restaurants

Chefs on Twitter: Why Do You Want to Follow Them?

image via Bon Appetit

image via Bon Appétit

 

Really, why would you read the 140 character musings of chefs?
It’s not a rhetorical question and I’m not asking it snarkily. Chef twitter streams are as individual as cooking styles, and some chefs are as adept with social media as they are with a boning knife while others careen from mundane to puerile like a bad banana split. 

The first thing you have to ask is why is the chef on twitter? 
The chefs themselves have their own varied reasons for tweeting. Some tweet within an inner circle of other chefs, sharing support and tips and keeping tabs on far-flung colleagues. Others expand the circle to include friends, fans, and loyal customers to create interest and build loyalty. Twitter can be a platform for the personal and political agenda of an activist chef, or it can increase a restaurant’s bottom line when it’s used as a promotional tool or a barometer that gauges customer satisfaction.

Then there are the brand-building celebrities.
Their tweets don’t originate from the depths of a steamy kitchen but from the carpeted offices of social media managers. Instead of the off-the-cuff remarks of a chef with two thumbs and a smartphone, you’re getting a twitter stream that’s maintained by a marketing professional who analyzes the demographics of followers (who can number in the millions) and crafts targeted messages that hone a chef’s public persona and plug their line of cookware.

Now ask yourself what do you want out of it?
You can find out about tonight’s dinner specials, put in your two cents about a recent meal, get some industry insider commentary, or see what your favorite chef eats for breakfast. You can rub online shoulders with a high-flying celebrity or be a fly on the wall of the bistro down the block. Twitter can bridge the gap between cook and customer, chef and fan. Once you know why you would want to follow a chef, here are some lists that will help you find one that fits the bill.

The 15 Most Followed Chefs on Twitter
The Huffington Post presents the big dogs.

Michelin Starred Chefs
ElizabethOnFood focuses on European restaurants with lists of Nordic Michelin starred chefs on Twitter and British and Irish Michelin starred chefs and restaurants on Twitter. @MichelinGuides publishes a list of starred chefs from their New York, Chicago, and San Francisco guides.

11 Flavorful Celebrity Chefs on Twitter
Mashable considers these to be the tastiest feeds out there.

The Archetypes
Zagat 
divides celebrity chefs into five categories: The Real Me, The Highly Edited, The Retweeter, I Am Who You Want Me to Be, and The Politicos.

118 Twitter Feeds Every Food Activist Needs to Know
Not just chefs but also farmers, writers, researchers, and policy makers, this exhaustive list comes from Food Tank.

Yahoo Food! gave us an April Fool’s Day gift of 7 Funny Foodie Twitter Accounts.
There’s the absurdist @coffee_dad, the inane @tofu_product, the tongue-in-cheek fetishism of @daily_kale, and other feeds that parody and skewer our foodie culture.

Who Chefs are Following on Twitter
Restaurant Hospitality magazine’s list of chef-recommended feeds.

14 Chefs and Their Very First Tweets
They all had to start somewhere, and Grub Street shows us where.

 

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Restaurant Lingo

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Restaurant people are truly a different breed.
They look different, with their own clothes and tattoos. They keep their own hours, heading to work when most of us are heading home, and going out when we’re going to sleep. The industry has its own rites and rituals, its own rules, and its own language.

Dining room jargon–

BOH: Back Of the House; the kitchen, walk-in, or any other area where you don’t deal with customers; BOH also refers to the people who work there. FOH: Front Of the House is the bar, the dining room, or anywhere else the staff deals with customers, as well as the people who work those areas.

[ _ ]-Top: describes the table’s seating– a 4-top seats four; a 2-top seats two but is better known as a Deuce, and a Hi-top is a tall table like you’d find in a bar area.

Covers: the count of meals served; multiply the tops by the Turns (the number of seatings at a single table) and you’ll get the total covers.

What they call us–

Diners are called Campers when they linger too long at the table, or Cupcakes when they’re flirting with staff. If it’s an open kitchen there are probably a few other coded descriptors.

PPX is an Extraordinary Person–it might be written on the ticket to signal VIP treatment. It’s not just for celebrities and high rollers; someone might write NPR on a ticket to tell the staff that Nice People Are Rewarded too.

There are numerous unprintable phrases to describe a bad tipper; some of the kinder ones are Stiff and Flea.

Kitchen jargon–

After you place your order, the kitchen might print out Dupes; these are duplicate tickets frequently printed in multiples on color-coded paper to signify courses. The dupes are hung on the Rail or the Board where they’re considered On Deck.

If your server has checked the Low Board they know the Count of a particular menu item; if it’s 86′ed you’re out of luck. In a hurry? The cooks will be told it’s On the Fly, and they’ll Fire the dish immediately.

When multiple cooks are working different components of a single dish they’ll call 3 Out or 5 Out to signal to the others that they’ll be ready to plate their items in the stated number of minutes. All Day counts the number of dishes that the cook is readying at that particular time, as in ‘I’ve got 2 lamb and 3 risotto all day.’

Cooked orders go from the Line to the Pass, a long counter surface where they’re plated and picked up by servers. If the kitchen is In the Weeds with too many dupes, the orders won’t be Coming On Up as quickly as they should. Conversely, if the waitstaff is Slammed the orders can sit there Dying on the Pass.

Learn to speak their language and who knows—the next time you’re at your deuce in the FOH, you just might find yourself comped like a real PPX.

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An ‘X’ in Espresso is Like Nails on a Chalkboard

Alphabet_soup

 

Something in me snaps when I see an ‘x’ in espresso. 
Or an extra ‘r’ in mascarpone. The salad is ‘Caesar,’ not ‘Ceasar,’ and nobody tops off a meal with a ‘desert’. In my opinion, malaprops and misspellings are reasons enough to eat elsewhere.

Yes, we all make little mistakes sometimes. And it’s true that excellent spelling skills are seldom a prerequisite for a restaurant job. But no, I will not lighten up; not until every misplaced ‘x’ has been eradicated.

Butchering should only take place in the kitchen. 
There’s no room for creative expression when it comes to menu spelling. Get it wrong and it undermines your credibility and leaves doubts about your expertise. If you can’t spell it right, how can I trust you to cook it properly?

Wrong tells me that you couldn’t be bothered to check. It makes me wonder what else you couldn’t be bothered with, like trimming the tough stems from the spinach or washing your hands.

