The Nudge

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When you go to a restaurant, you look at the menu and order a dish based on your preferences. You have your own tastes, certainly, and those tastes determine what you choose. You make your own decisions about what to eat. Most customers think that this is the end of the story.

But like grocery stores are designed to maximize your purchases, and survey questions can be written to sway your answers, restaurants can influence what you decide to eat. Of course, you are the one who ultimately places an order. But every step along the way, the restaurant is trying to nudge you in a certain direction. Chefs may have a menu-ful of possible meals, but every chef knows what they want their customers to order- for financial, culinary, or inventory management reasons.

There are signals and clues that the restaurant is trying to nudge you in a certain direction, if you know what to look for. Here, I outline the three general methods American restaurants use to influence your order, and whether you should listen.

 

  1. The Server

Most professional servers will greet your table just as you are settling in, before you’ve had time to look at a menu and make ironclad decisions. There will be an opening speech- a note of welcome, perhaps a bit of probing to find out your dining history at this restaurant or the occasion of the evening. The server will then probably walk you through the menu or highlight specific recommendations or specials.

This opening speech and introduction to the menu is where the server is most overtly trying to nudge you in the direction they want you to go. The best servers, at the best restaurants, will actively try to steer your meal. Servers are your most direct link to the kitchen, and they will pass on more useful information than the menu does. You may think that the halibut looks delicious, but had you noticed it, before your server gushed about its addition to the menu?

There may be forceful recommendations, or overenthusiastic suggestions, but the server is ultimately trying to point you toward a good (or expensive, and good) time. They may be reciting crowd favorites that are proven to please, or they may be judging your table dynamic and calculating your presumable budget. They may also be acting on a chef’s orders, to sell as much quail as possible tonight, because he or she accidentally ordered a double shipment this week and needs to sell it this weekend.

Trust that your server is not trying to bamboozle you, or point you toward bad food. If they seem open, and communicative, take their suggestions. They want you to be happy. Content, happy customers make serving a rewarding job, and also help ensure a rewarding paycheck. No matter the manipulation, at the end of the day, the server is trying to make sure that you have a thoroughly enjoyable meal.

 

  1. The Specials

The server has probably mentioned any specials in his or her opening speech. These featured dishes may be called seasonal offerings, a plat du jour, or a nightly special, but they are not on the regular menu. And they can be difficult to decipher.

Most of the time, at high quality restaurants, the special features an unusual ingredient, a product that is either extremely seasonal or too expensive to put on the menu regularly. Specials can be an adventurous and rewarding way to try something new, with limited availability. Some chefs create specials because they soft spots for certain dishes, even if they don’t make much money. Other chefs celebrate limited quantities of special products by only featuring them for a few days. If you trust the restaurant, and the chef, the special is probably going to be a more interesting meal than the standard house favorites.

However, specials can also be a way to unload product that is about to pass its prime. Anthony Bourdain famously revealed the secret to the masses in Kitchen Confidential, but restaurant workers have known for years: no one is getting in a fresh shipment of fish on a Monday. That half-price Monday night sushi special is all leftover fish from the weekend that the restaurant is trying to sell before it goes bad. And an unexpected “chicken stew” is probably made from the not-sold pre-cooked Saturday birds. Restaurants need to do this, to cut down on food waste and food costs. A dinner special, even though it uses the restaurant equivalent of leftovers, may very well be good. But if you aren’t sure about a kitchen’s commitment to quality, skip the special and go for a trusted favorite.

 

  1. The Menu

When the server is gone from your tableside, you are left with the menu. Here, too, there are layers of influence.

Look at the layout of the menu. At some restaurants, certain dishes may be highlighted to stand out- they may be bolded, boxed, or labeled as house specialties. These are the dishes the chef is trying to steer you toward, because they are house classics, crowd favorites, and, most likely, because they make the kitchen a decent profit margin (We all want to think that a chef is putting out food as an artistic endeavor, for the glory of the culinary arts. They may be. But, also, the chef needs to keep the lights on.)

