Chef's choice

I’m celebrating my 40th birthday tonight at one of my favorite restaurants. I go there about once every other month and I wouldn’t say I know anyone there, but the wait staff might recognize me and my family; I certainly don’t know the chef. Anyway, when I was thinking about what I wanted to eat, I decided that I should do something different, so I’d like to have the chef prepare something for me. I’ve never done something like this, so I don’t know if there’s any etiquette I need to know beforehand. I’d like to just tell him to go crazy, but I’d like to keep the price under control and I don’t like seafood. Should I just be a good patron and go with the menu?

I’m no expert on the restaurant business, but I’d say go with the menu. Having a favorite chef “go crazy” could be interesting, but I suspect you would need to provide plenty of advance notice and a budget, so that they could design a proper menu and purchase the needed ingredients.

It would sort of depend on the kind of restaurant, but yeah, I’d say if the chef isn’t familiar with you, it’s a little unreasonable to just sit down and say “surprise me”, without any advance notice. You’d probably just the day’s special, which is fine, but nothing custom. Tonight is a little short notice, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to give them a call sometime in the morning, and run it by whoever answers the phone. Just say what you said here: “I don’t know if you can do this on short notice, but would it be possible to have the chef choose a menu for us tonight?”

It depends on the restaurant, some might have a prix fixe option that you never order, you could just do that, or, just order whatever all the specials that day are if they have any.

In Japanese restaurants, this is called “omakase”. But even there, there’s a expectation that the chef is familiar enough with you to know what you’ll like and what you won’t. Some Japanese restaurants will have a public omakase option, but it’s really not the proper way of doing it.

Give this information to the person who’s showing you to your table, or to the waiter who’s taking drink orders and handing out menus. Add the question, “would that be possible?” The most likely answer should be, “I’d have to ask the kitchen.” Then, you wait while composing Plan B using the menu. “Of course” and “I’m sorry but tonight we’re too crowded” are possible answers as well.

Also, congratulations.

edit: it’s not unlikely that the chef would really enjoy getting your request.

Yeah, pulling this when you actually get to the restaurant is a bad idea. In a reasonably well attended restaurant, the kitchen is a very fraught and tense place where a lot of things are going on at once. A chef isn’t sitting around twirling his (or her) mustachios, but is cranking out a bunch of dishes in various stages of preparation. No time for all that much creativity. For an extra fee, I imagine many chefs would enjoy being able to do something special with enough advance warning, but not all of them.

yeah, it really depends on the chef. I used to go to shitty hair salons and it stunk, I once said “do whatever, make my hair look like you think would look good” and they were confused. I went to a fancy 30 dollar a haircut spa/salon, said the same thing, and the lady was delighted! She got to make some decisions and be engaged. I gave some guidelines, and she did a great job.

I would, however, give the chef some guidelines to go on. Like, pick a protein. give him some examples of your favorite foods.

I think it would be worth asking in advance, and if you are a regular, I will bet the restaurant would be glad to treat you and your family to something special (as long as you are paying).

I eat at a few places with an omakaseformat, but they are quite high end starred restaurants.

Here’s one.

here’s another,

and here’s somewhere we’re now regulars.

You go into a good restaurant on a busy Friday or Saturday and say “surprise me” and the waiter–who is busy–is going to order something expensive right off the menu for you, and maybe have the expeditor throw an extra garnish or something on there for you.

I’ll echo most of the thread:

Chefs really don’t cook anyway. They supervise and plate the food. Line cooks and maybe a sous chef actually do the cooking. Chefs train and monitor quality standards.

Just ask ahead of time. I worked in a bistro where they would happily indulge people on a slow night, and send out course after course of whatever floated the kitchen’s boat.

If it’s the kind of fancy-dancy restaurant that offers a tasting menu, and you’re a regular there, it’s totally OK to ask-- well in advance-- for the kitchen to do whatever they want. I would expect it to be quite expensive, though. At least as expensive as the normal tasting menu.

Thanks for the input, everyone; I sure am glad I asked! I decided to go with a special from the menu and it didn’t disappoint. My wife also got a special and she loved it. Next time I want something from the mind of the chef, I’ll do a call-ahead on a slow night, like a Wednesday, to see if they’ll oblige.

BTW–Happy birthday, Benhur! Welcome to the fortysomething club!

Indeed. Happy birthday!

Belatedly, I’ll echo what others have said. Most restaurants, even very good ones, will have no idea how to properly handle such a request and will at best, as trigger suggests, put together a course sequence 90% from the menu. That’s likely to be pretty good, but not what you’re asking for. At a really, really high end place (michelin star calibre and up), you might have a bit more luck, but you’d definitely want to call ahead and talk to them. They’re used to adjusting the evening’s menu for dietary restrictions, and could possibly do a bit more for you given sufficient notice (especially if you’re a regular).