I’m not saying it’s easy.
Menus can be an etymological bomb fields. They can challenge even the word-nerdiest diners and restaurateurs (no ‘n’ in that one!) with their technical jargon and regional and obscure foreign phrases. It’s what makes food terms such a favorite of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

For the final word on menu language, pick up a copy of The International Menu Speller with its 10,000 alphabetically arranged names of dishes, ingredients, culinary techniques, and nutrition terms, all correctly spelled and accented. You’ll need it for the next round of the Cooking Edition of Scrabble.

 

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The Procrastinator’s Guide to Restaurant Reservations

sign via Chefville

via Chefville

 

Plans change and so do moods. Cravings pop up, dates can slip your mind, or maybe you just want a little instant gratification.
If you’re flexible, spontaneous, or just plain forgetful, this one’s for you. These are the tools, techniques, and technology that will land you a last minute reservation at even the most coveted tables in town.

Here’s how little ol’ you can eat like a VIP.
If you’re George Clooney, or Beyoncé, or even a simple Supreme Court justice, a table will always materialize at a moment’s notice. That’s because big city restaurants hold back a few tables for celebrity and VIP walk-ins, and even humble locales will save a table for friends of the house. Those unused prime tables plus some late cancellations made by mere mortals are released back into the reservation system for last-minute booking.
Here are some places where you can troll the 11th hour open tables:

Every morning the data cruncher behind Last Minute Eatin scours the 800 or so top-rated restaurants on New York’s OpenTable to see who’s got an actual opening for that evening. He posts a carefully curated list of that day’s 100 hottest restaurants on the homepage, and throughout the day he’ll continue to cross-check for availability, tweeting updates every 20 minutes from 8AM on.

Register your wish list with Rezhound—any dates, any restaurants, in any city as long as it books through OpenTable—and the free service alerts you by text or email the moment a match is available.

The Eater group of city guides publishes its Crunch Time listings of restaurants with same-day availability of tables for two. The feature appears daily in the New York, L.A., and Chicago editions, with sporadic coverage elsewhere.

Leloca adds a geo-targeted twist to the cancellation model. Within seconds of a reservation cancellation it tweets out the available table to smartphone users within the vicinity of the restaurant. It’s a first-come-first-served offer with a discount attached, usually in the range of 30-50%.

You’re never, ever going to come across available tables at certain restaurants. You have to go after them.
When it comes to the newest, the most buzzed about, the best reviewed, the most in demand, you need to get a jump on the clamoring hordes. Many of the most popular restaurants have very specific reservation cycles. For instance at Noma, the global destination restaurant in Copenhagen that many consider the world’s best, bookings are opened every 4th Monday for three months out, and 20,000 requests typically come in on that one day—and the restaurant has just 12 tables. Closer to home, San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions releases future tables into its online reservation system at 4a.m. and can be booked solid long before sunrise.

Often the problem is that software programs are stealing your dinner. They’ve been operating for years on ticketing sites where they keep a step ahead of site security to scoop up the best seats for ticket brokers and scalpers. Now they’re invading restaurant websites and online reservation systems, snatching up the prime dining times at rare and rarified tables.
Here’s how you can fight fire with fire:

Mechanize gives you the open-source software that will do your bidding in cyberspace. It will endlessly comb booking engines for newly released openings and cancellations and make the desired reservations for you.

HackerTable scours the sites for you in a similar way. It focuses on the over-heated Bay Area restaurant scene and lives up to its tagline of reservations at elusive restaurants by regularly posting availability at hard-to-get spots like The French Laundry and Chez Panisse.

When all else fails, you can always go with the best table that money can buy.
Hotels have always had concierge services and now all the major credit card companies offer them to customers who qualify for the ‘elite’ or ‘platinum,’ or ‘signature’ cards. There’s a lot of talk about their ‘special’ relationships with restaurateurs, but they rarely have any genuine pull. What they offer is the legwork involved in hunting down those OpenTable cancellations. What’s new is a breed of concierge services specializing in restaurant reservations, and for the right price, they will deliver the goods.
They smack of the same elitism and manipulative swagger as the old school method of greasing the maître d’s palm:

Today’s Epicure charges an annual membership fee of $1,000 (shorter terms are also available) and gives access to impossible reservations at the highest profile restaurants of the moment. In addition to the cool thou to join, Today’s Epicure tacks on a variable fee that hovers around $100 per booking, rising with the lateness of the date and the hotness of the venue. They follow the money, offering reservations in New York, Los Angeles,  Miami and The Hamptons in season, and

I Know the Chef appeals to the big-shot wannabe. It’s more of a cut-rate experience than Today’s Epicure—even the annual pricing, at $499.99, sounds like a bargain basement come-on. They don’t guarantee you the hottest tables in town but will consider your dining preferences and find you a slightly cooler restaurant that you’ll like too, although most of their list is bookable without any help. They make up for it by promising that dinner comes with a side order of fawning—a special amuse-bouche or maybe a personal greeting from the chef. You don’t really know the chef at I Know the Chef, but to an outsider you’ll look like an insider.

The dorm’s RA can steer you clear of the cafeteria’s meatloaf, but college students with more rarified palates turn to the restaurant concierge services at the Boston Collegiate Consulting Group. The group calls itself a ‘lifestyle brokerage’ and for $300 a month they promise to ‘open doors’ and ‘make lines disappear.’ Of course for $300 a month they’re doing more than just giving undergrads a meal plan alternative. They also decorate dorm rooms, line up courtside seats to NBA games, and make apologies to landlords after wild parties. For the littlest the littlest bigshots, BCCG also has a ‘prep’ division for high schoolers.

Stop dragging your feet!
You know what to do. The weekend [out-of-town guests, your anniversary, your best friend's birthday...] is almost here. Go out and make some reservations!

 

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Destination Dining Where the Gas Station is the Destination

Eat-Here-Get-Gas

The term destination restaurant originated with France’s Michelin Guide.
In the early days of motoring, the Michelin tire company got into the travel guide business to boost demand for cars. It assigned the top score of three stars to restaurants with cuisine so exceptional that they were worth a special trip. The restaurant was the destination and a stop at the service station was, Michelin hoped, a byproduct of the journey. 
Now it seems the service station is the destination.