However, there are far subtler ways to influence a customer’s order. In the most stereotypical American restaurants, dishes are usually sold by a featured protein, accompanied by some vegetables, starches, and sauces- think braised lamb, on a bed of lentils and greens, or seared prawns, with a spicy tomato sauce and grits. Most customers tend to notice the protein first, then the rest of the dish second.

When chefs are trying to influence the amount of a certain dish sold, they can adjust the accompaniments to the proteins. Say a chef makes a high margin on the steak dish, and wants to sell a lot of it over the weekend. The chef can pair the steak dish with the most popular sauces and vegetables- some creamed spinach, and fingerling potatoes, for example. Or, say on a Tuesday before a shipment arrives, a chef needs to deter a lot of orders of the fish that was very popular over the weekend. He or she can pair it with an unheard-of but still-delicious broth, and an unfamiliar vegetable. Fewer customers will order it, ensuring that the dish doesn’t need to be embarrassingly taken off the menu.

Chefs can also adjust prices, inflating or deflating the menu price. The menu cost of a dish is usually based on a food cost percentage, but it is a general rule. Some dishes can be sold at a high price to cover for an expensively-made but cheaply-sold plate, or a poorly selling dish can be made more popular by dropping down the price by a few dollars relative to similar dishes (more on food cost and meal price at a later date).

Believe it or not, experienced chefs can usually guess what dishes will sell, when. They know that you are ordering your dishes based on description first, and taste later. They adjust and tweak their menus according to their own culinary ideas, undoubtedly, but they also tweak the menu to suit their financial or inventory needs. The menu contains all of this information, if you know where to look.

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I am either obnoxious, or valuable, dinner company, when I point out these nudges at a restaurant. There are no hard or fast rules of influence, and restaurants vary in their attempts. This is not meant to be an exposé, or a condemnation. Of course restaurants are trying to sell you something. You are buying their product, and they are feeding you. It’s a relationship- there is give and take, suggestion and compromise, prompting and prodding.

But once you learn some of the basic rules, you can see that nudge coming.

 

 

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On Being A Line Cook

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When people ask what I do for a living, I don’t say that I am a chef. I usually respond, “I am a cook, in a restaurant.” Most people are quick to unintentionally correct me- “oh, a chef!” I am happy to take the implicit promotion, but in the professional cooking world, there is a distinction between chef and cook.

The comparison I use often is this: when a building is being constructed, there are people designing the building on computers, there are people calculating the exact shapes and sizes of the materials, and there are people nailing the walls together. Every person knows something about construction; all of them are building the structure. But they are not all called architects.

I, quite simply, cook the food of the restaurant, over and over. I am a line cook. I stand at my station, which is on the “line” of cooks, and I properly prepare the food listed on the menu as people sit down and order it. I am nailing the damn walls together.

“Chef” doesn’t apply to me. I am a professional in the culinary world, but I command no obedience; I have no creative control. I have a lot of knowledge about cooking, about food, about cuisine- but I have none of the chef’s glamourous freedom of taste, of vision, of execution. That is what line cooks are working toward: the chance to be at the top of the line, watching everyone else cook your food while you strut your chef self around the kitchen. But right now, I am cooking the food exactly the way that I am told to cook, because even the best chefs cannot produce their food for an entire restaurant alone.

I stand somewhere near the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy. But from my vantage point, with my hands in everything, I can see connections. I see the winding supply chains, questionable labor practices, and conflicts of interest. I hear the gossip no one thinks I know. I watch dropped plates and masterfully executed presentations. I see how women exist in male-dominated environments, and I see how men exist in male-dominated environments. I observe the explosive anger of chefs, the cynical pragmatism of cooks, and the constant drama of many people running around a tiny restaurant. I know how ingredients are sourced and cooked, and how they come back into the kitchen from your table. And I see how people interact with food, and each other, day in and day out.

This blog is an exploration of all of these things I see- from my position as a cook, from my position as a woman, and from my position spent sweating next to an oven for hours, hands calloused and itching to write.

On Cooking With Fire

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Growing up, I never learned how to make a fire. My family, led by my outdoor-adventure-adverse parents, didn’t camp. I didn’t learn how to roast skewers or s’mores over a campsite fire. Even though I grew up in a small town, attending country bonfires on cool summer nights, I stayed close to the fire only to avoid mosquitoes. I never gathered logs, or kindling, or offered to start the fire.

