I would like to pose a question to you, dear readers:
‘Do restaurant meals have to be healthy?’
After dinner service I will often go out into the dining room to talk with guests & say a few hellos here & there. For years I had cringed when I saw other chefs do this as I felt it was all a bit pompous & stuffy, especially as the chefs in question wore the comedic outfit of pristine whites & a puffy, towering Toque, it always seemed a bit OTT to me.
However, as many of our clients are friends & regular diners I believe they don’t mind a bit of a word with me at the end of their meal & I like to see them happy.
At one table on Saturday night, the body language was tense, the smiles forced & the conversation stilted as I tried to interact, but something was amiss.
‘Steve, some of us were not happy with our meals tonight’ broke the deadlock & clarified my intuitive feelings of concern.
‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, what specifically were you not happy with?’ I say
It seems that in their dish choices, they felt there should have been more vegetables served with the main courses. As the dialogue began another person injected that ‘he would like it to be more “healthy”, you know more veggies on the plate not just a hunk of meat’. It was indicated to me that whilst they enjoyed their mains, the next day they would like to feel like they ate a healthy meal & not just a big plate of meat. ‘You know, some carrots or some cauliflower, even some broccoli’, another suggested. They were visibly relaxed after unburdening themselves of this task & they mood lightened considerably. I cheerfully said I would take on board their suggestions & left them to their desserts, of which all six I noted, had partaken.
I thought I handled this criticism quite well. I listened, didn’t get defensive, didn’t interrupt or make excuses & left the table with a joke & them smiling.
Upon returning to the kitchen though, I felt conflicted & here’s why.
When I design a main course my aim is to have a balance with the main ingredient in this case beef & a vegetable component, in this case beans, with a starchy item, baby potatoes. I don’t apply this formula to entrees as main courses need to have this balance in my opinion.
What they were suggesting in order to be rendered healthy is that each plate comes with the same mélange of vegetables or on the side. This notion is problematic for me. Each main course I create is substantially different from the next, offering what I believe is a range of tastes. By incorporating the same vegetable garnish on each main, I would be homogenizing my offer & quite frankly that’s what pubs do, chips & salad or spuds & vege, but that’s not what we set out to do.
For instance, would someone go to Tetsuyas & say his main courses were not healthy enough? Conversely eating at Maccas would you say the same thing? No, you have made a choice to eat at those establishments because you know/like what they serve. Is it reasonable to expect that a restaurant will tick all of your dietary requirements with their menu items? Is it their responsibility to offer meals perceived to be healthy? Is that why diners go out for dinner with friends? Do people rationalize before settling on one restaurant over another the notion that ‘We’ll go out for dinner because it’s where we will get healthy food’. Would you choose Stillwater over Lebrina because of healthy food choices? I dine out for many reasons but ‘health issues isn’t one of them, but thats just me.
Finally is it reasonable to question the integrity of an establishment by virtually imposing one's healthy eating regimen on it & then feel disappointed when they fail to meet your expectations?
I am very glad they spoke to me directly about their concerns, in fact I applaud them for it, however I dont fully agree with what was conveyed to me but I respect their opinions & their right to express them.
Each week I change the menu, so some dishes are veggie-centric some weeks & less so on others. It depends on when you might come as to the vegetive component of each dish; such is my propensity to keep changing, making it hopefully interesting to the diners who choose to eat here regularly.
Looking at this issue as objectively as I can & wanting repeat custom, I can see an argument for offering a side salad or a bowl of veggies but again though this poses a hurdle:
I personally don’t like forking out for extras like this & I know I am not alone. Yes I could incorporate the cost of these extras into the meal price & appear to serve it complimentary but I believe our price point is near its maximum already.
It also makes an admission to the diner that the mains might not have the food pyramid fully represented so they better order that side bowl of veggies!
It would make no sense having this dialogue with the customer on the night. If they are not happy, then no amount of my explaining will alter their opinion, in fact it would probably just make them uncomfortable & not want to come back. I just hope it goes some ways to explaining, from my point of view, why I do what I do sometimes & the reasoning behind those decisions but I guess I cant please everyone!
Its funny how someone else can have the complete opposite experience, with the same menu. Read the last comment on Ritas site to illustrate my point.