The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, and other media outlets have reported on the recent popularity of gas station cuisine, some even calling it ‘the next big thing’ or ‘the new food truck.’ These are restaurants you head to even when you don’t need to fill up; maybe they’re not vaut le voyage like a Michelin three-star, but they’re not just gas station convenience markets with withered hot dogs turning on grill rollers. There’s a Shell station with pan seared diver scallops on its menu; apricot glazed pork tenderloin served with a view of the Mobil sign; and corned beef that’s slow-cured in-house by an Exxon station’s deli master.

Gas station owners are willing business partners, happy to see a rent check and the increased foot traffic that a restaurant brings. Would-be restaurateurs see relatively low start-up costs for what is typically a highly visible and accessible corner location.

Gas station dining is a long-standing tradition in southern states where picnic tables are a common sight alongside the diesel pumps and locals know that the area’s best barbecued brisket just might come out of a roadside smoker. If you’re new to the genre, it can be jarring to dine on seared ahi amid a parking lot ambience of exhaust fumes, car horns, and stacked oil cans. The intrinsic kitschy charm of the experience is not for everyone.

This month Bon Appetit profiles 16 gas station restaurants around the country. You’ll find reviews of food at the pump at Gas Station Gourmet and Gas Station Tacos.

 

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Be a Lunchtime Lab Rat

mouse-dining-table

 

You’re part diner, part test subject.
Hidden floorboard scales weigh you as you walk to your table.
Take a seat and chair sensors monitor your heart rate while bites are counted, eye movements are tracked, and facial expressions are analyzed. The soup of the day is lentil.
This is the canteen at Holland’s Wageningen University, where campus hangout meets research facility.

The restaurant is a living laboratory of dining behavior, and its research is followed closely by agribusiness groups, nutrition, sustainability, and health policy makers, food scientists, and the hospitality industry.
Everything about it is modular and malleable to suit experimentation. Scientists can test the effects of center islands vs. long buffets; waiter service vs. self-service; lighting that’s dim, colored, or bright; communal tables, counters, or booths. They look for different eating patterns when sandwiches are cut in triangles vs. rectangles; fruit is sliced, cubed, or kept whole; food odors are enhanced or masked.

The control room trumps the kitchen as the real heart of the restaurant .
Joy-sticks let researchers zoom in with the dozens of cameras concealed in the ceiling. They study every move, large and small: who sits where, who lingers at the salad bar, who’s talking, smiling, and frowning. They count bites and time chew speeds, document a hesitant hand reaching for the dessert menu, and analyze food waste.

They’ve learned that coffee tastes stronger in brown mugs, small biters eat less, and when the usual conventional milk is relabeled as organic people complain of a funny taste. Fresh flowers on a table will improve the mood of table mates, nobody likes to eat in a room with blue lighting, and chairs upholstered with flowery pink fabric will be the first seats chosen.

There’s no shortage of volunteers.
Wageningen faculty, staff, and students are willing diners/test subjects. They have to sign a research waiver and photo release form, but few have balked at the prospect of lunch as a behavioral guinea pig. They’re unfazed by the scrutiny and surveillance, many even choosing to lunch there daily. It doesn’t hurt that the lentil soup is reputed to be thick and tasty and that the restaurant’s low prices make it one of the best bargains in all the Netherlands.

The canteen at Wageningen University, also known as The Restaurant of the Future, is open every school day for lunch.
I couldn’t help but notice that its Facebook page has just 2 likes.

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The Subminimum Wage for Tipped Workers– how low can you go?

pennyonplate

 

The federal minimum wage is not rock bottom.
In the midst of the intense focus and national debate on the minimum wage, we don’t want to forget a group that falls even lower on the pay scale. There’s something called the subminimum wage for tipped restaurant workers, and by law it can be a shockingly stingy $2.13.

Increases to the federal subminimum wage haven’t even kept up with the standard minimum wage.
For most of the 20th century, the subminimum wage was pegged at 50% of the standard wage. In 1991, when the minimum wage was  set at $4.25, tipped workers received $2.13 per hour. In 1996 workers won a 90-cent per hour increase, but for the first time the subminimum wage was uncoupled from the standard wage and it was held at $2.13. It’s been stuck there for going on three decades. While the minimum wage has been increased four more times to its current $7.25 an hour, the subminimum wage, unchanged at $2.13, has been reduced to less than one-third of the minimum. Factor in the rising cost of living, and the buying power of the subminimum wage has effectively shrunk to $1.28.

Think about that $2.13 when you calculate a server’s tip. 
It’s called a gratuity, but the way the pay scale works there’s nothing gratuitous about tips. The subminimum wage is based on the assumption that tips will constitute the vast majority of a server’s earnings. As customers we think we’re rewarding good service, but in fact we’re subsidizing the ability of restaurant owners to pay a mere pittance to their employees. Tips are necessary just to get server compensation up to the minimum wage.

While wages are stuck at $2.13, tips are trending down. 
The recent recession and current recovery have kept a lid on restaurant menu prices and taken a toll on individual spending habits and corporate travel budgets. Tips are calculated on stagnant spending, and customers have gotten chintzy with that calculation.

Restaurants can also choose business practices that will erode tips.
Employers can keep payrolls down naming more of their workers to the subminimum wage category. And when those workers aren’t in typically tipped positions, it’s perfectly legal for restaurants to institute mandatory tip-sharing pools and take a cut from the servers to subsidize the paychecks of non-serving employees. They can also deduct the tip-related portion of their credit card processing fees from the tips given to servers. It’s a small amount from each tip (typically around 2%, and can go as high as 4%), but it adds up to nearly $1,000 a year for full-time workers. For a restaurant chain like Olive Garden, it can be upwards of $10 million in credit card fees that are skimmed from employee paychecks.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Servers
We have a seafood watch list, fair trade labeled imports, and we know when the eggs are cage-free. How about looking at the sustainability of restaurant workers?
There’s a measure in the Senate that will increase the minimum wage to $10.10. Let’s make sure that subminimum wage workers are included this time.

 

 

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Forget Wine Flights. Now We Have Gravy Flights.

Numbered dishes available from Magenta Wholesale Home Décor

Numbered dishes available from Magenta Wholesale Home Décor

 

Tasting flights aren’t just for wine anymore.
The migration began with other drinks, and we started to see flights of beer, whiskeys, and tequila, often served on wooden pallets with cutouts to hold all the little tasting glasses. Now they’re showing up all over the menu, at any meal and every course. There are tasting flights of country ham at breakfast, lamb flights for dinner, and flights of cheesecake for dessert. And of course that gravy flight, so suitable at any time of day.

