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Chefs + Restaurants

Shaker Heights

September 23, 2009

Ten years ago, finding a set of salt-and-peppershakers in an elite restaurant was a tale for Jules Verne. The top chefs served their food “properly” seasoned, and any patron with the gall to disagree was in danger of receiving a Gordon Ramsey-meets-Mommy Dearest-style sendoff. But today, with many chefs looking at themselves not as artists committed to a singular vision but as craftsmen attempting to build the best experience for the customer, the days of NaCl oppression might be coming to an end. Bottom line: buy stock in upscale shaker companies.

“As a chef, one of my goals is to serve perfectly seasoned food,” says 2009 James Beard Award winner Jose Garces of Amada in Philadelphia. “Of course, if someone requests it, then salt and pepper is readily available.”

At some restaurants—notably Alice Water’s Chez Panisse—you don’t even have to ask; there are salt and pepper shakers on every table.

Other chefs, like Joachim Splichal of L.A.-based Patina take a more begrudging attitude. “I serve food that is properly seasoned,” he says, “but some people like too much salt, too much pepper on everything. If they want it, fine...my job is to please the diner.”

Culinary schools are even teaching the future Grant Achatzes that there’s nothing wrong with giving the customer what they want, even if interferes with the chef’s auteur ego. “We all perceive taste slightly different,” says Nils Noren, Vice President of Culinary and Pastry Arts at the prestigious French Culinary Institute, “so I do think it’s appropriate to put salt on the table in a fine dining restaurant.” Rick Smilow, President and CEO of the Institute of Culinary Education, agrees, “Most dishes won’t need extra seasoning, but it’s nice (for the customer) to know it’s there.”

So salt away, America. Jules Verne is overdue for a comeback.