Advice

Ask the Editor: Is It Okay to Ask Chefs to Modify Dishes?

It's fine if you're a picky eater. Just be cool about it.

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I’m a picky eater who loves to modify menu options. How much is too much when placing an order?

—Ernest, University City

Philly Mag food editor Alex Tewfik

Different restaurants serve different purposes, and you can be confident in your dining etiquette simply by sussing out what each one is. By being aware of your surroundings. By reading the room.

Restaurants are there to serve you, sure. They’re there to feed you when you don’t feel like cooking, and treat you and your palate with the utmost respect, since you chose their establishment over the other options. They are there to make you happy and full.

But restaurants also live on a spectrum that ranges from fast-food convenience to destination fine-dining, and their objective will change drastically from end to end. Fast food operations are designed to make fast money (low-cost ingredients, quick-fire orders, large profit margins). But unless there’s a line out the door every night, the cheffier spots aren’t exactly money-makers. The margins are way smaller, and, really, the only reason chefs and restaurateurs decide to open them is because they need a suitable platform — a personal outlet — for their creative talents. A safe space to show off.

So if you’re in some family-friendly spot, some neighborhood-y, twice-a-week kinda joint, being picky is fine. Don’t want pickled onions on your tacos? Feel free to make that request. And if there’s another ingredient elsewhere on the menu you’d rather have top your tacos instead of those pickled onions, ask, politely, if it’d be possible to make the substitution. A lot of times, the answer is yes, but sometimes the answer is no, and you shouldn’t get all butt-hurt about it if it is. Because it’s probably “no” for good reason.

The first time I visited South Philly’s Artisan Boulanger Patissier — home to some of the best homemade French breads and pastries in the entire city — I ordered a breakfast croissant from the pastry case. It was bacon, scrambled eggs and American cheese layered on one of their legendary homemade croissants — and the cheese, I noticed, wasn’t melted. I assumed they warmed the sandwiches to-order, and that was why I was still seeing those yellow corners poking out from the pastry. When I asked if they’d toast it up for me, the baker-owner, Andre Chin, refused. “It’ll ruin the croissant,” he explained. “If you really want it, I’ll do it. But it’ll ruin the croissant.” His croissants, of course, are what put Artisan Boulanger on the map to begin with. And, anyway, the sandwich ended up being delicious, because that croissant is a thing of magic, and American cheese is always creamy — even at room-temp. It was served that way for a reason.

See, the more ambitious the concept, the more talented the kitchen, the closer the connection is between the chef and the diner, the less okay it is for you to come barging in altering their dishes.

Now, how do you glean the kind of ambition, talent and connection in the restaurant you’re in, you ask? Do some research before you go. Be aware of your surroundings. Read the room.

Of course, when allergies and dietary restrictions are involved, it’s a different story. But that’s for another day.