told me what they had wanted and we laughed about it, he didn't actually try to send that crap back to the kitchen) the customer wanted me to slice a damned baguette lengthwise, cut the top and bottom off of it too (to make two long pieces of bread) and make him a grilled cheese on it with bacon and onions. That is just absurd. If you do this, we hate you.
Also, please do not get angry at your server if there is a problem with the food. If it is taking too long or if it wasn't very good, I'm sure you can imagine that it isn't their fault and there is very little they can do about it. They can go ask the kitchen about it, but in all honestly, if your food is taking forever, the kitchen is probably slammed and the best response they will get is likely an angry "It will come when it comes!" yelled at them from the kitchen.
So go forth and eat well! I hope this helped some of you understand what is going on behind the scenes when you order up!