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To Eat or Not To Eat

October 7, 2015

That is the question. I’ll save you from an extended food-centric bastardization of Hamlet’s soliloquy.

Sending food back to the kitchen at a restaurant is a decision that is rarely made lightly. And in fact, I rarely do it. This is a subject that comes up a lot when I talk with restaurant owners. Most of them truly want their customers to speak up about a dish that was made incorrectly as soon as possible so that the restaurant has a chance to fix the problem. The goal is to always have customers leave happy.

Of course, you can’t make everyone happy. But that’s not going to stop the good places from trying. Unfortunately, there will be some consumers who try to take advantage of a restaurant’s good will, and try to get free meals for small infractions. I used to work with some advertising clients like that. It’s not fun.

I feel like we’ve covered in the past some of the reasons why customers are reluctant to send food back to the kitchen. Well, this past week, I had two unfortunate experiences. They each had different resolutions, and it reminded me of one other reason I hate sending food back.

One rule that I set up a long time ago, thanks to my old friend Raf, is that I won’t eat an overcooked hamburger at a restaurant. In part, that’s why I’ve changed my burger ordering from medium rare (pink all the way through with a warm red center) to rare (pink all the way through with a cool red center).

Anyhow, I was at the Farmer Boy Diner in Colonie for the first time ever last week, and I saw they had a bison burger on the menu. But when it came out, instead of being rare and tender, it was deeply seared and dried out. Even before cutting the thing in half, it was clear this was a well done patty.

So back it went.

Fortunately, I had the time to sit around and wait for the order to be remade. Thankfully, my lunch companion didn’t mind eating her food first, and waiting patiently when my meal arrived. Luckily, the waitress didn’t make a face, roll her eyes, or give me any kind of grief when I politely pointed out the interior temperature missed the mark by a significant margin.

But even still, I was racked with guilt. Mostly about food waste. Meat is precious stuff. Living things that would rather not die have to die so that we can eat it. Tossing even a few ounces of the stuff into the trash because it wasn’t as juicy as it could be felt wrong.

However, it also felt wrong to deny this local business the chance to show me that it could cook a delicious burger. The good news was that the second time was the charm. It was a thin, but juicy, patty of bison that was pink in the middle and worth the fat and calories.

But what do you do when you don’t have the time to send something back? What do you do if the kitchen didn’t make a mistake, but the dish just wasn’t very good? This is what happened to me at Tesoros Cafe in Schenectady with their pernil crepe. You can read the full details of the experience on Yelp.

My instinct was to just eat it. Sure, I asked for salt to try and perk up the flavor a bit. But I only made it through about half of the dish. Ultimately, the owner came over to ask what I thought. And knowing what I now know about owners, I gave her my honest answer.

Graciously, she offered me free access to the breakfast buffet, and I should have taken her up on the offer, so I could have left with a better taste in my mouth. But it was hard to say whether I was just too full from the half crepe, or if it had caused me to lose my appetite.

In other circumstances, I might have tried to take the leftovers home with me and doctor them up in some way to make them better. But in this case, I wasn’t going to be going home, nor did I have a cooler in my car.

So once again, food got wasted. But I have to say that in this case I was glad the owner took away the dish I clearly wasn’t enjoying. I probably would have had a few more bites that I would have regretted further.

I really don’t know what the right call is in situations like this for people who care about food waste, but also care about giving restaurants a fair shake. And while this probably isn’t a major reason why some people resist sending food back to the kitchen, it must inform the decisions of a small number of diners.

Now I’m curious. What would you do?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2015 11:28 am

    I am reluctant to send things back, but I’m surprised, when I leave a lot of food uneaten, that waitstaff/managers/chefs never seem to notice, except once when I was in Bermuda, so I’m calling this one on the whole of the extended NA continent.

  2. October 7, 2015 1:22 pm

    Fascinating topic. I’m very curious to see how your readers respond. As a general rule – I don’t. I eat out more often than not, and I can count on one hand how many times I have sent something back – including bottles of wine. Some suggest that 5-10% of wine is corked. Even so, if it’s drinkable, I drink it. Same with food. The exception is if a piece of meat – or more likely fish lately, is way too rare, I’ll ask them to fire it a bit more. No wasted food there. When a server asks me how I want my fish cooked, I usually respond (if I know them) – “I’d like it cooked the way you cooked fish before you started asking how we’d like our fish cooked.” I like my fish cooked. (ditto pork) If I want sushi, I’ll order sushi.
    But if it is cooked beyond my requested temp? I eat it. Like you, I feel guilty about wasted food, and also I feel guilty about a restaurant now feeding me for nothing, which is what they are doing if they throw out a steak.
    More importantly, having spent my formative years in restaurant kitchens, I know what happens to food that gets sent back, especially more than once, especially to cook it MORE well done – Fryolator (or worse). :-)

  3. MiMi permalink
    October 7, 2015 4:37 pm

    As I am paying for the meal if it’s not right it goes back, particularly steak. I like mine very rare and find medium barely edible and well done inedible! I do it politely but it goes back.

    2 years ago at Delmonico’s for my Granddaughter’s graduation we had a horrendous visit. Only 10 out of 12 of our steaks were as requested and all were returned. 2 meals were returned a second time. At a steak house this is totally unacceptable. We have not been back and we used to go 5 or 6 times a year.

  4. October 7, 2015 6:22 pm

    “Living things that would rather not die have to die so that we can eat it.”

    You’re too smart and considerate to have written this sentence. I’m hoping your account was hacked. If it was you, maybe drop a tab of acid or pet a cow or something soon. You seem so very close to understanding that eating meat because it pleases us is insufficient justification for taking a life.

    • October 7, 2015 10:34 pm

      I think I’ll pass on the LSD and recount the foods I ate today:

      Cold brew coffee and a spoonful of peanut butter with a drizzle of local buckwheat honey.

      Bowl of organic cereal with small-farmed grass fed organic milk, and more cold brew.

      Vegan breakfast burrito at the co-op and even more coffee.

      Boiled Roxbury farm potatoes with Just Mayo and Maldon salt.

      Small handful of raw cashews.

      More coffee.

      Grilled vegetable sandwich with French fries, and a glass of water.

      Local apple from the CSA and a few walnuts.

      I usually eat pretty low on the food chain. Sometimes I eat further up, but when I do, I try to be mindful of the sacrifice.

      • October 8, 2015 3:44 pm

        I knew you were a good and kind man. It just shows. Be well!

  5. October 8, 2015 9:47 am

    There is an enormous amount of food waste in any restaurant. Hopefully they compost it, feed it to the chickens and/or salvage the untouched bits and make a stew for the house meal. Worrying about food waste is not a reason to keep from sending food back.

    I still regret not sending back a piece of skate that had turned when I ate at Esca a dozen years ago. The kitchen deserved to know. On the other hand, with most disappointing dishes it’s very clear the kitchen intended to serve them that way. You’re not going to change things by calling them on it, but since you’re paying for edible food and not getting it it’s worth asking that it be taken off your bill. At that point it’s about fair exchange for money and has little to do with quality.

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