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.

When Saying “No” is Not An Option

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An ornery guest who dined at one of my tables recently sent a surly email to the restaurant when she noticed after the fact that a market price item on her bill was more expensive than she expected. She claimed in her email that the server (me) had neglected to inform tell her price of the dish and, therefore, felt entitled to some form of reparation.

When the management team approached me with her grievance, I assured them with absolute certainty that I did quote the price. The trouble was that the woman complaining wasn’t the person who ordered the market price item. Her husband did, and she may not have overheard our conversation about the price. Our staff is always careful with market price items to avoid sticker shock. I distinctly remember reviewing the market prices for all the dishes on the menu when he inquired about the dish he eventually ordered. 

It’s not unusual in the service industry for customers to contact the restaurant with improbable stories about the staff’s incompetence. Sadly, those calls vastly outnumber the ones that lavish praise. When guests have a dispute, management handles them with kid gloves. Defending the staff only fans the flames, so we use whatever tools we have at our disposal to put out the fire, even when we suspect them of arson. 

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For management, defending employees against guest complaints is a Catch 22. Even when we know we’re right, It feels inhospitable to prioritize our version of the events over theirs. In cases like these, it comes down to he said/she said and it’s a usually a no-win situation for the restaurant. When diffusing guest complaints, we always take the path of least resistance. There’s an old adage that a happy guest will tell five of their friends but an unhappy one will tell one hundred.

After she continued insisting that I had neglected to quote the price, the restaurant folded its hand. In her subsequent emails, she claimed to have spoken with her husband and he didn’t recall my telling him the price. It may be true that he didn’t remember but that doesn’t mean I never told him. In the end, much to my chagrin, management refunded her the full price of the dish. But I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised. 

The restaurant business is all about giving pleasure and sometimes we have to swallow our pride to give our guests the pleasure of being right.

But, in doing so, we also set a perilous precedent that invites buyer’s remorse as long people plead their case with conviction. Reinforcing guests’ behavior in this way can extend to other scenarios where recompense is expected: Sending back food they’ve eaten but claim they didn’t like, deciding halfway through a bottle of wine that the wine is off or complaining after the meal that a server manipulated them into ordering more food than they needed. Servers are trained to preempt these maneuvers, but it’s impossible to eliminate them altogether. 

When conflicts with guests arise, restaurants focus on damage control regardless whether there is any merit to the complaint. With the power that social media platforms give individuals to spread misinformation, our alleged crimes never go to trial. One spiteful guest can permanently scar a restaurant’s reputation and that forces restaurateurs run their businesses from a place of fear. The result is that the industry has inadvertently empowered dissatisfied guests to exploit our fecklessness to get their way. That’s what happens when saying yes is the only acceptable answer. 

Taking No For An Answer

All restaurant workers have at some point been innocent victims of irate guests who can’t get what they want. Dealing with the fallout from having to say no may be the most consistent and nerve-wracking part of working in the service industry. It’s the root of the majority of customer complaints. You wanted something, and we wouldn’t do it. These misguided feelings arise from the idealism of the American consumer—who has always been taught that paying “hard-earned” money for goods and services entitles you to have everything your way. If a restaurant refuses to meet your demands then you can simply take your appetite elsewhere.

While it’s true that all guests deserve to be treated hospitably, people’s demands are often unreasonable and they have a tendency to communicate them with an improper tone. So many restaurant experiences become hostage situations when people can’t accept no for an answer. I’ve witnessed people walk out because of it. Being told no turns grown adults into sulky little children. Go ahead, throw a tantrum. Ask to speak with the manager. They may kowtow to pacify you but is it worth being branded a troublemaker? Most of the time, there are legitimate reasons why your server wouldn’t deliver what you’ve asked for and showing deference pays dividends.

What is often overlooked is the currency you earn for being compliant. Good service requires sacrifices on both ends, and restaurant staffs prefer to take care of people who respect the rules. Not only that, many restaurants work hard to cultivate an obedient clientele, pruning out insurgents. The friction you create by pulling the “customer is always right” card may be a threat to your good standing.

A guest recently asked me: “Do you have a problem with that?” when I gave her negative feedback on her unorthodox order. I was gently questioning her demand that each shared appetizer be served one at a time. There were four people seated at the table and it was impractical to serve it this way. My intentions were good—what I thought to be in the best interests of the table. She perceived me as being inflexible. In the end, she got what she wanted but not without compromising our relationship. I was following protocol. She was just rude. Rude people should not expect their server’s affections.

Most controversial restaurant rules are aimed at the overall health of the dining room, not just your table’s. Placing an order incrementally, for example, wreaks havoc on the kitchen and the timing of other tables may suffer on your account. We owe it to those other tables to prevent you from doing it. Asking you to stow your laptop is a courtesy you obviously don’t realize you should extend your neighbors. The light emitting from it disrupts the ambience we work hard to create for everyone. Oh, you don’t like the music choice too? Well, that’s unfortunate but do you honestly think that we can find one genre of music that will appeal to everyone? Even Pandora’s algorithms aren’t that advanced yet.

When you oppose these rules, you send a message that you put your needs above everyone else’s. Being agreeable, on the other hand, reinforces a positive relationship with the people serving you and builds the foundation for a more fruitful experience. You have to choose your battles wisely. Nitpicking about restaurant policies isn’t worth becoming an enemy of the state. Restaurant people don’t forget faces, and it’s up to you whether we remember yours fondly. If you end up in the doghouse, it isn’t very easy to get out.