How not to place a special order at a restaurant

Waiter displaying a restaurant kitchen ticket

Photo: Sam Diephuis (Getty Images)

If you’ve ever dined with people who work in the hospitality industry, you’ll notice that they treat servers with close reverence and are always extremely patient with delays. They don’t necessarily treat their own colleagues that way during a shift; it’s a weird “I’m the only one who can talk to my guys like that” dynamic that’s both protective and essential. But whatever, that’s not my point. What I mean is that these hospitality workers are careful when and how they ask for special orders in a restaurant. We can all learn from the way they do.

I hate being the customer who wanders up to the counter and asks for a minor edit, let alone the one who tries to manifest a spring roll into a burrito. Therefore, I never order much, other than asking for no black olives on a cheap Greek salad.

However, chef Chris “Gerber” Mathie, who’s worked everywhere from five-star hotels to food trucks, says there’s a right way and a wrong way to change a menu item, depending on the situation.

Keep Substitutions Simple

Some special orders are fine, Mathie told me. You should not hesitate to make a special request if a restaurant has the necessary resources and, more importantly, the staff available to accommodate it.

“If you have a limited number of people, which I would say most restaurants are doing right now, you start doing that special order, that means [line cook] has to stop to fulfill this special order,” Mathie said. “If you’re just swapping something from one dish to another, it’s usually not that bad.”

Once they’re up to the beat, line cooks learn to choose which mods to seek out, according to Mathie, who now works as a private chef. But it becomes a problem when the demands are excessive and turn the tickets into “novels”. (He noted that modifying a dish for a dinner party with food allergies is totally cool.)

Consider your environment

If you’re into the kind of fancy restaurant with a waiter dedicated to wiping crumbs off your table with a little swipe of cash, then go here and have a pain in your ass deep down. talk about food. However, maybe don’t do it in a take-out sandwich shop where the lone cook is up to his apron in tickets. What Mathie emphasized the most was that a diner be aware of their surroundings.

“Awareness is the most important thing,” he said. “If I was in a busy restaurant and people were trying to change things and [it’s] busy as shit, I’d just say, ‘Can you order something else?’ “

Here’s an example of a small change that can make a big difference: the next time you want to share a starter with a friend on a chaotic Saturday night outing, order the starter with an extra plate rather than asking the kitchen to share it for you. It’s not that cutting a sandwich in half is difficult for the kitchen; is that kitchens are often tight spaces, so as harmless as an extra dish is in theory, in practice it takes up valuable space and time.

“You’d think putting something on two plates is pretty easy, but when you’re doing 550 covers…you don’t have the space or the time to accommodate that stuff,” Mathie said.

Restaurants want to provide a positive experience

Ultimately, chefs put a dish on the menu with certain ingredients because they think that’s the best way to eat it. But in the end, taste is subjective and the restaurant understands that customer preferences vary. In these cases, asking for something to be done in a different way is acceptable, as long as you are clear, respectful, and transparent about your needs.

“My enjoyment for cooking comes from making people happy, and I think if you’re willing to be a little flexible with things, you can make someone happy, and then you keep people coming back,” said Matthew.

Don’t be a moron like the guy who ordered his fried eggs.

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