On some level, I thought of it as men’s work. It was the gangly teenage boys poking the embers with logs, or dousing our shoddily-made fire with lighter fluid, who seemed to be having fun. It was always someone else’s responsibility, someone else’s pursuit. I didn’t want anything to do with fire, because I was afraid. To me, it was hot, seemingly unpredictable, and dangerous.

Then, I started working in professional kitchens. And my relationship with fire changed.

It began when I first started working the “hot” portion of the line at my first restaurant. There was a standard setup for cooking the hot entrees: an open-flame grill with an attached flattop, stacks of ovens, and a long set of stovetop burners for sauté pans. Everything was burning or flammable. There were a lot of amateurs working in this particular kitchen. Things caught on fire, often.

The cook who loses his or her mind and makes jerky, panicked movements when flame is involved is certainly going to ruin some food, and possibly jeopardize other cooks. I had to learn, bit by bit, how to keep calm and see the flames as something I could control. I now work with a game plan for every potential type of kitchen fire, because I’ve encountered most of them. My fingers dance nimbly around open flames, flipping seared potatoes in the scalding hot pan. Small flare-ups of dripping fat from grilled meats don’t make me flinch anymore. And flaming sauté pan fires are quickly and efficiently put out. Flames became familiar, a part of the job.

When I moved to my most recent kitchen, my relationship with fire changed again. At this point, I was not an inexperienced cook. I knew how to cook steaks, and fish, and chicken. I knew how to do all of that, in sauté pans, and over a gas-controlled grill.

But this restaurant centered around a real, bona fide, wood-burning oven. It is the kind of oven where you stack wood logs in the corner, build a raging fire, and then maintain coals hot enough to cook with, over a 5-hour dinner service. You cook with heavy cast irons and sizzling metal platters, raking coals and flipping logs to maintain a balance between steady heat and growing flame.

By the time I started to work the wood-fired oven station, I had already been at this particular restaurant for months, calmly holding down the sauté stations. I was doing well, and I felt confident in the kitchen.

But I did not know how to start a fire.

I avoided the wood-fired oven for a long time, acting as though I wasn’t interested. There were some blustery, “veteran” cooks in the kitchen ahead of me, all men, and they were happy to work the oven. I stayed where I had experience, where I worked with the kind of flames I was familiar with, and where I didn’t need to compete. I cornered myself for months, avoiding that fire.

Eventually, staff turnover, sous chef encouragement, and self-candor forced me to the wood-burning oven. It was not a comfortable transition. I cooked bad food; I made mistakes with my plates. I blew smoke into my eyes, burned off all feeling in my hands, and sweated gallons every night. And as I have done with most other things, I put my head down and reminded myself, “fake it ‘til you make it”.

I got to know the fire. I learned what worked to start the fire, how to coax that initial flare into an enveloping flame. I started to grasp, intuitively, how to design the airflow to my advantage. I learned by touch which logs burned brightly and which logs burned slow. I grew startlingly accurate in my ability to toss logs into stacks in the back of the oven. I learned how to shovel coals, and flip individual logs, giving myself useful surfaces and pockets of heat to cook my meats and fish.

And I started to appreciate the beauty in cooking with fire- I was responsible for feeding the beast, for starting and maintain the source that I used to cook all of my dishes. Instead of gas burners, turned on with the flick of a handle, or a flattop grill, mysteriously warmed from below, my cooking method was tangible. I could see it. I had to work for it. I had to maintain it. I was feeding the fire, and the fire was feeding the work that I was doing.

I am no longer scared of fire. I love the smell, the visual, and the incomparable taste it gives food. I lament the lack of an open flame in my tiny city apartment, and I approach a campfire with the affinity of an old friend. I feel self-assured, standing in front of the oven, knowing that I have overcome my own limits and fears about fire. Cooking with fire rewards confidence, and experience. In working with fire in kitchens, I have developed both.

A fire also requires patience, upkeep, and plenty of oxygen. In facing our fears, I think we thrive on the same.