Folks who grew up in the 1970s will likely remember the Burger King ad-campaign jingle that went “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce — special orders don’t upset us! All we ask is that you let us serve it your way. Have it your way, have it your way …”
In large part, this is still the mantra of almost any restaurant. Even those restaurants that post “no substitutions” will still usually allow you to ask for ingredients to be left off your dish, if it’s possible. Of course, even subtracting things from a dish can be nearly impossible, from time to time. A cook once asked me to pluck the raisins out of a bread pudding to be served to his father, because his dad “hates raisins, but loves bread pudding.” Thank God, bourbon caramel covers up a multitude of sins.
In fine dining, we strive daily to accommodate diners who have allergies, or sensitivities, to certain ingredients. The winning move here is to call the restaurant in advance, ask questions and make a special request if needed. It’s not unusual for a manager, or server captain who’s received a phone call from a potential reservation, to ask the chef or sous chef to accommodate a “gluten-free vegetarian with lactose intolerance,” or a “pescetarian, no butter” — not usually a problem so long as we know ahead of time.
It’s the folks who descend upon us in a group, and, with a flurry of special requests on the spot, who are the most worrisome. I worked at a high-end restaurant where a group of 12 ladies was seated, and they immediately began to work their server thusly: One house salad, no dressing, no vegetables and please put a well-done burger patty on top. Do not use oil to cook the burger. No salt and pepper, or seasoning of any sort. One house salad, no dressing, no vegetables and cheese or nuts (that’s dry lettuce on a plate — ma’am, do you realize you are paying $12 for that?). One burger, well done, no bun, no cheese, no bacon, no oil and no seasoning (that’s a hockey puck on a plate with nothing else). One of the guests was insistent about having “no oil in any preparation, because I am allergic,” but then asked for “oil and vinegar on the side” for her salad, and specified white balsamic vinegar as her vinegar of choice. Now, white balsamic is a type of vinegar, but we didn’t carry that as an in-house ingredient. These ladies seemed to be trying to out-healthy each other, while, at the same time, trying to impress their fellow diners with their foodie cred. One of them asked to substitute “Sriracha compote” for salad dressing. I Googled that shit. There are recipes out there, but what was it about our menu that made her think we had that in the back room, ready to ramekin up for her?
Then there are patrons who use the menu as an à-la-carte list of ingredients. “I’d like an omelet …” (the server later told me the ellipses were silent, but he could see them appear in the air in front of his face while he waited for the other spoon to drop. “… with your egg salad.” Server: “Great. So that’s one of our basic omelets, and also an egg-salad sandwich. What would you like as your side item?” Guest: “No, I’d like an omelet with the egg salad as the filling.”
At some point, if you’re not at Waffle House or Burger King, whatever weird combination of menu items you’re asking for becomes a perversion of the chef’s vision. Eventually, there’s a possibility that a good chef will have to say: “I’m sorry, but I’m not serving you that. That is simply not my food.”
Plainly put: Advocate for yourself, but also have some respect. If you have truly-dire medical allergies, call ahead, and see if we can accommodate you. We will do our best. You are not allergic to ice (Just say “no ice, please”). You are not allergic to the breeze on the patio after you asked specifically to sit outdoors.
And while I’m willing to accept that you have a severe allergy to salt, while I carefully make your salad, I might weep a little when you order the burger on a pretzel bun as your main, and when the server points out it’s topped with brushed butter and pretzel salt, you say breezily “Oh, that’s OK!” I’ll do my best to keep my salty, salty tears away from your plate.
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.