A rising trend in the fine-dining world involves “tasting menus,” or multi-course meals with dishes specifically selected by the chef to fit a particular theme, to pair with a certain flight of wines, or to highlight a key ingredient. Because the chef has the liberty to decide the meal’s progression, they get the opportunity to flex their creative muscles and to devise meals based around dishes that genuinely excite them.
While tasting-menu restaurants are accustomed to this “chef’s choice” model, some guests yearn for the chef’s expert opinion even when dining in more traditional eateries. Instead of selecting an item from the menu, these patrons may ask their server to have the chef choose (or create) a dish for them based on what the chef believes to be the restaurant’s “best” offerings.
This approach may seem like the ideal way to get the inside scoop on the restaurant’s highlights … but what do chefs actually think about “chef’s choice” orders? We asked several culinary professionals for their takes on this practice, and their responses may surprise you.
Chefs put serious effort into designing their menus, and rogue orders can throw off the flow of service.
In the vast majority of restaurants, menus don’t happen on a whim; chefs spend hours, days, and weeks conceiving their menus, testing out dishes, and putting together a finished product that best encapsulates their concept. “As a chef, I put time into what I put on my menu. I factor in the dietary needs of my guests, i.e., ensuring I have vegetarian/vegan options, gluten-free options, [etc]. I offer detailed descriptions of each item, so guests are well-aware of what they are ordering. It is aggravating to have guests come in and want to break down the menu even further. These types of requests can throw off the rhythm of service,” explains chef/owner Michelle Osteria of Café Michelle in Aberdeen, MD.
Chef Ellie Golemb of Ghost Vegan in Nashville, TN admits to sometimes enjoying the impromptu nature of a “chef’s choice” order, but she advises diners to consider their timing before making such requests: “Maybe it’s because I work in a niche culinary field, but I’ve always enjoyed the freedom and challenge of cooking something wild. I have a lot of adventurous dish ideas that haven’t seen a menu, so the opportunity to test them out on a willing patron is appealing. That said, asking the chef to improvise in the middle of a dinner rush can be akin to throwing a wrench in a well-oiled machine, so take cues from your environment before requesting special treatment.”
If the guest is a “regular,” then the chef may feel more comfortable creating a dish for them on the fly
When asked whether he enjoys cooking for guests who give him carte blanche, chef/owner Chao Wang of Hunan Slurp in New York City stated that “it really depends on who the customer is. I have customers who come to my spot all the time, and I know their tastes, preferences, and food restrictions. In this case, I’d happily offer them my picks. But for customers that I don’t know at all, I don’t think I have the superpower to guess their preferences yet. Tastes are most certainly personal — what I think is mild might burn someone else’s tongue. I wouldn’t risk having someone walking out of my shop with an unpleasant experience.”
As for chef/owner Kevin Adey of Faro in Brooklyn, NY, he vastly prefers to avoid choosing dishes for guests, especially with a surfeit of information: “I certainly know what I like to eat best, but I don’t know you, the customer. So if I’m asked to do so, I’ll choose for you, but I take no pleasure in it. If you must ask another person to choose what you want to eat, at least give them some direction on your tastes. But I would rather not pick for you.”
In most cases, a “chef’s choice” item will come from the regular menu, and the chef’s reasons for selecting it may have ulterior motives
Guests who ask for a “chef’s choice” meal usually assume that the chef knows the best available items and that leaving their order up to the chef’s discretion will result in the finest possible meal. In some cases, that can be true … but former sous chef (and current food influencer) Nick Morin Ganas of Patria in Toronto, ON warns that leaving the choice up to the chef might not end the way you hope.
“From a chef’s point of view, when someone says ‘tell the chef to send out whatever he/she wants’, it does not mean a chance for creativity. The menu is there for a reason, and we worked really hard to perfect the dishes. We won’t come up with something magical and off-menu for you; we will select a menu item. Most likely, it will also be a menu item that we need to move. If I have 10 perfectly good fillets of fish that I’ve portioned for a fish special and it’s not selling that well, then you can probably be sure that you’re getting the fish special (thanks for helping me move product that would have gone bad if unsold),” Morin Ganas tells The Manual.
Some chefs view these requests as a welcome vote of confidence from the guest
For certain chefs, a guest’s willingness to put their trust completely in the chef’s hands inspires confidence and creativity. “For me, it’s a dream come true. The French have a term for this: m’étonner (‘Astonish me!’). I love this and I encourage it in my restaurant. It’s my happy place. When a guest wants me to select a menu, it says, ‘You trust me!’” says chef/owner Constantine Kalandranis of 8 North Broadway in Nyack, NY, 273 Kitchen in Harrison, NY, and TT’s & BB’s in Montauk, NY.
If the request involves dietary restrictions or allergies, then chefs will be more than happy to accommodate
Even if a chef prefers to stick to the official menu rather than accepting “chef’s choice” orders, requests that involve dietary restrictions or allergies fall into a different category. “Requests based on dietary restrictions or something health-specific, where you can see the appreciation for creating something delicious that they may not have thought of at home, [are always welcome at my restaurant]. That’s hospitality to me: making [all guests] happy,” insists chef de cuisine Mark Ford of Anoosh Bistro in Louisville, KY.
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