“Hi, I’ll be your server tonight. Would you like to hear about the specials?”
Thousands of diners across Louisville hear this invitation every time they dine out. Most of them will smile, nod, and then order from the menu, not realizing what they could be missing.
One thing that distinguishes independent restaurants from the ubiquitous chains is the “special.” Chain restaurants adhere religiously to their corporate-concept menus. You won’t be offered a “special” at a nationwide chain restaurant. Those (very successful) types of restaurant chains are working from a formula that will tolerate absolutely no deviation: a formula, by the way, that yields fantastic profits month after month.
On the other hand, consider your local indie restaurant cooks. The ones whose food you want to experience are the cooks who are smart, creative and yearning for recognition. Despite scandalously low pay (less than half what a skilled server makes), and often without benefits of any kind, these dedicated professionals live to please their customers.
Even as you read this, there are dozens of these guys and girls all across Louisville, lying awake in bed or sitting in front of a computer terminal, their eyes switching back and forth feverishly as they brainstorm. What do we have in house? What can I get away with ordering? How can I blow everybody in the kitchen away tomorrow? That variety of cook is slightly bored by their normal menu items. They are skilled enough to get their regular menu prep out of the way quickly, and then they begin to concentrate on a fabulous “special.”
In the independent restaurant kitchen, we compete with each other to see whose special sells best. Where I work, it’s all about who can make the best-selling soup. Not necessarily the best tasting soup, mind you (we get bonus points among each other for that), but rather the one that sells the most servings. That person is king or queen for a day. We cooks take joy in conceiving and executing a dish that is tailored to the taste buds and cravings of our clientele.
Naturally, you might (and possibly should) be wary of the “special” at an unfamiliar restaurant. There are unscrupulous chefs out there that are trying to get rid of surplus ingredients that may be past their prime. However, at a good independent restaurant, you should never be afraid to order the “special.” Please do! It’s probably one of the tastiest things they’re serving today – and you just might be contributing to the making of a kitchen legend.
The writer, a graduate of Sullivan University, has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants, including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s and L&N Wine Bar and Bistro. She is now the pastry chef at Café Lou Lou.