A flight is not just so many small plates.
It’s meant to be a progression of tastes that’s presented to allow for sampling and comparison. The selection should be deliberately chosen to show depth or breadth, to highlight differences or to emphasize similarities within a category. Traditional wine flights are often vertical tastings of different vintages of the same wine, or horizontal tastings of a certain vintage from different wineries. A cheesecake flight might offer tastes of cakes made from goat, cow, and sheep’s milk, while a chocolate flight could start you with a sweet and mild 60% cocoa Dominican Republic, move on to a smooth 72% Ecuadorean, and then contrast those against an earthy, cocoa-heavy 85% African blend. Whatever the category of food or beverage, a flight should always be constructed with a guiding discipline.

Here are some of the more interesting flights we’ve found:

frenchtoastflight

 

Experience the full range of sweet and savory playing off the egg-battered challah of the French Toast flight at Chicago’s Batter and Berries.

 

 

stew potsNew Orleans’ R’evolution Restaurant explores the seven nations that settled Louisiana (Native Americans, French, Spanish, Germans, English, Africans, and Italians) with a flight of seafood stews including French bouillabaisse, Spanish zarzuela, and Tuscan cacciucco.

creme-brulee-flight

 

Pisces Sushi and Global Bistro in Clearwater, Florida presents a fusion of Asian flavors and French custard in its flight of crème brûlée.

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You’d break the bank trying to taste your way through the luxe steakhouse menu at Philadelphia’s Barclay Primebut the flight of NY strip steaks lets you compare and contrast among prime examples of wet-aged, dry-aged, and wagyu beef.

 

A flight of popsicles is appropriately the only dessert offered at Brooklyn’s street-food-themed Nightingale 9.

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The menu at Ray’s and Stark Bar explains its water flight thusly: Martin Riese, General Manager and Water Sommelier of Ray’s & Stark Bar, has curated a water selection that demonstrates the difference in taste between twenty different waters sourced from various regions of the world. Terroir affects water just like wine. Let us take you on a global journey of water. You have my permission to roll your eyes at this thankfully only-in-Los Angeles phenomenon. Oh, and that global journey of water will run you $12 for three three-ounce pulls of the tap.

gravyflightAnd about that gravy flight, you’ll find it at Biscuit Head in Asheville, North Carolina. The ‘big as a cat’s head’ biscuits are paired with a rotating menu of gravy specials plus the standard lineup of sausage, espresso red eye, sweet potato coconut, smoked tomato creole, and vegetarian seitan gravy. $7 gets you three bowls of three gravies. And there’s not a gravy sommelier in sight.

 

 

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Food Photography: Over-Exposure Turns Us Camera Shy

food art via Dan Cretu

cucumber camera via Dan Cretu

 

Food porn is a modern sacrament.
There was a time when saying grace was a standard, pre-dining ritual. Now nobody eats until the plates are photographed.
Instead of blessing food, we document, catalog, upload, tweet, and post it.

Bad form or bad photos?
There are questions of form, especially when camera flashes pepper a dining room, but it’s mostly a problem of scale.
The numbers tell the story: nearly 100 billion photographs have been uploaded across various social platforms. What began as foodie fabulousness on display has expanded to include every mundane snack, sip, nibble, and nosh.

The backlash has arrived.
Too many meals have sat cooling, too much ice cream has melted. Enough with the tripods and filters and chair-perch gyrations. I don’t care if it ruins your shot. When the food arrives, I want to pick up my fork without delay.

There are snarky websites like Pictures of Hipsters Taking Pictures of Food, and the Hungry Channel spoof that documents the fallout when restaurant-goers ask to take photos of the plates of fellow diners and then haul in massive lenses and lighting equipment. Even Apple parodied the phenomenon with its clever iPhone5 ad touting the phone’s ability to capture quality images in “whatever dimly-lit, exposed brick, no reservation, basement restaurant your friends care about more than each other.”

Not merely idle sniping, there is a scientific basis for feeling fed up with food pics. Researchers call it sensory boredom. They’ve found that looking at too many photographs of food can dull your pleasure in the foods they depict. When you’ve seen one too many photos of salty snacks, you’ll lose interest in that bowl of pretzels because your sensory experience of saltiness is already satiated.

Your photographs can add up to more than gustatory navel gazing.
The new Feedie app turns your food pics into real food for needy children. 
The pet project of Mario Batali and a slew of Hollywood celebrities, Feedie has signed up an ever-expanding universe of restaurants that will trade your photo sharing for a donation to the non-profit Lunchbox Fund, an organization dedicated to providing a daily meal to extremely poor and at-risk school children. When a diner uses the Feedie app to upload a photo to their social networks, the participating restaurant will donate the equivalent of one meal to the Fund.
It’s a good cause; your dining companions can’t complain, even if you use a flash.

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No Olive Oil, No Pepper, No Sugar: Can a Restaurant Be TOO Local?

image via Square Deal

image via Square Deal

 

When Vinland opens later this fall in Portland, Maine, it will be the first restaurant in the United States to serve 100% local, organic food.
That means that if it can’t be grown, harvested, or produced in Maine it’s not going to be on the menu. That list includes plenty of kitchen staples like olive oil, black pepper, cane sugar, mustard, peanut butter, and chocolate. It also bans avocados, bananas, citrus fruits, most rice and grains, and a very long list of spices, sauces, and seasonings.

Farm-to-table is almost a cliché for contemporary restaurants. It’s become second nature for a chef to showcase seasonal ingredients and to establish working relationships with nearby farmers, ranchers, and fishermen. But nobody has ever pushed the concept to this extreme, with this much purity.

Let’s not forget, we’re talking about Maine, a state that squeezes its growing season between the last frost in June and the first in September.
In season, there’s native seafood and agricultural bounty to rival any other region, but the pickings are slim for most of the year. There will have to be a lot of preserved foods—smoked, dried, pickled, cured, and fermented—to offer some semblance of variety on the Vinland winter menus.

