The Customer Is Frequently Wrong

We once had a long, drawn-out argument with another foodie about the notion that the customer is always right. He opined that diners should be served whatever they desire at a restaurant, including (but not limited to) substituted sides; sauce on the side; steamed, plain chicken breast; well done steaks; ketchup for their kobe; and pasta lubed with butter instead of its intended sauce. His argument ran that if the diner was willing to pay for the meal, he should get whatever he wants.

This attitude annoys us, and, in fact, just revisiting his rhetoric gets us all heated up. Our feeling is that chefs are artists– actual food designers– who are crafting an edible experience for their guests. They’ve labored over their menus, they’ve carefully composed each dish—and they’ve been expensively educated in their profession. Furthermore, they’ve paid long, hard dues in the restaurant world to achieve their station, dues that the average stock broker can hardly imagine. On average, chefs know a hell of a lot more about food than their diners, so if the diners would just trust the professional, then they’d have a much better dining experience. In our opinion, the steamed-chicken-breast faction can eat Lean Cuisines at home.

To offer an analogy, chefs are like clothing designers: both trades are highly creative, and both provide a service. That said, a customer wouldn’t walk into a great designer menswear atelier and demand that the designer re-cut a $5,000 suit to look like he bought it at K-Mart. It just wouldn’t happen—if you’re paying for the design, then you’ll probably let the designer practice his craft. Yet, bizarrely, it’s acceptable to walk into a great restaurant and request well-done salmon with sauce on the side or ketchup for a kobe steak. In our opinion, the problem comes from the blurred boundaries of the “Service Industry.” Diners confuse the fact that restaurant workers “provide a service” with the notion that they are “servants”.

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Given our strong feelings on this point, we love it when restaurants dispense with the idea that the customer is always right. We inwardly cheer when chefs refuse to substitute sides, and we smile whenever we see “steak is served medium-rare” asserted on their menus. (And F.Y.I.—the phrase “The Customer Is Frequently Wrong” comes from the great Charlie Trotter, who, though the dullest TV cook in history, has an excellent restaurant in Chicago.) In fact, if given the choice –and the bankroll—we always let the chef choose our entire meal. Tasting menus act like guided tours to the best that a kitchen can provide, and also offer glimpses into the mind of a chef. In a well-composed tasting menu, he’s controlling the entire dining experience, and adding value through thoughtful flavor progressions and interesting sensory juxtapositions. He’s showing off his best work in the best light—it’s where a chef can really strut his aesthetic stuff.

Given our admiration for chefs with serious control issues (and they all have ‘em, whether they reveal their neuroses to customers or not), we love Sushi Nanase. Recently, as part of a feature we were working on, we booked a table at the tiny, White Plains storefront. We alerted the restaurant that we’d be writing about it and we booked well ahead—yet when I called to ask whether our 7 pm spot could be held until 7:30 (our companion was stuck in bridge traffic), we were told resolutely, NO. Ashamed—but trapped by circumstances—we hinted that we were dining as part of a story, and couldn’t the restaurant hold our table, please, for just half an hour—or even 20 minutes? Again, no. Grudgingly, we had to admire the attitude. As members of the food press, we often benefit from over-the-top solicitousness, but not at Sushi Nanase.

We hustled as fast as we could to the tiny temple of raw to secure our spot, hoping, at least, to get one meal, if not two. We were literally the only person in the restaurant at 7 pm, and we were two of only six customers at 7:30, when our frazzled husband finally dragged in. It became obvious that Yoshimichi Takeda and his wife Masayo Takeda (who runs the tiny, 18-20 seat dining room) could have accommodated us at 7:30, but simply refused to change the reservation. We found ourselves grinning at the Takedas’ refreshing effrontery. Looking over the menu, we were further confronted by the land of NO. NO substitutions, NO shared plates, RESERVATION ONLY, MINIMUM order $30, we serve NO rice, omakase (the multi-course, chef’s choice menu) MUST be pre-ordered, NO doggy bags, and finally–in the bathroom– the sign drives it all home, NO SMOKING. (As if you’d even try it.)

Thoroughly chastened, we sat through the omakase, which featured a breathtaking course dedicated to spring (including a bite of tiny, sweet shrimp wrapped in imported-from-Japan cherry tree leaf and garnished with tiny cherry blossoms) and a stunning crudo of yellowtail with blood oranges and olive oil. There was a melt-in-your-mouth raw scallop with black truffle and crunchy sea salt, as well as courses garnished with unpronounceable Japanese herbs that tasted like nothing we’ve ever eaten. And throughout the evening, well-heeled potential customers would barge through Sushi Nanase’s sliding door, only to be turned away with stunned looks on their faces. Why? No dining without a reservation, even though there were plenty of open seats in the restaurant. In fact, we sat from 7 until 9:15 pm, and the Takedas served exactly nine customers all night.

It would easy to ascribe a sort of Soup Nazi, mean-for-the-sake-of-being-meanness to the Takedas, but that would be missing the point. Sushi Nanase is all about pristine ingredients, many of which—like some of the fish and fragile Japanese herbs—are flown in daily from Japan. These are expensive and highly perishable items. If Chef Takeda had to fully stock his tiny restaurant in the hope of fickle walk-ins, he’d either have to charge a whole lot more to each diner or use lesser quality ingredients. Instead, the Takedas have chosen to ask for their diners’ co-operation—simply call ahead, accept the conditions, and prepare yourself for a great meal.

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One dines at Sushi Nanase by the Chef Takeda’s leave. Put yourself in his hands, relax and enjoy the ride. And whatever you do, don’t ask for a doggie bag or sauce on the side.

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