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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How Much Should I Quiz the Waitstaff About My Meal?

Posted By on Tue, Oct 18, 2011 at 10:00 AM


We West Coasters have a reputation for a certain kind of persnickitiness when it comes to our menu choices, all of it earned. Who farmed these turnips? we want to know. Can I feel good about eating this scallop? This week, A.G. asks: How much can I quiz the waitstaff?

How much questioning is okay -- encouraged, even -- and how much is too much? Someone's new husband thinks she wants to know too much.
Midwesterners are free to mock us as much as they want. But the fact is, West Coast waiters should be responsible for knowing a certain level of detail about the dishes they're serving. Here's what I think you should expect your waiter to know offhand or quickly find out:

1. The basic ingredients in the dish -- especially the ones with rare or non-English names -- and some idea of what the dish tastes like other than "everything chef makes is fantastic."

2. The broad strokes of how a dish is cooked: roasted, steamed, cooked sous-vide. Waiters at device-happy restaurants should be able to explain less-common techniques involved in the dish, like making herb soils or slow-cooking meat in a Combi-Oven.

3. Whether a given dish includes ingredients that commonly set off

sensitivities or violate dietary rules: meat of any kind, wheat and other

gluten-including grains, eggs, dairy, peanuts and tree nuts. (If you

have a more obscure sensitivity, c'mon, give the waiter some time to

check with the kitchen. Better yet, call the restaurant ahead of your


4. In restaurants that trumpet some kind of spiritual connection to the

loam or laser-guided adherence to "sustainability," the waitstaff should

be able to ID the provenance of the meat and seafood. If there's a farm ID'd on the menu, they should know where that farm is; ideally, they should know whether it's organic or conventional.

If you want to know more than that level of detail, frankly, I think you can do some research on your own. If the

waiter has some story to share about how the apple grower and her two

teenage sons show up at the door every Thursday with with new heirloom

varietals to try, great. If she volunteers a little info about what the farmer

feeds his chickens, extra credit! (Personally, that's the point at which

my eyes glaze over.)

You should know that, on a busy night, every time waiters approach the kitchen window to call out a question to a crew of whirling cooks, they risk a verbal beatdown receiving some negative feedback, so show a little sensitivity. If a more esoteric question niggles at you, grab a smart phone. Or

even scribble the question down on a piece of scrap paper, then spend a few minutes on the

Internet when you get home.

Nothing wrong with wanting to know about your food. But as your questions grow more detailed, ask yourself: Am I being curious or am I crossing the border into Portlandia?

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie, and like us on Facebook.
Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Jonathan Kauffman


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