There’s No Such Thing as Medium Rare “Plus”

steak temperatures

Classic French cooking approaches steak temperatures with a simple elegance. There are four basic ways the French order steak. Bleu means very rare, quickly seared on each side. Saignant, literally meaning bloody, is a bit more cooked than bleu, but still quite rare. À Point implies “perfectly cooked” (the closest to our Medium Rare) and Bien Cuit, well done. The French don’t fuss with superfluous language around ordering meat; you like your steak one way or the other. The behavior is anchored in a tradition of respect for the chef’s expertise and deference to the talent in the kitchen.

Americans aren’t able to speak so abstractly about cooking meat and are more suspicious of the chef’s faculties. To make steak temperatures more scrutable, restaurants (with the blessing of the USDA) devised a vernacular to help diners better understand the different gradations of doneness. The approach is rather dogmatic with five concrete meat temperatures, now ubiquitous: Rare, Medium Rare, Medium, Medium Well and Well Done. Restaurant chefs have adhered to this scale for generations but they are a constant source of headaches for hospitality professionals. No matter how streamlined these guidelines have become, there will always be differences in perception around how we should define them.

Today’s diners are becoming increasingly nuanced about how they like their meat cooked. As palates become more sophisticated, defining proper meat temperatures has evolved into a significantly more complicated conversation. It’s disturbingly common to hear guests request “plus” temperatures, meaning they want their meat cooked a shade in between two standard ones. “Medium Rare Plus” implies they like their steak cooked a little more than Medium Rare but not quite Medium. Unfortunately, most restaurant kitchens are too busy to handle this level of specificity.

steak temperatures

Trying to make guests happy who order their meat cooked outside of the standard spectrum can drive servers—and chefs—to madness. If we insist that guests adhere to the accepted scale, we increase the likelihood that they’ll send their food back. If they’re unhappy with the finished product, they’ll blame us for not making enough of an effort to understand their preferences. If we allow them to order fabricated steak temperatures that don’t exist, we must face the rage of an ornery chef who bristles at anything that strays outside of protocol. As with many hospitality conundrums, we’re always caught between a rock and a hard place. 

A restaurant kitchen isn’t an artist’s studio; it’s a factory. As a guest, you have a responsibility to understand that not every element of your dining experience is customizable. When you dine in a restaurant, you are enjoying plates or food that were engineered to be efficiently served simultaneously to a dining room full of hungry people. Expecting your initials monogrammed on every dish shows a lack of respect for the orderliness that is necessary for a cohesively functioning kitchen.

If waiters could somehow escort every guest who ordered “Medium Rare Plus” into the sweltering kitchen to explain to the grill cook how they like their steak, not a soul would ever ask for it that way again. The power that many guests feel when it comes to the peculiarities of cooking their food is in the luxury of not having to deal with the shame of facing the sweaty cook who’s making it. Good guests won’t abuse that power. 

Don’t Sabotage Your Restaurant Experience

The initial moments of your restaurant experience can set the tone for the entire meal and you should be mindful of your role in making those moments successful. There are some common pitfalls you can avoid that might injure your relationship with a restaurant staff. Having your server on your side from the beginning will pay dividends when you need something. Cultivating that relationship is a worthwhile investment and you should start earning capital the moment you sit down. Remember: Your server is an advocate for your needs. Spoiling that relationship at any point is not in your best interest. Here are some common mistakes people make that sour their rapport with servers:

Ignoring the Waiter’s Greeting – When your server says hello, he or she is also gauging the temperature of the table. Are you friendly and enthusiastic? Do you seem to want service to play a smaller or larger role in your dining experience? If you seem unfriendly or disinterested (even if it’s not intentional), you risk the server misreading your distraction as ambivalence. Stop whatever you’re doing (for god’s sake get off your damn cellphone) and take a moment to say hello. It will make a big difference in the server’s attitude toward you going forward. 