Vinland doesn’t have a menu yet, but it does have a manifesto.
The document references the rising cost of medical care for diabetics, celebrity chef tantrums, confinement-raised animals, the dangers of seed oils, and the misogyny, racism, and homophobia of restaurant kitchens. It slams the Industrial Revolution and the Vikings, praises raw foodism, and quotes both Wendell Berry and Che Guevara. According to its mission statement, Vinland is not just a restaurant; it’s the blueprint for a sustainable food system that will help us survive the coming collapse of a doomed and destructive food industry.

Heady stuff, indeed. It should come as no surprise that the missionary behind Vinland is a first-time restaurateur who is more ideologue than trained chef.
A few years ago, David Levi was a high school English teacher in New York City with a few stints of restaurant work under his belt. A tutoring gig with the son of the renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten helped him land some very high profile internships in legendary restaurants like Spain’s El Bulli, Sweden’s Faviken, and Copenhagen’s Noma. A few more stages and apprenticeships later and he landed in Portland offering cooking classes and a series of pop-up tasting menu dinners.

Levi brought with him an admiration for the culinary and ecological ethos of the New Nordic food movement he encountered while staging in Danish and Swedish kitchens. And he recognized the parallels between the bioregions of northern New England and Scandinavia. Vinland is meant to be a kind of mulligan for the Nordic people in Maine.

Vinland is the original name for the North American settlement of Leif Eiríksson’s Viking followers (presumed to include what is now Maine). While Levi salutes their courage in pushing into the unknown, he recognizes their mistakes and wants to learn from them, the worst of which he says was their ‘antagonism toward the indigenous.’ Vinland will be a second chance: “We are seeking to begin again, not as occupiers this time, but as participants. We hope, belatedly, to learn from the rightful inheritors of this land.  We hope to honor the indigenous and the myriad non-humans who have been so grievously harmed by Western culture.  We hope to earn their welcome as we seek to build, together, a vibrant, indigenous, wild future.”

In case you were wondering, there will be salt. Maine harvests its own salt, and it’s really good. There also will be coffee, even though there are no native coffee growers. Levi just really likes his coffee.

 

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Eat Your Veggies–For Dessert!

image via A Thousand Words

image via A Thousand Words

 

Sweets lovers, you may want to avert your eyes.
Vegetables are sneaking away from your dinner plate and landing on the dessert menu. Carrot flan, eggplant tiramisu, black olive madeleines, and celery sorbet are charming and confounding us in equal shares, and forcing us to recalibrate our tastebuds.

Forward-thinking chefs have been playing with a sprinkle of salt and the bite of hot pepper for a while now. Chile-spiked chocolate barely raises an eyebrow anymore and sea salt caramel has become a culinary cliché. Bacon desserts have gone so far past outré that even Burger King lards up a vanilla soft-serve sundae.

The vegetable-based dessert trend has a certain logic.
It takes diners along the same continuum as the salty-savory sweets, but at the same time, they’re new enough to dazzle. And it taps into all things seasonal and farm-to-table.

Vegetable-based dessert are hardly a new invention.
Think about sweet potato pie, carrot cake, and corn pudding. But where the classic vegetable desserts are intensely sweet, the trend is toward fresher, vegetal flavors. The sugar is toned down to play up the ingredients’ natural sweetness, and savory tastes are front and center.

As an added bonus- you can forget the old adage about finishing your vegetables before you get dessert.

The Centers for Disease Control have a Nutrition for Everyone tool that calculates recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables for your age, gender, and activity level.

Condé Nast Traveler rounds up 20 of the most interesting vegetable-based dessert menus around the country.

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Guns in Starbucks and Other Fun Facts

porcelain pistol by Yvonne Lee Schultz

porcelain pistol by Yvonne Lee Schultz

 

Starbucks entered the gun debate with a bang.
In a widely circulated open letter on the company blog, CEO Howard Schultz writes: “…we are respectfully requesting that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas—even in states where ‘open carry’ is permitted—unless they are authorized law enforcement personnel.”
Note that it is a request rather than an outright ban. The guy at the counter waiting for his half-caf vanilla latte could still be packing heat.

This caught a lot of people by surprise.
That’s because for all the talk about gun control at the state and federal level, we don’t really think about about guns on a personal level. But we need to, because when guns are legally carried into restaurants and even bars, it’s touching all of our lives.

  • Fun Fact: Red state or blue—it makes no difference. Nearly every state throws its bar and restaurant doors open to gun-toting customers.

There’ve been some changes in the wake of December’s tragic shootings in Newtown; just not the kind you might expect. With bills pending in a number of state legislatures, we’ll soon see a majority of states explicitly allow residents to bring concealed and open-carry guns into bars and restaurants, while another 20 states continue to allow them by default.

  • Fun Fact: Tennessee State Representative Curry Todd served time this year for drunk driving and possession of a handgun while under the influence of alcohol. He had previously worked tirelessly as the sponsor of the nation’s first guns-in-bars law, which Tennessee passed in 2009.

These laws are the latest wave in the country’s gun debate, and represent progress made by the gun lobby as it seeks, state by state, to expand the realm of guns in everyday life.

Mixing guns and alcohol: this is truly the logic of the madhouse.
A very large body of research tells us that people who abuse alcohol are far more inclined to engage in risky behaviors, and gun owners are more likely to fall into that group:

  • Fun Fact: Compared to people who don’t keep guns in the home, gun owners are twice as likely to down five or more drinks in a single sitting; they’re nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to get behind the wheel of a car when drinking; and they consume 60 or more drinks per month at more than double the rate of non-owners.

Looking for a 3-star gun-free bistro for Saturday night?
Restaurants are free to post signs banning weapons, and recommendation sites like Yelp now include ratings for gun-free dining. Of course concealed weapons make compliance kind of iffy. Unarmed Tennessee residents rely on the listings at not-for-profit Gun Free Dining Tennessee (their motto: Eat in peace) while the NRA crowd visits GunBurger.com (protecting the Second Amendment one bite at a time).

For all the fun facts, there’s nothing trivial about the dangerous mix of alcohol and firearms.
Americans own more than 300 million non-military weapons. There are more than 40,000 gun-related deaths every year, and one in three involves alcohol.

Are there guns in your local restaurants? The NRA website has an interactive, state-by-state map of current firearm laws.

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Welcome to the Grocerant

supermarketmenu

 

It’s 4 PM. Dinner is just a few hours away. Do you know what you’re having?
Studies show that 81% of Americans aren’t sure.

