Send it Back

by Mark R. Vogel

           The other day I went to lunch at this nearby tavern.  Seated at the bar, more interested in the latest issue of a cooking magazine than the menu, I simply ordered a cheeseburger medium-rare with fries.  When my meal arrived the burger was overcooked and the fries were undercooked.  The burger was not even medium.  It was utterly well-done and dry with no pink it sight.  The fries were completely soft on the outside and semi-raw on the inside.   And to make matters worse, I was the only patron in the place.  They couldn’t even use the lunchtime rush as an excuse.    

Such staggering culinary blunders boggle my mind.  I’m always left wondering whether it’s due to incompetence or indifference.  Or maybe it’s a little of both.  Although in this particular scenario I’m leaning toward indifference.  Simply because anybody, even a non-cook, could have merely looked at my fries and observed that they were abysmally underdone.

            Incorrectly cooked meat has been the bane of my existence.  I truly cannot count the times my medium-rare steak or burger ends up overcooked.  I can leave a little leeway for medium but well done is out of the question.  Like the day I ordered the $35 rack of lamb medium-rare and received it well-done.  That’s inexcusable and I of course sent it back. 

            I’ve worked in restaurants and I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes.  But serving a mistake is a compound error.  Before the food is dispensed it should be checked to assure its quality.  A simple poke will quickly differentiate a medium-rare from a well-done piece of meat.  

            One day I was having dinner at one of those chain steakhouses.   I requested a side of sautéed onions.  Can you believe they didn’t peel the onions?  I kid you not.  They sliced whole onions with the skin on and then sautéed them.  When I showed the manager he shrunk in embarrassment and gave me my entire meal for free.  I’ve been served ice-cold soup, brown lettuce, over-cooked shrimp, stale bread, mushy pasta, and one bowl of Chinese noodles with a cockroach of prehistoric proportions.

Usually errors of such magnitude don’t occur at upscale restaurants.  Most of the time they happen at your everyday eateries, particularly the chain restaurants.  Sometimes your fellow diners will admonish you for your outrage and remind you that you’re in a run-of-the-mill restaurant and not a fine dining establishment.  To some extent, the general public has come to accept below average standards from average restaurants.  I believe it’s precisely this resignation that enables them to wallow in their ineptitude.  The only way we, the dining public, can do anything about it is to send the food back.  But many people don’t wish to “make a scene” or cause trouble.  They suffer with their inadequate food and the establishment is never enlightened to its failings. 

Ultimately it is the chef or manager you wish to inform about problems with the food.  The server is merely the intermediary.  Some servers don’t inform the cooks about their blunders.  They don’t wish to create tension with a coworker via a “shooting the messenger” displacement of anger. Or they simply may not care.  Sending the food back has a greater chance of getting the chef’s attention, as opposed to keeping it and merely informing the server of the error.  Returning the food, (and requesting an unflawed replacement), forces the server to inform the cooking staff.  So send it back!  And if it’s a major problem, (like the aforementioned cockroach), I would definitely inform the manager.

Maintaining quality at any restaurant is a tremendously arduous task.  With so many meals being prepared at the same time, inaccuracies are sometimes inevitable.  I am not suggesting you hassle your neighborhood eatery over peccadillos.  Granted, you can’t expect the same standard of quality from the simplistic family restaurant as you would from a four-star establishment.  But I don’t care how inexpensive or casual a restaurant is, there’s no excuse for egregiously over or under cooked food, spoiled food, or grossly impaired culinary judgment.  Even as a child I knew you had to peel an onion before cooking it. 

The restaurant business is extremely tenuous and many establishments go belly up within a few years.  Without feedback they are likely to perpetuate their pitfalls.  Business slowly deteriorates as the management, ignorant to the shortcomings, quizzically ponders the causes.  So tell’em what you think and then be fair.  Give them a chance to correct it and try them again.   


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