Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Why Michael Pollan Is Wrong About Sending Back Steaks In Restaurants

I like American journalist and current media darling Michael Pollan, and the simple approach to food he advocates. In this era of wall-to-wall cooking shows, where former supermodels can do a couple of years at catering school and emerge as celebrity chefs teaching the nation to bake while older, far more experienced cooks are left on the shelf, it’s a breath of fresh air.

A well-researched, beautifully-written breath of fresh air that may motivate even the laziest, crisp-munching foodie to turn off the telly and actually cook a meal themselves, rather than wondering who’s going to be knocked out next, or tweeting about how James Martin looks like an owl in a Noel Gallagher wig, and can’t read the autocue (alright, I was guilty of that one).

I love Pollan’s advice about how we should all eat out less and cook for ourselves. I like his proselytising about how we should be less greedy, and eat more plants. I like his simple guidelines for eating - “It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car”. I like the tales of his cookery experiments in his new book Cooked - a book being feted on both sides of the Atlantic as some sort of born again Bible in this age of unnecessarily-fussy recipes and long-run-out-of-ideas food programmes about building giant mince pies for bemused Greggs-goers in the centre of Birmingham.

But there is one thing he is very wrong about - and that is his views on ordering well done steaks in restaurants. On first sight, Pollan seems to be on to something. He urges us to ensure the quality of the meat - provided you like your steak well done or medium-well, and not a bloody hunk of seared flesh like most people - by ordering it rare, and then, and this is the cunning bit, sending it back to be cooked more.

That way, he says, you can guarantee the quality, and perhaps in these horsian days, the provenance of the meat. The logic being that devious chefs will try to pass off the nastiest pieces by serving it to the idiots who ask for their steaks well done, or ‘ruined’ in chefs’ cant.

There is truth in this. I’ve worked in restaurants where gnarly, green-tinged, everyone-has-a-sniff, about-to-go-in-staff-food steaks are reserved for customers who favour cremated meat. And it’s not just because it’s easier to get away with - it’s disgust. You see, chefs hate overcooking meat. “Fucking plebs!” they’ll be ranting as three orders for well done come in on table one. There is no chance to showcase their semi-mythical cooking talents if the meat is grey, and dry as Gandhi’s sandal.

But there is something chefs hate much more than having to ruin a lovely piece of meat, and that’s the humiliation, dented pride, and battered ego of having food sent back to the kitchen. It causes uproar. The restaurant is afraid to relay the message to the head chef, and the lowly commis in the brigade will make sideways glances and snigger. “Big bollocks has fucked up!” they’ll be thinking.

As revenge, I’ve seen chefs take a beautiful piece of returned steak and throw it in the deep-fat fryer until it’s well done, such is the disdain for people who hand back their beloved food. And I’ve heard of, and seen, far worse incidents.

On one occasion, I was working in a gastropub in Cornwall when an eye fillet came back. The chef ranted and slammed plates on the pass, and ran around the kitchen for a few minutes finding fault with everything, and quickly trying to pass off his perceived negligence by bullying the lower ranks while the steak sat there on the pass, oozing blood and greyish gobs of juice.

He then picked up the steak, pulled down his trousers, and wiped his arse with it. I apologise if you’re eating at this point, but I’m using it as an example of what can happen when you hand food back to a kitchen. And it’s not just steaks, of course. Troublesome customers may be munching through their just-returned salad oblivious to the saliva, or worse, in the chef’s special sauce, or the bogey hidden in the leaves, or the urine in the mussels etc etc.

I learned a lot in the time I spent cooking in restaurants, not least that I had a huge amount to learn, and that being able to throw a decent dinner party, or prepare a deep, deep pudding for Egg and Toad in a TV studio, is absolutely no use in preparing you for the rigours of a professional kitchen. All bright-eyed amateurs discover the same - that they are about as useful to the tattooed bunch of leather-fingered limpet berries around them as a snooze button on a smoke alarm.

But one thing I did learn is never hand food back. It’s just not worth it. The thought of what might be in there, what your soup might have been doctored with, will more than take away any enjoyment of the meal. Whenever a waiter asks how my meal is, I always mumble some platitude even if it’s fucking awful. And if it’s great, I let them know that too. But I never send food back to a kitchen. Never!

Pollan is right about the ability to see the quality of a steak if it’s rare, and how overcooking covers up a multitude of sins. But the trust he puts in the deranged characters you often find in kitchens is a touch naive. I hope his steaks, or those of his readers, never come back matted with sweat and other horrors that weren’t there on first arrival, but returning food to guarantee its quality is ludicrous advice.

:: My new, bestselling food book Down And Out In South East Asia is an adventure story, spiked with a heavy dose of backpacker noir, through the eateries, street food stalls, and hazy bars of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.


Lizzy (Good Things) said...

Lordy! After reading this, I'm especially pleased that I rarely dine out and, when I do, my steak is medium!

shthar said...

Medium well for me.

But yeah, this Pollan guy obviously never worked in a restaraunt.

Don't send food back, and don't get the buffet.

G said...

I am from an Asian country, and I can confirm 100% (seeing it done before my own eyes) that some chef will do the most disgusting things with "sent backs"...