It’s a Saturday night, and you’re on the most special of dates. You two saw a show, so you made your reservation at the restaurant for a bit later in the evening. When you sit down and glance at the menu, the fish dish catches your eye. You put the menu down, already decided on your dinner.
The server comes over, and gives his opening speech. You hear about his recommendations, the wine by the glass, and finally, he informs you that unfortunately, the kitchen has run out of that fish dish you had been eyeing the moment before.
The kitchen has run out of the fish? What? What kind of restaurant is this?
As I’m going to argue, probably a good one.
Selling food can be a logistical nightmare. Food products have a range of limited shelf lives, and the peak time to sell something can be quite narrow.
The better the restaurant is, the fresher and more perishable most of the product is. Those tomatoes only keep their firm texture and sweet crunch for a few days after they come from the farm, and that arugula started to wilt the moment it was harvested. If a restaurant is getting the freshest fish, they are probably getting shipments every few days, trying to minimize the time between the catch, the filleting, and the actual cooking for your plate.
There are also items that are prepared far in advance for your plate: the sauces that simmer for hours on the stove, right next to the long-braised greens and the slow-cooked pork shoulder. These are components that may have an extended shelf life in the cooler or freezer, but must be prepared far in advance of your dinner order, and used quickly to maintain their peak flavors.
Fresh and prepared ingredients contain a lot of a restaurant’s profit, because they are what the restaurant is selling. If the pork goes bad, that is profit souring. If there are items that are old and need to be thrown out, those are potential sales that have been wasted. Restaurants try to avoid food waste as much as possible.
Large corporate restaurants, with thousands of dollars in sales and sizable, stable menus, can somewhat hedge their bets against food waste. They have large amounts of diner data and streamlined systems for serving food. But for small, independent restaurants with changing menus and relatively tighter margins, this is harder to do.
Any restaurant faces the same unpredictable element: you, the diner, can walk in the door and order anything off the menu. An experienced chef can guess what will be a big seller, based on the clientele, the time of the year, the weather, or the past records. It is also possible to steer the customer through the menu phrasing, pricing, or recommendations by the server.
But the dining public is unpredictable, and the chef is left with a guessing game. The kitchen is trying to overestimate the ingredients needed to serve an entire dining room full of unknown people, but by the minimum amount possible. Over-preparation is expected, but minimized, as cooks try to estimate and prepare only for the maximum amount of particular dishes they think will sell a night.
Sometimes, there is a miscalculation: the chef didn’t anticipate the weather change, or the imperceptible shift in public opinion. Suddenly, it’s Saturday night, and even though the fish dish has been selling miserably for two straight weeks, the entire dining room has become enchanted. Fish dish after fish dish order rolls in, and the cooks are scurrying around, eyeing their depleted ingredients.
This is when you, the average diner, hears that we are out of the fish dish tonight, terribly sorry. And this is when I humbly urge you, the average diner, to stay calm and try to understand.
(First, a small caveat about timing- if it is late on a Saturday, for example, the last day of the week’s dinner service for many restaurants, the shortage is probably the result of the chef making a miscalculation on inventory. However, if it is 6pm on a Friday, which is usually when at restaurant is most heavily stocked with ingredients, something else has most likely gone wrong. Perhaps a purveyor forgot to include that week’s beef delivery, or there was a break in the supply chain. I’ve also witnessed a nightmare slow-motion spilling of an entire tray of prepared porchetta onto the kitchen floor, minutes after Friday service started, causing that dish to be taken off of the menu for the night.)
No chef wants to take an item off of the menu and limit diner choices. It does not reflect well on the restaurant. But if it happens, it is probably because the chef is running a tight ship that does not contain a lot of room for excess. Perhaps the chef uses very fresh ingredients, instead of relying on freezing or half-cooked components. Perhaps the supply chain is made up of smaller, local producers who are not as blindly reliable as international, corporate food companies.
Or perhaps the chef, even at the best of restaurants, runs a messy, human business. Good restaurant owners, who are trying to run a non-wasteful venture that keeps food at an affordable price, will sometimes need a little flexibility. They cannot predict the way a full dining room will order any more than you can predict the weather (which sometimes heavily influences how a full dining room will order, but that’s another story). Things happen in a business that is full of fire, perishable items, and humans.
So yes, unfortunately, the fish dish is off of the menu tonight. But the restaurant is still here, still open, still serving you the best food possible. Could I recommend the porchetta, instead?