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Salt and Pepper

February 25, 2014

Occasionally there are big sprawling conversations that play out on multiple blogs over periods of weeks and months. Like just yesterday the Chopsticks Optional crew wrote a post about a recent meal at La Mexicana. The important part, of course, is that they loved it.

Sometimes a bunch of bloggers will all write similar stories around the same time. Late last week The Cheese Traveler hosted a tasting of their grilled cheeses and soups. Besides reading about it on Twitter as the event unfolded, there have been several follow up blog posts with tantalizing pictures and descriptions of these dishes.

I’m no good at writing short answers to complex questions. But I do like participating in an online dialogue. So every now and again, instead of dropping a massive comment on a corner of the internet, I’ll sully my own space with the ridiculous diatribe.

Today is such an occasion, because yesterday the Saratoga Food Fanatic was asking for readers’ thoughts on whether or not salt and pepper shakers should be on the table at restaurants. To say I have strong feelings about this is an understatement. And if you’ll forgive the pun, I think the issue is pretty black and white.

First, let’s find a bit of common ground.

I have no problem with having salt and pepper shakers on the table at a diner or almost any other casual restaurant. If your diner hash browns aren’t the same without a generous dusting of musty black pepper powder (or flavorless black pepper flakes depending on the “grind”) I have no interest in diminishing your joy.

Finishing eggs with salt or shaking some on fried foods is a perfectly fine use for this seasoning at the table. But when you go out to a nice meal, you have to ask a really important question:

Are you going to this restaurant so that the kitchen can cook you the food that you want to eat, OR have you selected a place based on the chef’s skill and a desire to see what kind of incredibly delicious things the kitchen can do with food?

People who subscribe to the former are likely the loudest supporters of the notion that salt shakers belong on the table. Hopefully we can all agree that pepper shakers are a bad idea once you move beyond the diner, and should be replaced by pepper mills. Small individual mills at the table are fine. In fact, I find them preferable to the comically large roving pepper mill that’s offered with every salad. But a pepper shaker has no business in any restaurant that wants to be taken seriously.

The absence of a salt shaker on the table is a bold, and dare I say, badass move. It signifies that the chef has such confidence in the kitchen’s ability to put out perfectly seasoned food that the shaker would be simply a useless object, much like the finger bowl which you also would be hard pressed to find on a table these days.

When a chef can deliver on this promise, there’s no problem. But that’s no easy task. And problems arise when a chef is overconfident in the skill of the brigade.

With no salt shaker within arms reach, when a patron gets an underseasoned dish, they actually have to request one from the waiter. And that’s a pain in the ass. However, it’s an important piece of information for the kitchen to receive. If food has gone out underseasoned, then ideally the line can make corrections and prevent the problem from happening again.

This also helps prevent a patron from being quietly dissatisfied with a chef’s food without word getting back to the kitchen.

If you want your guests to be happy, which does them a greater service? Allowing them to immediately and surreptitiously salt their bland food (for which they have paid a lot of money) so that it’s okay but still not great? After all, salting most foods after they’ve been cooked doesn’t achieve the same depth of flavor as salting during cooking. Or would it be better to compel a guest to speak up so the problem can be addressed?

It would seem that a good compromise for those eaters who simply prefer their food to be a little saltier would be for the chef to pair a specific salt to each preparation. Then the salt fiend could really feel like they were getting something special instead of just trying to mask the blandness of an underseasoned plate, and the chef can feel better about making sure the food gets the respect it deserves.

Ultimately, in the Capital Region, I think we’ve got more eaters who simply want to be cooked the food they want to eat. And to accommodate this market, our fancier restaurants are giving people what they want. That’s just one of the explanations as to why menus are so damn long in this part of the world.

However, for the most part, restaurants are doing this at the expense of providing a chef-centric dining experience. Even worse, customers are willing to pay exorbitant prices for the privilege. And this has had a deleterious effect on the overall food culture.

