Send It Back: Gray Houses And Minnesota Ice

I knew our recent episode at The Gray House (apologies to Chef Ian Gray for repeatedly misspelling his last name) would get some interest. You’ve got a hot place, well liked by many people including many influential people within the food writing and food making community, and we gave it a pretty solid panning.

Let me start by saying that Dave and I absolutely stand by everything we said on the show in regards to the food we were served. The Well Fed Guide has always been a bit of an odd duck compared to many restaurant reviews, documenting a single visit, often a first visit, and recording our extemporaneous views from that single visit instead of the collected thoughts from several meals over some time like typical written reviews. It’s a different kind of show, one that resembles more closely the kind of response you get from a trusted friend over a food critic. I have had on several occasions had Chef Gray’s food and like the man himself, it has shown to be skillful and classy. This is what made our review so difficult to make. But we both felt that what we were served was not consistent with the hype or our expectations regarding high end dining. I’ve invited Chef Gray to talk with us at some point about the episode, and I repeat this invitation again (I’m willing to cut the man some slack, since it’s only been a day and he’s a busy dude). I for one am very curious to learn how many of our criticisms stemmed from a legitimate misstep or from our ignorance in how Chef Gray runs his kitchen. Until we get a chance to talk to Gray, either recorded or privately, I don’t feel it necessary to talk about the specific episode any longer.

There is a larger issue brought up by the response, though, and I think it bears a wider discussion. Several members of the Fortify group on Facebook (you can read the thread here) took us to task for not sending the food back once it was clear that something had gone wrong. Most of the comments came from food professionals, including Chef Gray himself, saying that they felt that we were being unfair and passive-aggressive by not bringing up our problems to the staff at Gray House but instead complained in a public manner and that we were being unsupportive of the local food scene. We ourselves joked about being “very Minnesotan” on the show. Let me first make clear that we did not and do not do anything with the goal of drumming up drama to get listeners. Anyone that has listened to the show knows very little effort goes into gaining listeners beyond making what we feel is a unique take on a restaurant review podcast. Both Dave and myself are not in the habit of sending food back, either on the show or in our personal dining. It’s a topic we’ve brought up on the show several times and something we have discussed often as we develop as food critics. After talking with several chefs both in that thread and privately, it is clear now that we should have made it known that we were not enjoying our meal, especially when the attentive and courteous server whose name escapes me asked us point blank how things were going. That single choice on our part ended up transforming a rather standard poor review into something of a controversy.

There is more than a little truth to notion that Midwesterners and Minnesotans in particular have problems with confrontation and frequent media portrayals and anecdotes about unspeakable horrors dealt to the food of complaining patrons by prima donna chefs and vengeful waitstaff (even if justified in the case of truly assholeish restaurant patrons) can leave diners skittish about causing a fuss, causing them to retreat to either convincing themselves their food is “fine” or worse, holding their tongues until safely outside the premises, both of which we are guilty of on occasion. The interesting thing is, in talking with many people over the years both on the waitstaff side and the kitchen side, it appears that the tales of spit (or worse) in your soup is mostly that, just tales, and the vast majority of restaurant workers want to see their guests happy and in a recommending mood. Nothing is gained beyond some momentary impish satisfaction by sabotaging a customer’s order, and the potential for backfire is both significant and potentially bankrupting.

We as a dining public have got to become comfortable with telling our server, or the chef themselves if need be, when what they are presenting does not meet your expectations. Be polite but clear in your comments and I have no doubt you will find a staff willing to keep a customer happy even at the expense of a redone dinner or a comped meal. Good service people can hopefully detect when something is up, but they aren’t mind readers and if god forbid something is done to your meal, well it’s not like you were going back there anyway. Every good experience in life is based around communication, and any business owner, be it chef, store owner or podcaster worth a damn would rather know what has gone wrong so they can fix it than leave any customer unsatisfied. The Well Fed Guide is all about simulating the dining experience in Minnesota, and part of that should be communicating with the locations we record at. Dave and myself pledge to be more upfront about mistakes when they can be fixed rather than after the fact.

On a final note, if you are interested in checking out The Gray House, please do not let our one visit dissuade you. Nothing should be decided on the voice of one person, and we would be happy to chalk up our experience as simply a bad night and a case of bad luck. Check out The Gray House for yourself and be sure to let Chef Gray, his staff and us as well know how you felt about the experience, good or bad. We all want to see good food survive in Minnesota, and we’d much rather be wrong about the “bad” stuff than right about anything.