F&BFeatures

How do chefs deal with finicky diners?

Addressing dietary demands has become more challenging for chefs. How much is too much?

Photo by Nick Karvounis /Unsplash

The process used to be simple. You’d go into an establishment, select items from the menu, and enjoy a dish a few minutes after. Now, more and more diners are considering nutritional facts, dietary requirements, and even how ingredients are sourced. Even fast food restaurants are expected to provide healthier options as well as supply nutritional information. A Reuters report revealed that as Americans become more aware of obesity, casual restaurants are struggling to satisfy their more discerning diners.

BEYOND BISTRO

Chef and restaurateur JP Anglo believes that the evolution of diners is in part due to the ubiquity and ease of travel outside the country, yielding a public that’s more cosmopolitan and sophisticated. “They will start comparing services. When you go to, say, Australia, they have gluten-free items on the menu. They have [information such as] ‘We only use organic eggs.’ Exposure to higher standards plays a big role. And, of course, the availability of social media. Everything is in your phone and in your feed. Subconsciously, it affects your expectations.”

“There are some who are pretentious with their gluten-free choices. If you’re bragging that you’re going gluten-free all the way, you might as well look the part. Walk the talk,” says JP Anglo.   

His Sarsa restaurant specializes in Filipino cuisine where he joyfully blends his love for garlic (as demonstrated by the garlic tattoo on his arm) and a belief that “fat is good, but not every day.” So should someone come in requesting a gluten-free meal, they might as well go to a café, he says. “Come on!” Anglo admonishes. “You’re paying P400 for a meal. We can’t give you gluten-free. Go somewhere where you’re paying P700. It’s a Filipino restaurant. Do you really want to eat gluten-free? We’re here to indulge.”

In his kitchen, a few requests are accommodated as long as they do not disrupt the workflow. “But it won’t be as tasty anymore,” he cautions. “You sacrifice taste because you want it healthy. Fair enough. Less salt, less water retention. Flavor is sacrificed.”

Chefs encounter picky eaters perhaps more than anyone else. Chef Ariel Manuel has been developing menus for over 16 years and attests to seeing the evolution in diners’ requirements. After his well-known place in Malate, Lolo Dad’s, closed shop a few years ago, Manuel is back with three new haunts for discriminating palates: Taperia Poblacion, The Sippery Bar & Brew, and Bistro Manuel. It’s the last where Manuel is most accommodating of finicky customers.

The bistro concept allows Manuel to spoil his clients, but he’ll do it only to a certain extent. “I cannot say I’m in control or they are on top of the menu.”

“Some people are very health-conscious nowadays,” he observes. “At Bistro Manuel, it’s basically contemporary dining. It’s so wide, there are no boundaries. I have to give in to what their requirements are—that’s what I do here.” Conscious or not, Manuel knows people visit his places for his trademark foie gras. “Considering that our specialty is duck liver, people know the fat content, but they have that anyway. They look forward to dishes with foie gras once in a while.”

Manuel and wife Mia recall that they have encountered diners who are allergic to garlic, yeast, and even olive oil—the last solved through the substitution of canola oil.

The bistro concept allows Manuel to spoil his clients, but he’ll do it only to a certain extent. “I cannot say I’m in control or they are on top of the menu.” The chef reveals he gets “awful” requests that are “not on the culinary map.” He says, “The combination can get kind of weird. Sometimes we have to set a rule. I guess they have to go to a hospital, not a restaurant. Maybe someone’s too sick for our kind of restaurant, but you can count those cases with your fingers. For as long as this is what I have, this is all you can have.”

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Anglo affirms, “Good service is performed by exceeding customers’ expectations.” But the owner of Bacolod restaurants Maipu and Mashu maintains that “there are limits to everything, both customer and the F&B [industry] should know those limitations. It’s like asking for something that’s not possible. As a server, you should know the extent of your capabilities.”

Anglo even bought a bag of gluten-free tortilla chips to snack on as he watched television. “Did I notice the difference? It felt like there wasn’t any. But psychologically, I felt well. I felt good,” he shares.

To say that extra picky diners challenge Anglo is an understatement. Vegetarians, for instance, can prove difficult to serve. Still, even as he tries to be resourceful, the chef claims he “keeps it real” and suggests diners do the same. “There are some who are pretentious with their gluten-free choices,” he says. “If you’re bragging that you’re going gluten-free all the way, you might as well look the part. Walk the talk. I empathize with those who have limitations. I make sure that everyone’s happy, that everyone’s satisfied. If we can do something, we will. If not, I’m so sorry.”

As a fastidious diner himself, Anglo admits to have previously requested butter be removed from his favorite salmon dish. “Then, I stopped because I really don’t want to trouble them anymore,” he admits. “I felt it was too much trouble for them and it didn’t taste that good anymore.” When asked why he was being picky to begin with, he explains, “I was trying to be healthy, but then I realized I’m not going to be a model. All my life I’ve been trying to go on a diet but we all love food, right?”

He adds that once, he even bought a bag of gluten-free tortilla chips to snack on as he watched television. “Did I notice the difference? It felt like there wasn’t any. But psychologically, I felt well. I felt good,” he shares. The chef submits that even fine dining restaurants would probably mind if you request “to remove this and that.” Chefs might take offense. “In the chef’s mind [he or she might be saying], ‘Come on! This is a tasting menu. I planned it well. I synchronized everything and you’re disrupting it!’ ”

Be aware of the situation in the kitchen, assess if the staff is busy. And be nice when you ask, or else the chef won’t give you a good meal.

Manuel stresses that while diners count calories, chefs count cost. “It boils down to pricing,” he says. “Nowadays, restaurant-goers are more conscious because they know how to eat now. That’s why our menu has a wider selection of dishes.” The bistro setup has also “relaxed” his menu that now includes pasta and pizza, among others. The winning formula appears to be in going for a “core fast-casual pitch,” what the same Reuters article quoted from Time’s Brad Tuttle: “Food and drink that’s higher quality and yet only marginally more expensive than fast food, one that consumers have been buying into for years.”

If you must plead your case, Anglo suggests you do so during off hours or, if you have VIP access to the owner, let them know your demands in advance. Be aware of the situation in the kitchen, assess if the staff is busy. And be nice when you ask, or else the chef won’t give you a good meal. “Bitchiness doesn’t work because, well, why would we want to serve you?”

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