Is the Customer ALWAYS Right?
My sister (who is a chef, by the way) took me to dinner at a restaurant in downtown Santa Ana, California called The Playground (PlaygroundDTSA.com). It’s a trendy spot with an edgy menu, owned by Chef Jason Quinn, proprietor of The Lime Truck, which you might remember from the Great Food Truck Race. While there are a few standard items, the menu changes daily, based on fresh, local ingredients and what the kitchen staff creates.
Here’s where it gets interesting: The Playground allows no substitutions or customizations to any menu item. Ever. No condiments. No salt on the table. Do not ask that your beef be cooked well-done. And you will not take cream or sugar in your coffee. (“We have a $3000 brewing system. The coffee isn’t bitter.”) Chalkboard signs, printed directions for ordering, and the wait staff will all advise you that the menu items are perfect as is; they’ve already gotten it right. And if you disagree, they will gladly remove the item from your bill—but they will not modify any item to suit your taste.
This chef-driven (as opposed to budget-driven or customer-driven) menu is about honoring the chef’s expertise. It’s about experiencing food as it was conceived, much the way we experience art.
Frankly, I dig it. I’m of the mindset that if you hire an expert, and then tell him how to do his job, you’ve wasted your money. Furthermore, if I wanted what I always eat, I’d stay home. I did not love everything I tried at The Playground, but I loved trying it. (For the record, I loved most of it—a lot.) Even my cocktail was an adventure, a memorable foray into flavors that had never crossed my palate before. And I appreciated the notion of a chef so confident, so passionate about his creations, that he does not allow them to be meddled with.
Not everyone applauds the “have it OUR way” concept. In the cutthroat, competitive restaurant market, most still abide by the old adage, “The customer is always right.” While The Playground has a 4.5-star Yelp rating, Quinn made the news last year when he fired back at a Yelper who gave him a lousy review and, among other complaints, objected to the fact that she couldn’t get her burger cooked to order.
Expectations are key in this scenario. I went to The Playground with a chef who prepared me for the experience and presented it as an adventure. If I had tried it without being prepped, or if I were less adventurous or just not in the mood to experiment, perhaps I would have responded differently.
What do you think? Is the customer king, or does the chef’s concept trump?