A Hungry Man Salisbury Steak dinner? Mac and cheese from a box? Those days are gone. Today you can kick things off with a cup of Panera’s broccoli cheddar soup or maybe some of Hooters’ chicken wings. Are you in the mood for a burger? Choose from T.G.I. Fridays sliders, L.A.’s  famous Fatburger, or the cultish White Castle. And don’t forget to save room for a slice of the Cheesecake Factory’s Oreo Dream Extreme.

Eating out while staying in.
Restaurant brands are gaining traction in the supermarket. Ready-to-eat or heat-and-eat meals that bear the name of your favorite casual or quick-serve outlet are blurring the line between eating in and dining out. The industry’s name for this hybrid is grocerant, where grocery shopping and restaurants collide.

Restaurant, supermarket, and consumer trends have all pushed us toward grocerants.

Restaurants were hit hard during the recent economic downturn.
Customers weren’t coming to them so they developed products that they could bring to the customers. Franchisees worried that the grocerants would cut into their dining-in sales, but the restaurants learned that if they developed licensed supermarket products that were a good fit without seeming identical to menu items, it could actually help the brand.

Supermarkets have also embraced the grocerant model.
They’ve been scrambling for years to keep up with the ever-expanding category of prepared foods. Shoppers are looking to bring the restaurant experience home. Grocers have tried to replicate that experience by installing pizza ovens, rotisseries, and stir-fry stations, but it’s quicker and easier to relinquish the space to licensed grocerant products. For all the effort it takes to create a store brand from scratch, they know that consumers are more likely to purchase a brand they already like over one they don’t know.

Consumers are cash-strapped and time-crunched. 
The supermarket might be a necessary downgrade from dining out, but restaurant-branded grocerants help soften the blow. They know that a frozen or pre-made version of the freshly-served restaurant counterpart is an inferior product, but for the savings and convenience it’s a compromise they can live with.

 

 

 

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Restaurant Ratings or Restaurant Rankings– How Do You Choose?

review-trackers-food-and-restaurant-review-monitoring

 

Who’s number one?

Restaurant rankings are a relatively new measure of gastronomic greatness.
Reviewers always rated restaurants, often using the shorthand of 3 stars or 2 forks, thumbs up or down, going back a century to the first Michelin guides. Then Zagat came along with its 30-point rating scale that moved us away from entire classes of restaurants toward individual glory, and a decade ago we got the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, the list that made household names out of Spain’s elBulli and Copenhagen’s Noma, and has quickly become a dominant player in global media coverage of the industry. Most of the user-submitted review sites like  Yelp, Urbanspoon, Open Table, and Trip Advisor use a combination, aggregating and averaging the individual ratings to create best of and top ten lists.

Ratings and rankings are not interchangeable.
Both methods have their proponents, and both have their inherent flaws.

Ratings ask you how much you like it.
In theory, everyone is using a common scale of measurement, and applying that scale to different dining experiences with consistency. Of course the reality is something very different: reviews reflect the critics’ quirks, biases, and grudges. Their health, the weather, their mood, even the outfit they’re wearing can affect how a meal strikes their fancy on any particular day. Ratings don’t require a unique score for each restaurant and there’s a tendency to cluster the scores in a very narrow distribution. Researchers have also found that response styles differ systematically by culture, for instance Indians tend toward more extreme scores, both good and bad, while most Asian respondents are more moderate, and French reviewers tend to be be more positive than the less-generous Dutch.

Rankings ask you to compare it with all the others.
In their simplest form, rankings can feel very natural. We all have a basic impulse to make comparisons—it’s easy to distinguish a preference for pound cake over angel food, or to say that you like In-N-Out burgers better than Five Guys. But what if you’re choosing between pound cake and blueberry pie and rice pudding and mango sorbet and chocolate chip cookies? Or a French brasserie, an Italian trattoria, a steakhouse, and those same burger joints? Rankings can get difficult in a hurry.

It’s much more taxing to rank a group of restaurants than to rate them. Psychologists say that when you get past three choices most people start to get sloppy and even arbitrary with rankings. While the cognitive effort required to rate a group of restaurants is linear—the same mental process is independently repeated for each—the work of rank-order reviews rises almost exponentially since each additional choice has to be compared to every other one on the list. Once a list tops seven entries, the whole process can go off the rails.

Good food is subjective.
The ratings and rankings of restaurant reviews have their place, but there’s no substitute for a place at the table. Dining experiences are shaped by individual genetics and gender, historical and cultural influences, mood, emotions, context, and hunger. Reviews can create expectations and even guide the experience, but no two people can ever truly taste in the same way.

 

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Extreme Restaurant Promotions

 

Senior discounts, student discounts, kids eat free—we’ve seen it all before.
It takes something special for a restaurant to cut through the clutter of a crowded marketplace. Here are some of the more inspired, buzzworthy, and just plain wacky restaurant promotions.

Casa Sanchez’s Jimmy the Cornman

Melt grilled cheese logo

Melt grilled cheese logo

Earn your discount with a restaurant logo tattoo. It seems awfully extreme, to say nothing of permanent, especially considering that the average lifespan of a restaurant is just five years. But there are plenty of takers, even when it’s just a measly 25% off. Somehow that was enough to convince a few hundred customers to get inked for Melt Bar and Grilledan Ohio grilled cheese emporium. San Francisco’s Casa Sanchez ups the offer to free lunch every day for the rest of your life; no guarantees, but it’s been in business since 1924. Of course for the duration you’ll have Jimmy the Cornman flying across your skin on a corn cob rocket.

Shirley Temple, c. 1933

Shirley Temple, c. 1933

Let’s just say that kids aren’t always the greatest dining companions (Of course we’re not talking about your darlings). They’re even banned from certain restaurants and during certain hours. Not at Washington State’s Sogno Di Vino which offers a ‘well-behaved kids’ discount. Alas, there is no penalty for noisy tantrums.

Phone_Zone

Then there’s the ‘well-behaved adults’ discount. Plenty of restaurants discourage or even ban cell phone use in their dining rooms. LA’s Eva Restaurant goes a step further offering a discount to customers who check their cell phones at the door. About half of Eva’s customers take them up on it.

mississippi-welcome-sign-close-up

They do things a little differently down south. On the 20th of each month Jackson, Mississippi restaurants welcome diversity. They call it Two & Two Restaurant Days, and a 20%
discount is given to any diner who eats with someone of another race. No word yet on the other days.3027-virginia-welcomes-you-sign_1

Virginians love the Second Amendment and they celebrate their right to bear arms in restaurants with special discounts for gun-toting diners. Events like Concealed Carry Wednesday and Fire Power Happy Hour have been a real shot in the arm for restaurateurs throughout the state.

