Tuesday, October 23, 2007

More Restaurant Etiquette- Requesting a Recipe

Hello Meg, I have a question for you regarding restaurant etiquette. Last weekend, my boyfriend and I stopped in for lunch at a lovely Italian restaurant on the Sunshine Coast in Australia. As we were finishing the waiter came around and asked us how we liked our meal. My boyfriend jokingly asked if we could have the recipe of my entree because we'd both loved it so much. The waiter said, sure, he'd ask the chef. When he came back a few moments later he said that the chef was touchy about sharing his recipes and said no. My question is, what is the normal etiquette in this scenario? Supposing we were quite serious about asking for the recipe (we weren't really) - should we have even asked? Were we being rude just for asking? And is it normal for chefs to be protective of their work like this? Thanks for your help :-) Sasha

Hi Sasha! I've given some thought to your question, and I think you acted completely appropriately in the situation. It's a compliment to the chef that you enjoyed your meal enough to want to re-create it yourself, so I don't think it's rude at all to ask such a question. If you'd gotten angry and demanded to have the recipe, you would've been out of line, but it sounds like you were very polite when the waiter said he had a policy about not sharing his recipes.

I read a lot of food blogs and bloggers often mention getting recipes because they asked for the recipe at restaurants (these aren't celebrity bloggers, just normal people). If you're at a well-known restaurant, there might be a cookbook available with the recipe which you can purchase. Other times, chefs have given recipes to local newspapers or magazines. It certainly never hurts to ask.

I think the main reason that a chef would say "no" to a request like yours is because the kitchen is so busy that he doesn't have time to write down elaborate instructions. Or, the dish might involve kitchen tools and appliances unavailable to home chefs. But I don't think it's rude or inappropriate to ask if he or she is willing to share, just as long as you're respectful of his decision not to.

One thing I often do if I've really enjoyed a restaurant meal is to go home and do a Google search for recipes. I've had good experiences finding recipes that are very similar, if not exactly the same, to the dishes I've loved at restaurants.

I thought I'd throw out your question to other readers, particularly those who've worked in restaurants. Is requesting a recipe an impolite gesture? Do chefs ever give out their recipes?


Anonymous said...

I agree with you about the kitchen being busy. I worked in restaurants waitressing part and full time from when I was 16-21. Usually it's so hectic and busy and crazy in the back (kitchen) that if we get requests like that and ask the chef(s) they'll just dismiss us. Not is a rude way, just because it's so busy that they can't really deal with that at that moment. I'm sure if it were quieter they'd be more willing but saying that, I don't know of any chefs nice enough to write out whole recipes for people anyway!

laura said...

I think that it would be rude to demand a recipe, or argue AT ALL with a "No" answer.

I have seen it happen where someone in my party asked for a recipe or cooking technique and the chef came out to the table, thanked us, and politely avoided answering the question. Then I have seen them come out and give a quick verbal of something. And, I have seen them refer you to a book, website, or other source for more info. I have NEVER seen them write out a recipe.
My husband graduated from culinary school and was a catering chef. We never gave explicit recipes to clients, but we did sometimes point them in a direction. I have seen my husband demonstrate something to the client (like oyster shucking or how we got a nice sear on a scallop.) As the person doing set up, I have always showed the client how I did something she liked. But, of course, if they have hired a caterer then you are providing much more than a specific recipe or method of setting up a buffet. The service itself is a big part of the product (they didn't want to be cooking and serving the guests for a reason that won't go away just because they learn how to do it themselves.)
My husband's chef friends with their own restaurants don't like to give recipes out but don't mind discussing the dishes or their product sources with guests. But I wouldn't expect them to actually give you the recipe per se. It is their trade secret, after all.
Best recent example in my experience-- I had a fabulous crab cake and my husband asked the waitress what it was that was taking it so over the top? She didn't know, but the chef came out and told us where he buys his crab and that he uses Smithfield ham in the cakes. That was enough info to get us started on concocting our own, but not enough to actually replicate something he put a lot of effort into perfecting.

laura said...

More-- on my comment... my husband asked a chef friend at our favorite recipe how to make my favorite dish because he wanted to surprise me for my birthday. That chef told him the who to and the general what, and told him he could swing by the restaurant and pick up the seasoning in a bag-- he didn't want to tell him exactly what he used. My husband thought that a little odd but not rude. (The dish turned out good but not exactly the same-- probably because the restaurant simply gets better product than we can for home.)

Sunday said...

I've worked as a professional baker and chef, and though situations with the recipe might change in different scenarios (more on that in a moment), one thing remains the same: it is always okay to ask, provided you do so politely. If a chef or waitstaff is offended that you asked then in my opinion they are out of line.