Getting salt shakers and pepper grinders off the table isn’t a magic bullet. Kitchens must first be able to deliver on the promise of perfectly seasoned food every single time. And that’s even harder than it sounds. Hard, but not impossible. But that should absolutely be a goal for any restaurant that has fine dining aspirations.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2014 11:45 am

    Excellent points Daniel! And when it comes down to it, 95% of the restaurants I visit, I never even consider adding salt to my dishes because they simply are seasoned appropriately. It’s that 5% that gets me irritated, and for me that’s usually at the restaurants I pay the most to dine at. The salt and pepper debate is a great one and I love hearing what people have to say about it! Thanks for carrying it on!

  2. February 25, 2014 12:21 pm

    In general, I think asking for salt is more a reflection on the patron than the kitchen. I believe that the vast majority of diners’ palates have grown accustomed to the fatty/salty kick that so much of our processed food delivers, that they don’t know what to do when confronted by the taste of the actual food, and not just the seasoning.

  3. February 25, 2014 2:15 pm

    Funny–this is one of the issues discussed in my just-posted blog post about The Capital American Eatery. Poor seasoning, no salt and pepper on the tables:

    I don’t think the majority of chefs in this region are proficient enough to fully trust them to season their food properly, so for that reason–as in my example at The Capital–I would like to see the shakers on the tables.

  4. February 25, 2014 2:17 pm

    Last night when I first stepped into the Capital City Gastropub I noticed that the tables were completely bare, so this issue is fresh in my mind. I agree with you whole heartedly about pepper shakers, which are similarly annoying to staff spraying Windex or other amonia based cleaners over tables, windows and whatnot while guests are dining.

    As I was enjoying my meal the thought to ask for salt or pepper never occurred to me, so I think in the case of this pub, they can deliver well-balanced food. It would be nice if the wait staff mentioned that those seasonings are available if desired, however, just to inform the guest that they know what they’re doing. Another problem in our region is that wait staff DON’T know what they’re doing all too frequently.

  5. February 25, 2014 4:24 pm

    My gripe, even though something little like salt shouldn’t be the bane of any goddess, is that there are no UNSALT shakers on the table. The last time I ate at Creo the turkey burger and toppings and sides were all so overseasoned I couldn’t taste anything else except salt. So I left almost everything on the plate, untouched. The sad part is that no one noticed an almost full plate being returned to the kitchen. I shouldn’t have had to complain. That spoke volumes about the quality of the food. In my parallel universe a nice set of self-seasoners on the table are much preferred to the kitchen going overboard. I’d rather they held back and let the patron season to their personal liking. And everyone wants it just the way they want it – they want it perfect.

    • February 25, 2014 4:35 pm

      That’s a good point, Zena–when I mentioned above that too many chefs out here don’t properly season their food, I didn’t mean to imply that it’s always under-seasoning. The term “salt lick” has been used many times to describe dishes we’ve had out at restaurants.

  6. February 26, 2014 12:12 am

    I think withholding salt and pepper from the table is the utmost in hubris and I definitely will react negatively, and probably not return, to the restaurant that does this.

    Most restaurant food, as readers have commented, is already oversalted; if a chef holds back the salt that’s a good thing, but let diners recalibrate if they must. Pepper is a genial condiment that finds its way into items as unexpected as chocolate because it provides a gentle kick; think of it as the poor man’s umami.

    To deny me these because you do not think I can use them properly is an insult, especially if you are charging me to eat your food.

  7. albanylandlord permalink
    February 26, 2014 12:21 am

    I think diners will have a wide degree of preference as to how salty they want their food. While some of us might argue that less salt is better or “right”, others might like their food much saltier, and why should the restaurant not accommodate that diner’s preferences?
    I might make an exception at real specialty places like food and game, but even the Gastropub (one of my favorites) should have salt and pepper easily available – especially since they serve french fries.

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