Rejecting Your Seating Assignment – It’s impossible for every guest to be happy with their table. Some tables are nearer to speakers, some are closer to the air conditioning vents. No table is perfect. Maitre’ds and hosts do their best to seat guests where they are most comfortable, but it can be a very complicated puzzle when parties arrive late or show up in larger or smaller groups. When you walk into a restaurant and immediately start picking furniture, the staff is watching and branding you a difficult guest before you’ve even said a word.

Declaring “We Haven’t Even Looked” at the Menu – You may not like being pestered to order quickly but busy restaurants have time constraints for each booking. Part of a restaurant’s business model is moving tables along as quickly as possible while preserving excellent service. If you put yourself in an adversarial role because you refuse to order in a timely fashion you are unnecessarily casting yourself as an enemy. It’s acceptable to want to slow down, but it’s better to politely ask for more time than to sound like you’re protesting against being rushed. 

Bad Restaurant Behavior

Soliciting the WiFi Password – Restaurants don’t owe you internet service. If they offer it, it’s usually advertised. But if it’s really so important to be connected, ask the server if the restaurant has WiFi after you’re ordered food and drinks not right away. Waitstaff, understandably, can get frustrated serving smartphone zombies all night. It’s a pain in the ass trying to get people’s attention who are constantly on their phones. If you immediately ask for WiFi when you sit down, you’ve become just another zombie. 

Asking Your Waiter’s Name – Guests wrongly think that asking the server his or her name is a way of restoring humanity to the servant/recipient relationship. Tactfully executed, sometimes it can. But when guests ask servers to introduce themselves it can often feel like they need the server to be a puppet. Waiters don’t like when guests invade their personal space and sometimes coming on too strong right off the bat with your need for an introduction is a turn-off. If you need to be on a first name basis, wait until you have a more established relationship with your server before you ask his or her name. 

Making Unnecessary Demands About Water – Of course, you are entitled to your water served however you like but being demanding about the first thing you ask for suggests you can be high maintenance. Asking for water with no ice, lemons on the side, hot water with lemon or bottled water at room temperature may be important to you but understand that doing so may alienate your server. Try to keep your water service simple or ask for modifications later after you’ve already ordered your meal. 

Requesting Bread Before You’ve Ordered – Restaurants will often withhold bread service until you’ve ordered for the obvious reason that you’ll probably order less if you’re filling up on bread. As input costs rise, many restaurants have done away with bread service altogether or charge for it.  If a restaurant sends complementary bread, it’s usually as a courtesy and should be treated as such. If you’re really that hungry, order. 

Helpful Hints For Communicating Your Food Allergies

Researchers concluded in a recent study of food allergies that in the U.S. the number of adults who think they have a food allergy is double the amount that really do. The study determined that 19% of adults think they have a food allergy yet only 10% of the population actually have one. Though some might find these results eye-opening, they come as no surprise to anyone who works in restaurants. In fact, the study confirms what most of us have known all along: that a significant portion of the dining public, whether intentionally or not, misrepresent their dietary restrictions.

Twenty years ago, restaurant menus were written with very little concern for food intolerances. You had the occasional nut allergy, or nut job, and maybe a few scattered lactose-intolerant teenagers. Once in awhile, someone on Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig might ask you to prepare their food without butter or an elderly person with high blood pressure might ask you to go easy on the salt. Life was a lot simpler back then. 

Today, chefs have little choice but to plan their menus around the dizzying number of food trends—gluten-free, dairy-free, Vegan, Paleo, Keto, low-carb, raw foods. Menu items are designed to be retro-fitted to the nuances of endless dietary preferences. Our guests’ rapidly changing eating habits create many challenges for front and back of house. Interacting with guests who have special dietary needs has become a much more complex conversation. To make this interaction go a little more smoothly, here are EIGHT ways to better engage waitstaff when communicating food allergies in restaurants:

Don’t apologize – Food allergies are common these days so you have no reason to feel that calling attention to yours is an imposition. There are occasions when it’s challenging for servers to deal with the subleties of your diet, so show a little patience. As long as you aren’t embellishing, though, you have no reason to be asking anyone’s forgiveness. Profusely apologizing never feels genuine to servers and you risk coming across like you say the same thing every time you dine out. Servers are very busy, so cut to the chase. The more direct you are about your allergies, the easier it is for them to understand what information they should be conveying to the kitchen.

