Is it obnoxious to send a dish back?- Continuing Mark Schatzker and Ian Brown’s debate

A couple weeks ago, things got a little ugly in the foodie world between author Mark Schatzker and Ian Brown. The two had dined together and Mark, upon being served duck confit that he found to be of horrific quality, sent the dish back and ordered a replacement. Fellow diner Ian was absolutely mortified and wrote a column chastising Mark for his arrogance. Mark defended his position with quotes from chefs, famous food critics and argues that it is not obnoxious to send dishes back and pities Ian and “….his Calvinistic anti-sensualism. I imagined all the bad restaurant meals he would dutifully suffer in the name of propriety.Going through life that way doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t taste good, either.”

Now, first off, Mark is a man that runs in circles with men like Alan Richman (food editor of GQ) and has access to renowned chefs, and is a relatively experienced cook himself (he had prepared duck confit himself many times he writes).

I have only sent one dish back in my entire life, and to be honest, I still regret doing it. It was at Antoine’s in New Orleans. I ordered the ribeye, medium rare, priced at around $36- huuuge splurge for me. The meat that was served to me was an absolute piece of leather- brown all the way through with not a bit of pink or red in sight. (Validated by the entire table). Now keep in mind, this restaurant is pretty well-known in New Orleans and the dish was steak– even the simplest of foodies (which I definitely identify myself as one) has an idea of how steak should be cooked– how you request it to be cooked. I mustered up my nerve, and sent it back. I was promptly served a bleeding cow (not exaggerating unfortunately) as a replacement. I forced myself to eat the entire thing out of spite.

Now, crucial things I’m leaving out of this description for all you who think that I was entirely in the right to send it back and expect it to be prepared the way I had asked. First of all, it was in the beginning of Mardi Gras that I was visiting New Orleans. The company at our table was therefore dressed in jeans, and adorned with beads and a few were quite intoxicated from a day of celebration. I am still in my twenties. After re-evaluating the context, I realized that if I had been that chef, I probably would have spit on the steak in addition to serving the replacement practically raw.

I think what people often times miss when they send dishes back is that its not about being “right” all the time. Yes, my steak was overcooked. But if I had taken a moment to think about how it would look to the chef, I might have just struggled through it rather than re-ordering. Basically, there other factors besides being “right”, that should go into deciding whether or not to send a dish back if you want to avoid being seen as obnoxious (many of you don’t care about being obnoxious however, and that’s completely your prerogative).

What exactly is wrong with the dish?: Did they not cook the dish properly? (undercooked or overcooked meat, etc.)  Are there foreign objects in your dish? (Hair, bugs, etc.) Or is the dish just not what you expected? (too spicy, had fish in it, etc.) Or did you just not end up liking the dish?

Consider the context: How nice is the restaurant you are dining at? If you’re at a chain restaurant or one that’s not exactly renowned for its quality or cost, is it really worth correcting the dish? Chances are, the cook is just going to be extremely annoyed and want to mess with your dish in some way (trust me, I worked at a bar where this was pretty much common practice). Yes, it’s annoying and unfair that you should have to pay for a meal that was not prepared to your liking, but again, consider where you chose to dine in the first place and try to keep in mind that if you’re at a bar or relatively cheap restaurant— many a time (not all the time) the cooks don’t subscribe to the philosophy that the customer’s always right.

On the flip side, however if you’re dining at a relatively expensive and nice restaurant, of course you have more of a right to expect quality, properly prepared cuisine. Just be aware, that unless you have similar credentials to Mark Schatzer when it comes to sending a dish back based mostly on opinion (too salty, etc.), you are bound to embarrass or offend some of the people in your dining party or the chef that prepared your food.

I’m still pretty divided on the matter and I think this is going to be one of those subjects that always stirs controversy. At the end of the day, overall I think context is key, and just use your best judgment. The diners that simply don’t care one way or the other whether they came off as obnoxious or offend anyone, probably have it best!