Ask The Salty Waitress: Are menu substitutions a middle finger to the chef?

Illustration for article titled Ask The Salty Waitress: Are menu substitutions a middle finger to the chef?
Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio

Hi Salty,

My husband and I have an argument about dish alterations that I’m hoping you can settle. We’re both a touch on the picky side about certain things we won’t eat. For me, it’s spicy food or seafood; for my husband, it’s certain veggies, mostly. While neither of us going to order a dish where our food-to-be-avoided is the whole point—like, I’m not the jerk who’s going to order the Ragin’ Cajun Mouth-afire Jamboree but without all that hot sauce, please—I don’t think it’s terrible to politely ask for an element of the dish to be omitted or substituted in order to make it something I’d enjoy (“Can I get the chicken-and-shrimp pasta without shrimp and with extra chicken, please?”). And if can’t be done, no harm, no foul; I’ll order something else.

My husband disagrees and thinks the entire idea of substitution or leaving out ingredients is “messing with the integrity of the dish.” He thinks it akin to insulting the chef’s vision and would prefer to avoid a dish entirely rather than ask for it with substitutions.

So, am I figuratively giving the chef the finger by asking for my salad without anchovies? Or is my husband cutting himself off unnecessarily from dishes he might like if not for that dastardly broccolini? Am I making my server’s life harder? I’ve never had a server act like this is a big deal, but I want to be on the side of the angels here. Thanks for helping a sister out.

Hold the Tuna, Please

Dear Tuna,

First off, all letter-writers should aspire to your level of humor and good-naturedness. Snaps for you. Secondly, where can I get the Ragin’ Cajun Mouth-afire Jamboree? It sounds up my alley.


When it comes to food substitutions or omissions, whether or not they’re a pain in the ass depends on how crucial an ingredient is to the overall dish, whether the chef is plating/preparing each dish individually, and how much the substitution would disrupt the kitchen’s efficiency. Like you mentioned, ordering a paella with no rice wouldn’t really make sense; nor would a ratatouille without tomatoes. And in the case of some dishes that might be prepared in large quantities all at once—the soup of the day, or a baked mac ‘n’ cheese—a kitchen might not be able to customize it for one person.

But if the request is as simple as “please just don’t put the pickle on my plate” or “please skip the hot sauce,” I can’t see why it would hurt to ask. I was out to dinner recently with some family, one of whom is pretty bland in her food choices. She wanted her chicken-and-zucchini pasta alfredo with no chicken and no zucchini; essentially, just pasta alfredo. She asked nicely, the server didn’t even blink before saying yes. Win-win. I don’t mind when customers ask for omissions—within reason, mind you—because the worst that can happen is the kitchen says they can’t do it, and the customer picks another dish. I’m always fine with asking the chefs, because it shifts the decision away from me and the customers know I’m at least asking on their behalf.

As for your husband’s point about the art, nay, the vision of a dish, I’m of two minds about this. If you’re at a Romano’s Macaroni Grill or a Buffalo Wild Wings or something, I don’t think you’d be deeply offending the kitchen by asking for no onions or pickles on the side. If you’re at a higher-end restaurant with artistic plating and luxury ingredients, substitutions or omissions might be less welcome. I’ve even seen menus that preempt your question with a “no substitutions” printed right on the page. (Someone out there will still ask to get the tuna salad with chicken instead, guaranteed.) Unless it’s very clear that the kitchen won’t accept substitutions, it can’t really hurt to ask, especially since you seem like pretty laid-back people who aren’t there to make a fuss or pout when you don’t get your way. Maybe phrase it like this: “Would the chef mind if I substituted X for Y? I’m really not a fan of Y. Please and thank you.”

Believe me, I’ve been asked a lot crazier shit than “Can I get the burger without tomatoes?” (Fellow servers, I know you feel me.) No, sweetpea, I cannot serve you chicken noodle soup sans noodles.

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Having worked both front and back I would say within reason they are fine and obviously the kitchen always has the option of saying no.

Brings me to the story of one particular customer to whom I served his last meal. This customer came in Friday nights at 5:30 and would always sit in smoking section (late 90s) and order a few scotches, smoke and enjoy a heavy end of week meal. He usually ordered substitutions or just not on menu things but we indulged him as he was a good regular customer. Well this one Friday he came in and I was the saute chef for the night along with a line cook and dishwasher. I had picked a special of lamb chops (the little kidney ones) with some Thai green curry and a jalapeno melon salsa with our standard ginger flavored basmati and veggies. Well our regular came in asked for the special sans the curry and salsa, prepared “black and blue” with the garlic yukon masked potatoes and no veggies. I gladly provided him his meal as requested with no issue as we had garlic yukon mashed for another menu item. (black and blue means charred on the outside but still cold red in the center, it requires high heat, a good amount of fat on the cut and/or butter).

Our regular guest consumed half his meal, taking the other half to go and after finishing his third scotch and a smoke pulled out of the back of the parking lot in his shit brown ford LTD sedan, crossing a 4 lane road partway before succumbing to a massive heart-attack that left him head first on the horn in the middle of the intersection.

He had no ID but the to-go container and meal led the cops back to our restaurant where we did indeed vouch for the identity of our regular, and that is how I prepared a man his last meal.