I recently read an interview with Thomas Keller, in which America’s greatest chef revealed an enlightened attitude toward food requests: He will do anything that a customer asks. If someone requests an extra well-done steak, he’ll give them the best possible extra well-done steak by cooking it for a long time over low heat. It was a refreshing attitude in this era of the imperial and imperious chef.
I had occasion to reflect on this story about one week later, while dining at a local restaurant that will remain nameless. My dinner guest ordered a well-done New York Strip. We patiently explained to the server that this was her preference, that she understood the kitchen didn’t want to cook it that way, that she absolved them of any responsibility if the steak was dried out, etc. It arrived medium-rare. She sent it back, and it emerged from the kitchen medium. It was sent back again, and this time perhaps two-thirds of the steak was well done. She didn’t want to send it back a third time, and ate what she could.
At this point, cynics might start railing against the inflexibility of the kitchen crew. However, having spent several decades in the business, I think the profit motive was the culprit. Despite the high prices of the restaurant in question, the place was also a high-volume operation capable of serving more than 300 customers on a busy night. If you start cooking steaks over low heat for a long period of time, you’re not going to serve 300 people. Even though the New York Strip cost more than $40, no one would confuse the place with Per Se or The French Laundry.
Still, Keller’s words echo in my brain. “I never understood that old-school chef who wouldn’t give you a half-plate of pasta if you wanted a half-plate of pasta,” he told the interviewer. “We’re in the service industry; it’s not that complicated.”