Advice from chefs about ordering at a farm-to-table restaurant

Here are some of the common mistakes made by well-meaning patrons that cause chefs heartburn.

The number of farm-to-table restaurants is growing and the demand for local foods is rising. This is confirmed by the National Restaurant Association’s recent survey of 1,300 chefs nationwide. Frustrations experienced by chefs of farm-to-table restaurants are occasionally the topic of conversation when chefs and farmers gather face-to-face at West Michigan Farmlink to complete their transactions of local food. Some of these chefs have agreed, anonymously, to share their friendly advice for patrons of these restaurants.

First, chefs suspect some customers claim to have a food allergy, when in fact they do not. What customers may not realize is that when a guest says this, everything in the kitchen stops. All surfaces are cleaned. New knives and cutting boards are used. Preparations of other dishes are put on hold. This really impacts all customers. Chefs say if you just do not like something or want to try a special diet; it is okay to tell your server. They ask that no one claim to have a food allergy that actually doesn’t.

Next, chefs say that drastic changes to menu items are difficult. Farm-to-table restaurants source locally and more frequently than traditional restaurants. They may not have a large supply of items not found on the menu. For example, changing a salad from spinach to romaine lettuce may be possible, but if the server says they cannot do it, know it is probably because they did not buy romaine that week. (Or romaine is not available from the farmers from which they source.) Specials, and their corresponding ingredients, are chosen for a reason.

One thing that really causes chefs heartburn is when customers automatically ask for tartar sauce with fish or ketchup with beef before trying their sauce. Chefs spend lots of time and talent developing the flavors of their dishes. They ask that you give the dish a chance before deciding you need something else.

Finally, probably the two most important things to remember when walking into a farm-to-table restaurant are: 1) they cook many items from scratch, so putting food on the table in five minutes is rarely possible and 2) if a restaurant specializes in Italian food, do not expect hamburgers and quesadillas; try to find something on the menu to order. You just might discover a new favorite dish made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients.

The Michigan State University Extension Community Food Systems Workgroup encourages people to support farm-to-table restaurants as one way to expand our local food system in Michigan. For more information about putting local produce on your menu, download a PDF about farm-to-institution or view factsheets available from Michigan Fresh

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