Why You Should Never Order White Truffles in Restaurants

On the surface, people who sell white truffles to restaurants aren’t quite the merchants of luxury one might expect. No Rolex watches, no Cartier jewelry. They fly under the radar like undercover cops or the neighborhood weed dealer. It isn’t unusual to see them dressed down, in sports caps and hoodies, nonchalantly wheeling around their nuggets of buried treasure in carry-on luggage like doe-eyed tourists who fly Spirit Airlines.

Their contraband is meticulously sealed in airtight containers to ensure no truffle aromas might seep out and blow their cover. When you’re shlepping around tens of thousands of dollars of rare earth candy, it’s unwise to make a spectacle of yourself. Unlike most business deals between chefs and their purveyors, the anonymous exchange of truffles for money is shady af.

Oddly, it’s difficult to authenticate the provenance of truffles, which adds to their mystique. Even though you’d expect that chefs would insist on buying the genuine article, the truffle industry lacks a proper ombudsman in the way that consortiums govern Italian wine production with A.O.C designations or Italian cheeses are assigned to a specific D.O.P. Truffles trade on trust.

This means there is always a chance that you’re being sold truffles advertised as from Alba that are actually from Slovenia or Istria, among the very few other places in the world that have soils conducive to unearthing these wild little tubers. White truffles cannot be cultivated. Nature decides for herself where they randomly spore, and she doesn’t make them easy to find.

Provenance aside, the most important reason you shouldn’t order them in a restaurant is freshness. Assuming you aren’t sitting over a bowl of fresh tagliatelle in a restaurant in Piedmont, the truffle you’re eating is likely well past its prime. While the importation of white truffles has become more efficient through the years, they’re still among the most highly perishable agricultural products. Even the most fastidiously preserved white truffle will have lost most of its potency within just a few days.

White Truffles

Chefs in upscale restaurant must front thousands of dollars to put truffles on their menus and sales can be very erratic and inconsistent. Unlike other products chefs would dispose of when spoilage is an issue, they’ll do anything possible to usurp old inventory of truffles before serving the freshest ones. They’ll never admit they do it, but they do. Chefs love serving truffles because they’re a profit machine that requires little effort. Buy them, shave them and overcharge.

Sommeliers in high-end restaurants face a similar predicament when opening expensive trophy bottles. If they perceive that certain wines may be slightly off or borderline, they may try to serve them anyway hoping that the guest will not object. Wholesale cost on an $800 bottle that was purchased by auction five years ago cannot be recouped.

All of this means that the truffles on your hundred dollar pasta dish are likely not the freshest ones the chef has in the kitchen. If the aroma is flat or newspapery, you’ve been suckered. Of course, all chefs aren’t guilty of compromising their standards. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to know which kitchens are trustworthy and which aren’t.

The best way to avoid being served inferior truffles is to dine at restaurants that do more volume. The more they cycle through product, the fresher they’ll be. But it’s never guaranteed. Chefs prefer to buy larger quantities of truffles to get better pricing. That can lead to an unwanted surplus when sales lag behind expectations.

Beware the bait and switch. You might see sexy “show truffles” on display, filling the dining room with their musky smell but those will often not be the same ones the chef is shaving over your dish. Ask your servers if the truffle will be shaved table-side. If they say no, insist they do. Politely ask to smell the truffle beforehand. If its aroma is not potent when you smell it, its flavor wont be when they shave it over your food. Remember, generously covering a dish with shavings of an old truffle will only make it taste more like an old truffle.

Good Food Isn’t Good Enough Anymore

good food

I met a friend for dinner recently at a new Italian restaurant that was getting a lot of buzz. When we arrived for an early reservation, the bar was full and the decor was predictably minimalist and modern. It was the kind of restaurant that made you feel like you’ve been there before even though you hadn’t. The silhouettes in the bar area made it almost impossible to read the tiny font of the menu. Maybe it was the shadowy light, but the cocktail glasses looked sad and shrunken, struggling mightily to make a two-ounce pour look generous.

Delicate handmade pastas were flying out of the kitchen while we sipped on our Campari-less Negronis and waited for our meal to begin. We were surrounded on all sides by privileged millennials slugging back overpriced Rosé. As the parade of delicious pastas arrived to our table—Vongole, Ravioli, Rabbit Ragú—there was a sameness about the whole affair that didn’t feel as special as it did twenty years ago when nobody knew what the hell burrata was and everyone thought salumi was a misspelling. The food was good, but it felt like a meal I’d eaten a hundred times before.

Americans used to be ignorant about food. We’re still ignorant about many things—politics, climate change, soccer—but not about food anymore. Our newfound worldliness is a blessing and a curse. We expect more from restaurants but it takes more to satisfy us. Cooking comfort food has become too comfortable.

good food

This puts chefs in a difficult predicament. Delighting guests that are more food literate can cause restaurants to prioritize innovation over flavor. As they push harder for new discoveries, their kitchens become more experimental but they inevitably function more like sterile laboratories than as incubators for culinary creativity.

Satisfying more discerning guests also puts undue pressure on the front-of-the-house to entertain. Staying out of guests’ way used to be a feature of attentive service, now it may be perceived as negligence. Table-side shtick makes service feel more like busking, unapologetically drenching guests in manufactured charm lest anyone forget to leave cash in the guitar case on their way out.

I recently dined at a new restaurant reinforced these ideas. The food was quite good and the kitchen hit all its marks, but it felt uninspired somehow. The obligatory Sashimi style raw fish appetizer—stripped naked of its Asian roots—was Anglicized and safe. The compulsory pan-seared rhombus of farm-raised white fish sounded as fresh as a bottle of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio in the early 90’s. A vegetarian dish, blatantly pandering, headlined the entrees but even vegetarians would probably swipe left on its predictable presentation.