 

 

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Stick a Fork in Them: America’s disappearing chain restaurants

Friends don't let friends eat at Chain restaurants Tee Shirts

t shirt available at zazzle.com

 

It’s been a decade-long slide for chain restaurants.
In the past 10 years, some of America’s biggest chains lost more than half of their sales as they closed hundreds of locations nationwide. Former American staples like Bennigan’s, Big Boy, and Ponderosa Steakhouse are teetering on the brink of extinction as they fight their way back from bankruptcy, and some, like Howard Johnson’s, Steak and Ale, and Chi-Chi’s lost that battle and disappeared from the landscape.

According to sales data provided By Technomic, these are the biggest losers; each restaurant started 2001 with more than $225 million in sales, and each experienced 50% or greater declines since then. Together they have shuttered a combined total of more than 4,000 outlets.

  • Blimpie Subs & Salads
  • Ponderosa/Bonanza Steakhouse
  • Big Boy
  • Don Pablo’s
  • Tony Roma’s
  • TCBY
  • Damon’s Grill
  • Country Kitchen
  • Ground Round
  • Bennigan’s

The restaurant business is a kind of economic indicator for the middle class.
The average American adult eats out or orders takeout more than 200 times a year. The casual dining segment fares well in a strong economy—that’s the Applebees, Cheesecake Factories, and Ruby Tuesdays of the world with their full bars and laminated dessert menus. When times are tough customers used to trade down to fast food, but the 1990′s saw the rise of a new dining segment favored by a new generation of customers that pushed some of the old-line chains toward decline.

The fast casual segment was created by chains like Chipotle, Five Guys, and Panera.
It’s defined by limited menus of made-to-order items that are a step up from fast food, but without the hostess stations and wine lists of casual dining. Prices fall between those of the other two segments, and counter service cuts out the need for a 15% tip. Nobody seems to miss the Sutter Home wine by the glass.

Many of the casual dining chains saw their heyday come and go several decades ago.
Ethnic and local foods rule for young diners who seek variety and authenticity, while chain restaurants promote just the opposite: a sense of dislocation with a hodgepodge of nominal ethnic touches, and decor and dishes that promise you the same meal every time, wherever you are. Data from consumer market researchers at NPD Group show that 18-47 year-olds are abandoning the chains in droves. Older Americans have actually increased their spending on chain restaurant dining, but not enough to stop the slide.

The food is dull, the ingredients mediocre, but refills are free, the bathrooms are clean, and the meal unfolds predictably and reliably. Chain restaurants don’t strive to inspire; merely to not disappoint. But for a new generation of diners, that might not be enough.

Just for fun
Top Cultured created the flowchart Where Should I Eat? (Chain Restaurant Edition).

 

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Mobee Turns Smartphone Users Into Mystery Diners

image via OC Review

image via OC Review

 

If there’s one thing that unites us all as a people it’s a collective love of free food.
And of course everybody’s a critic. That’s why the life of an undercover mystery diner sounds so appealing. Mobee is offering it to all of us with a new app that rewards users who will visit retailers and restaurants incognito and provide feedback.

Mobee is looking to turn the secret shopper industry on its head with a social media twist.
Traditionally, secret shoppers are used by companies to keep tabs on the customer experience. Usually an outside consultant maintains a small army of shoppers and diners, some trained critics, some ordinary members of the public, and regularly dispatches them to client locations where they pose as customers. When it’s a restaurant, they’re there to report on everything from hostess greetings to over-salted soup to bathroom cleanliness. The visit may be tightly scripted, and there is usually a long and detailed questionnaire that the shopper completes after the experience. Discreet note-taking may be allowed, but the diner can’t bring the script or other paperwork to the table, and the turn-around time for the post-dining debriefing can be hours or days.

Mobee’s founder Prahar Shah looked at a multi-billion dollar industry that still runs on paper and pencil, and he saw an opportunity.
Research showed that each outlet of a dining chain like Panera or Starbucks can spend $200 a month for surveys from four or five mystery diner visits. Factor in the  millions of customers who are already offering free feedback through recommendation sites like Yelp and Urban Spoon. Shah founded Mobee on the idea that a phone-based model enlisting an army of unpaid critics can gather more data for less money, and do so with greater accuracy and faster delivery than the standard industry practice.

Mobee slices up a full-length secret shopper assignment into bite-sized visits it calls missions. Each consists of 5 to 10 questions focusing on a specific aspect of the customer experience, and might request a photo. Since ordinary customers incessantly tap and snap with their phones, it can all performed in the open and transmitted in real time (the target restaurant market is casual and quick-serve— the behavior is basically standard rudeness). Users aren’t reimbursed for purchases but are paid in digital credits of generally $5 or $10 that can go into Amazon, iTunes, or PayPal accounts.

Mobee is live in Boston, where more than 30,000 missions have already been performed, and a national (and later international) roll-out is in the works.

The Mobee app is available for the iPhone, with an Android version coming soon.

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Inside the Staff Meal

 

mg_taste1_3525

 

 

The staff meal is coming out of the kitchen.
We’re curious about the restaurant staff meal, the standard pre-service sustenance that’s commonly referred to as family meal within the industry. It’s a time-honored tradition in restaurants where the staff spends its shift surrounded by food but is too slammed to manage more than a few half-cold, intermittent bites while standing up in the kitchen.

Family meal is a rare occasion when the hierarchy of the kitchen brigade is broken down, and the front and the back of the house mingle—dishwashers sit with beverage directors, hostesses with sous chefs, and line cooks rub elbows with bartenders. The food that’s served is also a break with the restaurant’s traditions and culture.

Chefs use staff meals to experiment with future menu items and as a training ground for young cooks. Pantry and prep cooks might try their hand, and the wait staff might turn it into a potluck one night. It can mean Brazilian home cooking served by the Latino line cooks at a French restaurant or potpies from a pastry chef looking to branch out into savory dishes.

