Like many former restaurant servers, I have a lot of memories of customers who were almost too impossibly difficult to deal with. I try not to think of them. I learned, over the years, to become more tolerant to the customers who insisted on customizing their dinners with a lot of substitutions: "Can I have half-chicken and half-beef with my pasta instead of just chicken? Can it have green peppers instead of red? Can you make it with ricotta instead of parmesan?"
As a server, I frankly didn't care if the customers asked for the moon instead of red sauce. What I did care about was the kitchen crew screaming at me because making a lot of custom substitutions on the line was time-consuming - particularly on a busy weekend night - and often required upgrading the cost of the dish. There's a good reason why "No substitutions" is frequently seen on modern menus. You want a complicated custom-made dish? Make it yourself at home.
One thing I never experienced, in all those years, was a customer handing me a list of requirements and a bag of pasta and insisting I have the kitchen prepare their meals to their exact specifications. I've known chefs and managers who have kicked patrons out of the dining room for less serious infractions.
And that brings me to a recent fracas in New Jersey involving a vegan couple claiming to have been cheated by a restaurant after they brought their own whole wheat pasta to the restaurant and were not given a discount on their tab. New York Magazine headlined its report on the story "Are These the World's Worst Restaurant Customers?"
In a word: No. But they were clearly in the wrong. It wasn't that their demands were outrageous, but they were unreasonable. Not so much requiring that the kitchen use their own pasta - an inexpensive supermarket variety, by the way - but the printed listed of instructions and the fact that they were using a coupon. I would have suggested that the couple go home and cook their own damn meal.
I couldn't help wondering what a local owner of an Italian restaurant would do in this instance. So I called Jasper Mirabile, Jr., the executive chef and co-owner of Jasper's Restaurant. Customers bringing in their own birthday cakes and bottles of wine have long been a touchy subject for Jasper and his brother Leonard.
"Well, the Kansas City Health Department has certain restrictions on patrons bringing in their own ingredients or even food from other venues," says Jasper Mirabile. "If it's a packaged pasta, it might be allowed, but since we already offer gluten-free pasta and whole wheat pasta, we would have to charge extra to use a brand that we don't carry.
"It's a complicated story. Obviously, we don't charge for a cup of hot water for customers who bring in a special tea or dietary beverage. But we wouldn't permit a customer to come in with his or her own steak and ask us to cook it or their own bottle of wine. We sell steaks and have our own wine list. If you want to bring in your own ingredients and tell me how to prepare them - why am I even here? This is how I make a living. Would you bring your own paints to an artist and say, 'Paint in my style, not yours, and use my paints?' That's not right."
Colby Garrelts, the co-owner of Bluestem and Rye, says that when he started his Kansas City career in the long-closed Stolen Grill in Westport, "a customer would come in with fresh morels and foraged foods and unusual fish and asked us to cook it for him. Reluctantly, we did it. I wouldn't do it now. I even have problems with customers bringing in birthday cakes from other bakeries. My wife is a pastry chef! It's like someone walking into Starbucks and bringing in their own blend of coffee and asking the barista to brew it. People don't understand that it's insulting to restaurateurs to bring in food or ingredients."
Beth Barden, chef and owner of Succotash, says that if a patron came in with his or her own ingredients and instructions for preparing a meal, "I'd be happy to do it as they wanted. But I'd have to charge accordingly."
"If you're going out to eat in Kansas City," says Barden, "you have a myriad of dining choices and you want to have the experience - the skill and talent of the chef, the ambiance of the restaurant, the different choices on the menu - why pay an additional charge to have something you can make yourself at home?