Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Temperature Battle

In recent weeks, we've had several complaints that our food is cold, our plates are cold, and so forth, both in person and via our customer satisfaction survey. All restaurants face this issue. This blog post is for all my fellow chefs that are reading along.

The time frame that I am talking about has been the last four weeks, which here in Virginia have been gorgeous, with the last gasps of summer still hanging on. We even had a couple of days in the upper 70s when it was possible to dine outdoors.

The weather always informs my cooking. When it's raw like yesterday, just above freezing with the wind howling, the menu was jammed with comfort foods: pork shank on grits, shepherd's pie, and duck gumbo with grilled alligator sausage. But when it's beautiful in October, I still think summer.

Recently and in tune with the weather, I've been making a Mediterranean-inspired chopped salad of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow Corno di Toro peppers, olives, capers, and extra virgin olive oil. I can't help it: these beautiful fruits are still in the market and we won't see them again for at least 8 months!

On this salad, I have been serving a grilled steakfish or a sautéed white fish, such as red drum or hazelnut-crusted mahi-mahi. While the fish has varied from day to day, I am committed to running this salad as long as the ingredients are in the market. I'm like the bear gorging on the last of summer's bounty in preparation for the long hibernation. But I also love this dish with its vibrant flavors and beautiful presentation.

But here's the rub. It's a cold or room temperature salad served on a cold plate. There is no sense plating a beautiful salad on a hot plate just to have it start cooking and wilting. And as soon as I plate a piece of grilled wahoo on that salad, I just know that a certain percentage of plates is coming back to the kitchen, because the dish is "cold."

Customers returning food because of a temperature contrast that I had deliberately intended used to bother me a lot more than it bothers me now. It still bothers me—as a chef, my ego will never be detached from that plate—but I am able to shrug it off a lot better now. I have come to realize that for many people, it is just a knee-jerk reaction, akin to grabbing the salt grinder and abusing the food before even tasting it.

Some of our customers are very senior citizens and I am convinced that the only sensation that they still have left is hot and cold (I wish I understood the physiology and I pray this never happens to me). And to be perceived as hot, the food temperature must approach the boiling point. We try to take this into account in the kitchen, for those customers that we know well.

But some of our customers come at it from different perspectives. Many Americans via their upbringing have been trained that hot food is good, cold food is bad. The ones that have travelled to Europe and Asia may have started to understand that a lot of the rest of the world does not insist on smoking hot food, but that leaves a lot of others. And, if the evidence in my dining room is worth anything, it suggests that the Brits share with us Americans this need for smoking hot food and plates.

A customer shared another perspective with me via an anonymous customer satisfaction survey. She stated most emphatically, "For $22 [the cost of her entrée], I expect a hot plate and hot food." Food be damned, for that price, the plate better be hot. It's an interesting world view, to say the least.

We take great pains to serve hot food hot on hot plates. We take equal pains to serve cold food cold on cold plates. Sometimes we screw up and we fix the problem. And it really bothers me when we screw up, as it should.

But sometimes, a customer sends back the grilled wahoo on the Mediterranean salad because it is cold; a dish that I sent to the dining room as I intended. As I mentioned above, I have reached the point where I can just let it slide off my back.

The reason I can let it go so easily is that I have learned my guiding mantra in cooking is that I cannot please everyone. The only person that I can consistently please is myself. If my dish pleases me, I have done my best and my duty by the customer. I refuse to beat myself up when a customer returns a dish that pleases me. I just shrug it off as a difference of opinion and warm the dish up for those who don't share my point of view.


  1. Thanks for the as-always insightful chef's perspective. If this is a known and repeated customer satisfaction issue, can the customers be warned at the time of their order that the dish they ordered will be cold or room temperature? That might reduce angst and, if the message is served with half the style of the entree, open up some minds.

  2. Gosh, it's awful hard to deliver such a message at the table without seeming insulting or patronizing. We sometimes try to do just this, but it's a very, very fine line.