The odds, ends, and nasty bits.
Cost is paramount. Staff meal costs are tax-deductible for the restaurant, but the IRS forbids owners from dinging wages. The well-run restaurant makes use of leftovers, less-than-prime produce, and cuts that can’t find a place on the regular menu. Inspiration is found in the far reaches of the walk-in where wilted kale, lamb necks, and days-old cuttlefish will find their way into casseroles, croquettes, and curries. Meals end up looking like a cross between recessionary home cooking and a reality TV cooking challenge. And as with any home cook responsible for turning out a regular family dinner, there are hits, misses, and nights when you can’t do better than hot dogs on buns.

There are the staff meal legends.
At most restaurants, the kitchen staff is stuck behind the stove and the servers are likely to grab a plate and cop a squat in the alley out back. Then there are the family meals responsible for the low turnover among staff at Chanterelle in New York’s SoHo, where the whole restaurant gathers nightly around a white linen-draped round table in the dining room for rich, French bourgeois feasts. Thomas Keller, the chef-owner of the hallowed French Laundry who began his own career cooking staff meals, puts on a lavish weekly sit-down celebration for his staff; and in the culinary stratosphere of places like Copenhagen’s Noma and Spain’s (now closed) El Bulli, the kitchens are literally filled with dozens of unpaid crew members willing to work merely for the offer of free staff meals.

Eat staff meals and still keep your day job.
Two recent cookbooks, Off the Menu: Staff Meals from America’s Top Restaurants, and Come In, We’re Closed: An Invitation to Staff Meals at the World’s Best Restaurants take you inside the staff meal time of some very good kitchens. 
After each night’s dinner rush, D.C.’s District Commons restaurant rings an old farm bell signaling the start of the family meal, offering customers a classic staff meal menu at a bargain price.
The restaurant industry blog StarChefs features occasional profiles of extraordinary and unusual staff meals.

 

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Restaurants Gear Up for the No-Show Season

Dear Harvard grads who cancel your large party CONFIRMED reservations at the last minute ‘something  just came up’, have fun ruling the world.

–tweet sent last May from the Twitter account of Cambridge, MA restaurant Rendezvous (@RendezvousCS)

It’s almost May, the month that brings warm weather, spring blooms, Mothers Day, and restaurant no-shows.
Fickle diners are a restaurateur’s worst nightmare at any time of the year, but the problem peaks in May with college graduation dinners.

Restaurants in cities with large student populations are thrilled at graduation time when families and friends descend on local venues for commencement celebrations. In cities like Boston and Philadelphia, the ceremonies at nearby colleges and universities can give restaurants their biggest nights of the whole year. The problem is, as J. Erin Reilley, general manager of Boston’s Bondir puts it: “Graduates and their families are notorious for flakiness regarding celebratory dinner reservations.”

There’s a penchant for multiple reservations. It can happen innocently when different family members don’t communicate about different bookings and they only learn of overlaps at the last minute. More often it’s intentional with someone trying to hedge their bets with the family’s taste buds. According to Bill Curry of Philadephia’s Cafe Nola: “[Students] will call five or six places and make reservations. Then when their parents get to town, they decide where they’ll go.”

The impact of even a single empty table can be significant in an industry where average profit margins run as low as 3% to 5%. Restaurateurs know that things can happen: a flight is delayed, someone gets sick, the babysitter cancels. But when research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business tells of an average no-show rate of 20% for restaurants in large cities, they also know that the real problem is rudeness.

And no one is immune. On a recent evening, two groups of diners didn’t claim their reservations at Noma, the celebrated Copenhagen restaurant considered by many as the best in the world. With just 12 tables and a tab that hovers around $500 per person it took a real bite out of the night’s business. The next morning, chef and co-owner René Redzepi tweeted: ‘And now a message from the Noma staff: to the people of two different no-show tables last night,’ accompanied by a picture of staff members showing their middle fingers. It was quickly deleted by cooler heads, but of course the retweets carried the message for days.

After a similarly rough night, another fed up restaurateur, this one from Los Angeles’ Red Medicine, turned to Twitter to publicly call out the customers who failed to show up for their booked tables:

redmedicine

Restaurants are experimenting with cancellation fees, reservation deposits, mandatory telephone confirmations, and the Twitter ‘name and shame.’ Of course the only real solution is for diners to realize that a little courtesy goes a long way.

 

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Could You Spell-Check That Menu?!

alphabetsoup

 

Get that damn ‘x’ out of my espresso!
Something in me snaps when I see an ‘s’ missing from dessert or a misplaced ‘r’ in mascarpone. The salad is ‘Caesar,’ not ‘Ceasar,’ and there is no ‘n’ in restaurateur. But nothing grates like that ‘x’.

Call me a stickler, but I’m no fanatic.
I’d never let the wonky alliteration of Krispy Kreme come between me and my donuts, and I know that pâté (charcuterie) and pâte (pastry dough) can feel like so much hair-splitting. I also cut a lot of slack when I’m in an ethnic restaurant where the owner is not a native English speaker—their ‘hand and cheese’ sandwich or ‘sweat and sour chicken’ is still more impressive than the menu I could compose in Spanish or Mandarin.

I’m also not saying it’s easy.
According to restaurant consultant Linda Lipsky, the average menu contains between two and five errors. That’s because culinary language is an etymological mine field. Food and its lexicon are multinational, multilingual, and ever-evolving. Menu spelling challenges even the word-nerdiest diner with technical jargon and regional and obscure foreign phrases.

There’s no room for creative expression when it comes to menu spelling.
Get it wrong and it undermines your credibility and leaves doubts about your expertise. Wrong tells me that you couldn’t be bothered to check. If you can’t spell it right, how can I trust you to cook it properly? It makes me wonder what else you couldn’t be bothered with, like trimming the tough stems from the spinach or washing your hands.

We all make little mistakes sometimes. And it’s true that excellent spelling skills are seldom a prerequisite for a restaurant job. But I will not ease up; not until every misplaced ‘x’ has been eradicated.

If (like me) you love food and you love language, then you need to get Scrabble’s Cooking Edition.

Ms. Lipsky, the restaurant consultant, has created the The Official Food & Beverage Spell Checker© with 19,000 culinary terms.

For the final word on menu language, pick up a copy of The International Menu Speller with alphabetically arranged names of dishes, ingredients, culinary techniques and nutrition terms, all correctly spelled and accented. [The International Menu Speller].

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