Whether or not you're given the recipe is another matter entirely. We often had recipes that we were glad to share (because they were simple or obvious). We also had regular clients that we were happy to share to (because we liked them - another thing that good conversation and good tipping buys you). However, there was the occasional "secret" recipe.

Recipies cannot be copyrighted or protected under law, and if a restaurant -- or in my case, a bakery -- has a solid gold item that many other joints in town would like, well then, you'd better keep your mouth shut. People would often ask for recipes as the bakery and we would joke back with them "But we have to keep you coming back!" Occasionally someone would be a jerk about it by pushing or cajoling, and I can guarantee you that that will never, ever work. It only seals my conviction.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the above comments, with the addition that, at the restaurant I waited in for a few years, the onion rings were extremely popular. The management had written up the recipe and gladly gave it out; few people, I think, are willing to prepare a buttermilk batter and a vat of melted lard just to make a few o-rings, so they probably didn't lose much business.

My point (really, there is one) is that perhaps a manager is a better person to ask for recipes at some restaurants; also, that during the day is often an easier time to talk to them or chefs. They can say "no" because they mean it, vs. because there's a large party coming in and a server went home ill and oh my god why is that order so late. Or whatever.

Anonymous said...

actually i worked at a restaurant where it was absolutely forbidden to give out recipes and that was one of the few things you were immediately fired for!

Alex said...

There's a whole section in Bon Appetite devoted to responding to readers' inquiries on restaurant dish recipes. Folks could always try that avenue! I'm sure the magazine has an easier time getting recipes (as long as they're not "secret").

Anonymous said...

What food blogs do you read? I read a few on occasion but I would love to find some more!

Meg said...

Anonymous: Oh my, do I love food blogs! Here's a list of my favorites (stolen from my Google Reader list):

101 Cookbooks
A Mingling of Tastes
Beurre et Pain
Chocolate & Zucchini
Coconut & Lime
Cream Puffs in Venice
David Lebovitz
New York Times Diner's Journal
Ed Levine Eats
everybody likes sandwiches
New York Magazine Grub Street
Milk and Cookies
Not Eating Out in New York
Simply Recipes
Smitten Kitchen
The Amateur Gourmet

If I had to pick favorites, I'd list the last 4 (Orangette-Amateur Gourmet). If you're a fan of great food writing and photography or love cooking, I guarantee you'll be a fan of these.


Tokyo Scene said...

I worked part time at a small, southern restaurant and one of the things I thought unique was that because all of the dishes were very basic or "home-made" the chef there never hesitated to give out recipes!

The regulars seemed to always come back for the conversation and environment that the restaurant provided, along with the good food, that there never seemed to be any fear of customers leaving or recipes spreading to neighboring cafes.

Perhaps because the establishment was tiny and the chef frequently came out to talk with the guests it created a place that was easy to nab good recipes from during low-hours. I certainly took a few home with me.

Also, just wanted to say: great blog! I found it a few months ago and have really enjoyed a lot of your articles.

Anonymous said...

I knew a wee-to-do woman who asked a baker for a recipe for her favorite delicacy -- an unusual "signature" item. She told him that she "couldn't afford" to keep buying it.

(This was an excellent bakery in an upscale area, but there was nothing particularly pricey about the goods.)

He thought about it for a few minutes, and then went into the back and returned with a recipe. The version he gave her was for a huge quantity, and, as it turned out, wasn't very scalable.

I thought that was a pretty clever way to handle a really pushy -- and, let's face it, rude -- customer.

Anonymous said...

Uhhh . . . that would be "well-to-do" woman.

Anonymous said...

As a former restaurant cook and current personal caterer, I have run into the recipe request a few times. Often I am happy to tell (though sometimes the terrific dish was the result of a last-minute disaster and alteration which makes it a little tricky to describe-- "first, slightly curdle the sauce, try to rescue it with an immersion blender and some melted butter...how much butter? well, enough to smooth the..."), but on one occasion the recipe was one quietly entrusted to me by an older lady who wanted it to be preserved in safe hands. Only once did I give in to pleading over that recipe; it was later served to me by the woman I had relented towards--practically "raped" by the addition of extra flavorings, and this woman was so pleased with her 'improvements' [her term]. I have never given away that recipe again. Maybe I'll find someone someday who has proved that he will respect the source material enough to be trusted with it. Until then, it is disrespectful to the original cook to have someone serving some bastardization as "Mrs. Anon's X".
In the end, a chef may fear having some travesty served with his good name (and reputation) attached.