Aug. 23, 2012 at 2:48 PM ET
When you eat at Kenny Shopsin’s diner on New York's Lower East Side, you play by his rules. Ask for a substitution and you will likely find yourself out on the curb, a victim of the eccentric chef-and-owner's wrath.
“Some people tell me that they’re deathly allergic to something and that I have to make sure it’s not in their food. I kick them out,” Shopsin wrote in his book “Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin.” He recommends they “go eat at a hospital” instead.
While Shopsin wrote those words 4 years ago, the strict rules around ordering are still in place and have remained constant at Shopsin’s since it opened at its first location nearly 40 years ago. And for good reason: Though the restaurant has a cramped kitchen, there are 900 items on its menu. The mantra “the customer is always right” holds no sway here.
But Shopsin is far from the only chef with an inflexible “no substitutions or alterations” policy. Strict warnings have been cropping up on menus around the country over the past decade, and the trend shows no sign of slowing down as chefs at both upscale and casual restaurants follow suit.
Even a pregnant Victoria Beckham got a flat-out "no" when she tried to order a smoked trout salad (minus several ingredients) at Los Angeles restaurant Gjelena in May of 2011. Beckham’s dining companion that day, famed chef Gordon Ramsay, was not impressed. “I don’t think customers should be treated that way,” he said later.
Why risk the scorn of patrons and a flood of quizzical customers asking: “Really?”
“On one side it’s a production issue,” New York City restaurant consultant Brendan Spiro told TODAY.com. “To go outside of the box could mess with timing. But most chefs believe substitutions could also harm the integrity of the dish itself.”
Making consistent food in a small kitchen was chef Sang Yoon’s primary reason for implementing one of the first no substitutions (and no exceptions) policies in his bar-slash-café Father’s Office 12 years ago. Despite warnings from friends and fellow chefs, he stood firm. Keeping kosher? Lactose-intolerant? Better try somewhere else — his wildly popular burger always comes with bacon and cheese.
“It wasn’t some ego thing that people usually attribute it to,” Yoon told TODAY.com. “It’s the fact that I had this really tiny little space.”
The first couple of years were “war,” Yoon chuckled. Complaint letters started arriving (“absolutely hysterical gems”) and his “bacon on the burger” rule had a few people accusing him of being anti-Semitic. “Which was really funny, because my surrogate grandmother was this wonderful Jewish lady,” he said. There was even a phone call from the Anti-Defamation League asking if he could be more sensitive to customers.
Twelve years later, Father’s Office is still in business and customers aren’t quite as shocked when their substitution requests are denied.
“I think the notion that you should make whatever someone asks you to make has gone out the window at any price point,” Yoon said. “I see it on so many menus now that I think people have gotten it.”
But “no substitutions” rules aren’t just about kitchen efficiency these days, because many chefs are eager to preserve the authenticity of their painstakingly created dishes. Jon Shook, a chef and co-owner of Los Angeles-based restaurant Animal, has a quick response for questions about the philosophy behind their policy: “Would you ask Picasso to change his painting?”
“We spend countless hours developing a dish, and we don’t want somebody to come in and wreck it,” he added. “We’re putting a lot of our personal beliefs, heart and soul out there.”
Vinny Doloto, who co-founded Animal with Shook, said they’ve never changed the rules for anyone. If a diner has a particular allergy or dislikes an ingredient, their server will simply recommend choosing something else from the menu.
Not everyone takes kindly to this treatment — more than a few unsettled customers have headed straight for the door. “You lose a certain clientele,” Doloto said. “I think there are just people that have to have it a certain way.”
Some chefs are comfortable losing a few customers who have allergies or aren’t willing to turn their taste buds over to the chef, but diners often view these restrictions as straying from a restaurant’s purpose to keep paying customers content. Websites like Serious Eats have threads dedicated to the subject, offering a glimpse of just how polarizing the policy can be. Even dedicated foodies who would never dream of altering a dish remain skeptical of a “no substitution” rule’s snootier implications.
Danyelle Freeman, founder of the blog “Restaurant Girl,” has spent years exploring New York City’s restaurant scene, usually trying exactly what she sees on the menu. But at one restaurant, Freeman’s server made her party feel downright uncomfortable when a friend dared to ask about a substitution.
“I think restaurants are forgetting they’re in the hospitality business,” she said. “If someone has an allergy, you really have to empathize and be accommodating.”
Still, Freeman admits that it’s probably a bad sign if that upscale restaurant you’re eating at allows you to mix and match pastas. Pasta in Italy, she says, is like a canvas for the sauce, and chefs pick noodles with the best shape and texture. That’s the reason for the no substitutions policy at Locanda Vini e Olii in New York City, where dish alterations are typically frowned upon, but are strictly enforced for the menu’s pasta section.
“The main reason is that in Tuscany, different shapes of pasta are used for specific reasons,” Michael Schall, general manager of Locanda told TODAY.com. “As much as Olive Garden would like you to believe the contrary, pastas and their sauces are not all interchangeable.”
The restaurant does make substitutions for allergies and pregnant women, but usually guides diet-restricted customers to another dish. “If you do it in a friendly way, most people put their guard down, and are open to try new things,” Schall said.
More than anything, “no substitution” policies may be a sign of a subtle shift in the way chefs are relating to their customers. In today’s foodie culture, with month-long waits for restaurants and eateries that don’t take reservations, dining out can sometimes seem more like a privilege than a right.
“In my experience, there’s a certain capriciousness regarding how they’re developing food and offering it,” restaurant consultant Spiro added. “Most young chefs believe they’re the bee’s knees and that you’ve been put in their culinary hands. I try to explain to new restaurant owners that, at the end of the day, you’re still in the business to serve clients.”
How do you feel about “no substitutions” policies in restaurants? Tell us in the comments!
Danika Fears is a TODAY.com intern who often cringed when her father requested cocktail sauce with crab cakes in restaurants (she doesn't let him do it anymore).
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