Is it time to say NO?

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Preview.jpgAt Le Manoir we always try to say Yes. That is the culture I have tried to instill in every member of my team - it's a rule-of-thumb that you never say No; and I am sure that's the reason for our success.

But a funny tea-cup-sized storm is brewing up in the New York food world, where customers have long asserted the "right" to order "off-menu". Now the restaurateurs are hitting back.

The New York Times has a wonderful picture of a sign in the window of "Zucco, Le French Diner" on Orchard Street: "No Ketchup" served with your burger; "No Bud" (Budweiser beer), "No Reservations", "No Zagat" - i.e., they don't want their customers to recommend or criticize them in the Zagat Guide.

In a BBC Today Programme interview on Wednesday, restaurant consultant Clark Wolf remembered an upmarket San Francisco restaurant that banned salt and pepper on the table. He said it went out of business after nine months.

That's old news to us. In the 1980s Nico Ladenis not only banned salt and pepper, he also wasn't keen on guests who ordered a gin and tonic before their meal. Marco Pierre White, too, kept the salt and pepper in the kitchen. Many of us have felt the urge to do the same. After all, we don't just try to get the seasoning of each dish right, we pride ourselves on getting it absolutely right - the way we designed it, just as we have arranged its appearance on the plate.

No chef likes to have his creations tampered with.  
But our business is to please our guests, and we  at Le Manoir were pioneers in several respects. First, we welcomed children in the dining room. I had to fight with many food critics and with some of the chefs over this, as it means cooking real food and preparing different dishes, and some just did not want to cook special food for kids. Second - as I have said several times on TV and in articles I've written, we welcome vegetarian guests. We don't just tolerate them, we cater for them - we were the first really ambitious, starred restaurant, 20 years ago, to create and offer six to eight new vegetarian dishes on the menu.  But this also entailed two or three new wage costs. Now about 12% of our guests say they are vegetarians. 
Catering for vegetarians is relatively easy. Nowadays the problem is the food allergies and intolerances to which so many guests alert us. Many guests say they cannot eat dairy foods, gluten or nuts. We all know how serious a mistake with respect to these can be - nut allergies  can be fatal. So to cope with these, many years ago, we had to put systems in place, and these have to be as foolproof as human beings can manage to make them.

We have to have total control over what goes on to a guest's plate. First of all this means good communications. From the moment we're told of a problem, the staff member must put it in writing, and see that the "no nuts"  or whatever alert goes in writing to every department: reception; housekeeping; front-of-house; the kitchen; patisserie; the afternoon staff (in case the guest orders afternoon tea; room service; the cookery school; and private dining. Special plates must be used, for example, so each staff member knows he is dealing with food for an allergic or food-intolerant guest.

Extreme hygiene must be practised by everyone. Anyone handling food not only has to wash his hands a minimum of eight times a day (in the presence of another person), but also has to make a written note of it. He must use special antibacterial products, which are so unkind to the skin that we have had to issue hand cream to the chefs!

All this constitutes a very delicate chain of command, and keeping each link intact is the stuff of nightmares (and panic attacks for Gary, Benoit and Mourad). We do it, but we're not professionals at this - we're not a hospital, we're merely a very good, very conscientious restaurant. We have been so successful at this that at least one person at 35% of our tables says he has some special food requirements. Because we're so good at catering for guests with special needs, we attract such guests! That must be why we have so many more food-intolerant guests than other establishments do. But we are struggling so hard to keep up with the increasing demand that it is making it more likely that we will someday make a mistake.

Now I'm beginning to have second thoughts.

I even wonder whether saying one has a food intolerance isn't a fashion-statement. An enormous number of "ladies who lunch" reel off special requirements to their waiters when they order. I sometimes think it just means: "I am different" or "I deserve special treatment".

Best practice means we treat every such request with complete seriousness and total attention, and I have no doubt that almost all such demands are motivated by a genuine belief that the intolerance exists. The damage we've done to the food supply chain by industrial farming might even be the cause of increased dietary problems.

However, at the height of service in our busy kitchen we can be preparing 100 orders and may have to alter as many as thirty of them to avoid meat products, dairy produce, gluten or nuts - or worse, the person who just doesn't fancy the dish as described and wants something changed. Thank goodness we have not reached the proportions of the problems the industry faces in America - but there is still always the threat of growing litigiousness.

Maybe we ought to ring-fence part of our menu, and say "these are the dishes we can change so as to ensure absolutely that they meet special dietary requirements". We're discussing this now with Gary, BenoƮt. Mourad and the rest of the team.

It's not the empathetic attitude Le Manoir stands for today - but maybe it's the stance we'll be forced to adopt. What do you think?  Should we always say YES?

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