Never expect restaurants to know more about your food allergies than you do – Restaurants go to great lengths to educate their staff about the menu, but we are not medical professionals or nutritionists. Chefs often use ingredients they buy from third parties and it’s unrealistic to expect them to know if every one of these products is safe for you to eat. If we don’t make these things in our kitchen, we cannot be certain of what’s in them. When you are unfamiliar with an ingredient, it’s fine to ask “What is farro?” but don’t expect servers to authoritatively answer when you ask “Is farro safe if I can’t have gluten?” You should educate yourself about these ingredients rather than relying on servers and chefs who may not have the same expertise about certain allergens. If anything feels like a risk, order something else. 

Never conflate dietary preferences with serious food allergies – Your deciding to go Vegan for the first two weeks in February shouldn’t bring a busy kitchen to a grinding halt while your sever interrupts the chef to have a ten minute conversation about the contents of every dish you ordered. Too often, when guests overstate their dietary preferences, it leads to a much more exhaustive inquiry than is necessary. It’s maddening to waiters when they jump through hoops to protect people from an ingredient like butter, ask the chef to make all of their food without it, then if one dish can’t be made without butter, they say “Oh, a little butter is fine.”

Don’t use phony allergies to manipulate changes to the menu – The script is always the same: A guest asks for something to be changed initially and then—when the answer is no—claims to be allergic to an ingredient in the dish they don’t like. This is usually followed by a tantrum about how unfair it is that the restaurant won’t accommodate people’s food allergies. Credibility is important if you want people serving you to take your dietary restrictions seriously. We don’t take food allergies lightly so don’t play games. You might get what you want but not without branding yourself a troublemaker.

Notify your server of your allergies before you order – Food is routinely sent back when diners assume that because an ingredient wasn’t printed on the menu that the dish must not contain it. It’s ultimately your responsibility to tell your server when you place the order so that he can confirm your safety with the kitchen. Even better, when you make a reservation include dietary restrictions on your guest notes (either when you book online or by phone). Do not think you’re being difficult. Returning food in the middle of your meaI is far more difficult than having a brief conversation about your allergies with your server when you first sit down. 

Be clear about the severity of your allergic reaction – Not all food allergies are created equally. Garlic giving you gas is not the same as someone going into anaphylactic shock from eating peanuts. A guest recently put an Epi-pen on the table to make sure his server understood the seriousness of his shellfish allergy. It was a little melodramatic, but he definitely got his point across. Servers can become complacent as people frequently exaggerate their dietary restrictions. Making the severity of your allergy clear in the language that you use (“It’s life-threatening” or “I can get very sick from cross-contamination” ) will hopefully circumvent any risk of complacency. Your server may be annoyed, but they definitely don’t want someone dying at their table.

Don’t expect that every dish on the menu can be made to accommodate your diet – Many ingredients on the menu are prepared in advance. If mushrooms have already been sautéed in butter beforehand and you are intolerant of dairy, do not expect the kitchen to stop what they are doing to slice and sauté a separate batch of raw mushrooms in olive oil for you. The server will politely offer to remove the mushrooms and you should be agreeable or, if that’s not what you want, consult with the server and order something else.

Restaurants don’t owe you anything just because you have an allergy – You should never expect a restaurant kitchen to behave like your home kitchen. Try cooking for a hundred different people in your home and see how much time you have to tailor the food you make to everyone’s unique dietary needs. Most chefs do the best they can to accommodate dietary restrictions within the confines of a commercial kitchen. Respect that.