It’s tempting, isn’t it? You’re out with a bunch of friends, or maybe with a date. A server leads you to a table; menus open. You can’t resist. You lean in and speak the magic sentence: “I know the chef.” In your imagination, this will be met with surprised, quiet gasps of pleasure. Don’t chance it. At this stage of the game, it’s a crap shoot, and so many things could go awry, it’s not worth that one moment of smug satisfaction.
Look, if you actually are a personal friend of the chef, that’s great. We all patronize our friends’ businesses, as we should. But in that case, you should have already let the chef know through a personal text, phone call or direct message that (and when) you’ll be dining at his or her establishment and how many people you’ll have in tow. Then, when the servers bring an unexpected lagniappe or amuse bouche to the table, and tell you the chef sent it, that’s the time for a reveal. Not before you order. And certainly not within earshot of others in the dining room.
Also, never mention to the staff that you “know the chef.” That gasp of pleasure you may have lapped up when offered by your companions will likely turn into a bored eye-roll on a server or host as soon as they walk away. If the chef is really your friend, and he or she was expecting you, you’ll probably be offered a little treat or a free course of their own volition. Don’t say “I know the chef” when you make your reservation, either. Like I said, if you’re actual pals, make your reservation first and then let the chef know you have done so. He or she will have your table assignment changed before you arrive if your relationship merits the best table in the house.
On the subject of table visits, please don’t ask the server to “let the chef know I’m here” or “ask her to come say hi,” not even “when she gets a minute.” Real working chefs are actually back there in the engine room working, sweating, leading, directing and cooking. If you’re bosom buddies, she’ll find a moment to say hi. It would be far classier for you to leave a huge tip and write “Thanks for a great meal” on your check at the end. Believe me, that message will get delivered and will make the chef look good in front of her staff. And that server will fight somebody to be your server the next time you make a reservation. (Actually, come to think of it, sometimes knowing the server is almost as good or better than knowing the chef, as far as having your experience heightened goes.)
And for Escoffier’s sake, don’t play the “I know the chef” card if you just met him once at Taste of Derby and he later swapped dog photos with you on Facebook. Chances are he wouldn’t recognize you in a lineup, especially after being on his feet in a hot kitchen for the last 12 hours. In this scenario, it’s still acceptable to offer a nice written compliment on your check at the end. He’ll look you up later and remind himself how he “knows” you.
Don’t blow it by being over eager, nerd. Be cool. And never, ever expect anything for free – because unless this is a close personal relationship you have no idea what the dynamics of the restaurant are and whether the it’s appropriate for the chef to give away goodies. He may be in dutch with his partners over food costs this month, or the owner’s aunt may have a party of 13 seated next to you and get indignant when you get free dessert and her table doesn’t. If you are fortunate enough to receive a gift, send your thanks verbally and give a big tip or send a beer to the line cooks.
Finally, never, ever ask for a tour of the kitchen unless one is expressly offered. Believe me, no matter how pretty the food looks, you do not want to drop in on us back there. We’re busting our asses, cursing like sailors, and sweating like whores in church. We’re not likely to smile at you and wave cheerfully from behind a five hundred degree grill. We’re busy. We’re working. And so is the chef.
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.