Friday, January 20, 2006 | I spent last week at Yosemite taking part in the Chef’s Holidays program at the Ahwahanee Hotel. It was a wonderful week. I had the opportunity to work with three chefs from San Diego and three chefs from the Napa and Sonoma valleys. As I chatted with all six chefs a common subject arose: Who is responsible for picky eaters in restaurants? I had never looked at the subject from a chef’s point of view. My opinion has always been that a restaurant is in business to serve its customers. In other words, restaurants cook and serve food the way the diner wants it. Chefs, however, don’t necessarily agree.

All diners need to realize that chefs are artists. They spend a great deal of time experimenting and coming up with menu items they think personify their cooking style and their restaurants. When customers come in and make demands that completely change the item on the menu, they don’t like it. It puts a tremendous burden on the kitchen, especially when the restaurant is small and doesn’t necessarily have the staff to make the requests happen. I know of several restaurants that state clearly at the bottom of the menu that they will not make substitutions. They have made it clear that people with food allergies make them known when they make their reservation.

Vegetarian dishes have become very hot on the national food scene. With all the emphasis on organic produce and health, most chefs are working very hard to present interesting, flavorful vegetable items on their menus. Vegetarian tasting menus are available at most fine dining restaurants in San Diego and around the country. But that does not mean that chefs are willing to split items and cut calories for the many dining dieters. What it means is they are being creative without using meat, fish or poultry.

Here are a few suggestions to keep the chefs and the diners happy. As a customer, if you have a food allergy or a dietary problem, let the restaurant know when you make your reservation. That gives the restaurant the opportunity to tell you if they can make accommodations rather than disappointing you when you arrive. State clearly if there is a vegetarian or vegan in your party. The restaurant can then let you know if there are items on the menu or if the chef can create a special menu for the special need. Don’t ask the chef to make substitutions to his menu. If you don’t like part of the menu item, simply don’t eat it.

Chefs really do want to satisfy and serve their customers. They all will do everything they possibly can to make the dining experience positive. But they are a restaurant and cannot satisfy every request from every customer especially on a very busy weekend night. With a bit of forethought on both sides, most restaurant experiences turn out well for the diner and the chef and even the pickiest eater.

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