Many articles have appeared lately about the “New Nostalgia” that has seen the resurrection of relics of America’s culinary past like the gaudy pomp and circumstance of Chrome trolleys carrying Prime Rib and Flinstonian slabs of Chateaubriand buttered up and sizzling on Mauviel copper pans. It would seem that once certain chefs run out of fertile new ideas or futuristic flavor combinations, nostalgic cooking becomes a convenient style to fallback on.

Perhaps some diners, too, long for the days when chefs didn’t exist to challenge our palates; they were there to simply feed us. There will always be a segment of the population that wishes we could “Make Restaurants Great Again.” But as with American politics in the Trump Era, yearning for yesteryear causes us to build more walls than bridges and too easily forget just how far we’ve come.

Your Restaurant Meals Are Getting Shorter and There’s Nothing You Can Do About It

So many restaurant meals begin like this: You’ve barely even glanced at the cocktail menu before an anxious server approaches the table and asks if you have any questions.

“Could you give us a minute?”

“Sure, sure… take your time.”

Moments later, before you’ve even had a chance to open the menu, a suited staff member, presumably a sommelier or manager, asks if you’d like to order drinks or have any questions about the wine list. Fearing another intrusion, you obligingly order drinks.

After the waiter delivers the cocktails, he recites the specials and asks if you need any help or if you’re ready to order. You haven’t even had a sip of your drink and he’s already badgering you into making menu decisions.

“Sorry, we haven’t looked yet,” you say, summoning as much compassion as you can muster without showing you’re annoyed by his pestering.

“I’m so sorry,” the waiter apologizes nervously, “I’ll can give you some more time.” He stands uncomfortably close to the table glaring at you and pounces like a bobcat the moment you put down your menus.

This scene probably sounds hauntingly familiar to anyone who dines out a lot. As the industry struggles to combat shrinking margins by increasing cover counts, restaurant meals are getting shorter. Input costs—food, labor, rents—are skyrocketing and raising prices is always a last resort.

The only way for many restaurants to protect their profits in today’s challenging economy is to go faster. Allowing guests to dictate the pace of their meals is a luxury of yesteryear and most casual places can’t afford to relinquish the steering wheel anymore.

Even in the busiest restaurants, management has had to find creative ways to minimize turn times. Waitstaff are browbeaten nightly prior to their shifts about the urgent need to expedite table turns. In popular restaurants, the need to turn tables is often emphasized over the basic tenets of hospitality. Excellence is still expected, it’s just expected faster.

Maitre’ds, who are responsible for seating everyone punctually, have become merciless toward incomplete parties and tardy guests. If they seat latecomers or an incomplete party, there will be likely be rigid conditions attached for returning the table at a particular time.

restaurant meals

Busy restaurants often aggressively over-book to account for no-shows and last minute cancellations. Many parties with prime time reservations will be given earlier slots even though the restaurant knows it’s unlikely they’ll be seated on time.

Getting more people through the door often requires making false promises. It also necessitates swiftly turning, if not flat out rushing, the first tranche of tables to seat the second and third wave of reservations on time. Talk to any restaurant manager about their priorities and, if they’re being honest, almost everyone will admit it’s turning tables.

As a result, hospitality norms have eroded out of necessity. Our primary focus used to be on making you happy, now we’re focused on making you happy in a shorter period of time. If you’re eating slowly, the kitchen may send your main courses before the appetizers have been cleared. Busboys are more likely to hover like vultures around your table, looking to clear your plates at the precise moment you take your last bite.

There’s a good chance the check will arrive without your asking. Didn’t that used to be rude? Once taboo, managers have also become less gun shy about asking lingering parties to vacate (though they will usually extend an olive branch, like buying everyone drinks at the bar).

If you choose to abuse the power to stay as long as you like, there may be consequences. Developing a reputation for habitually lingering (we call it “camping”) may negatively influence your ability to make reservations in the future. Most restaurants with computerized reservation systems have notes on your profile where they log your tendencies.

Of course the restaurant values your business, but it just doesn’t value yours as much as a guest who also respects the parameters of a normal table turn. People always like to think restaurants are democracies, but they are not. Restaurants are meritocracies. Because they are private businesses, favoritism may exist when it protects the bottom line.

All restaurants make an effort to treat every guest equally. But, as a guest, you have endless opportunities to distinguish yourself. The more loyalty you show to a restaurant, for example, the more leeway you’ll be given for dictating the pace of your meal. Extending that courtesy to everyone can be crippling to revenue and upsetting to other guests who are seated late because of it.

Rather than making demands about slowing down your restaurant meals or holding the table hostage, make an effort to work within the restaurant’s parameters. Showing awareness of the need to return the table is guaranteed to make the staff more gracious toward you. If you’re finished your meal but don’t want to leave, politely ask someone if they could find space for you at the bar for after dinner drinks.

Whether you like it or not, the best catalyst for enthusiastic service is always spending more money. Once you stop buying things in a restaurant, your entitlement to occupying the table expires. Management always does it’s best to extend courtesy to everyone dining to give them as much time as possible to enjoy their experience but, like everything, there are limits.

Restaurants serve as communal spaces, but the seat you’ve procured doesn’t belong to you. Staying seated in it for a long time is a privilege not a right, and, as the restaurant industry struggles to serve our communities, we ought to respect that more. Otherwise, our favorite restaurants may start disappearing sooner than we think.