In The Weeds: How to Order a Steak and Not Act Like a Total Tool
A Public Service Announcement
Gee willikers, the copious amounts of time I have spent running back and forth, to and fro between table and kitchen, from disgruntled guests to hostile chefs – well – it makes me testy. To this end, I offer a lesson on the foibles I have seen during my years of, forgive me, handling meat.
It all begins with the simplest of questions. Servers tire of saying the standard “How would you like it cooked?” and will often experiment with other phrases for both amusement and, more often, research. Like athletes, servers are a superstitious bunch. If left an unusually large tip after wearing mismatched socks, they may wear them nightly for a week to see if the streak continues. Likewise, if a certain phrase is used for the first time or a specific lilting of the voice at just the precise moment during an upsell renders monetary results, it is added to the book of tricks. So you may hear, “How would you like your steak prepared? At what temperature shall we serve your steak? I would recommend medium rare on the strip cut but please let me know if you prefer it otherwise?” But it boils down to this: What do you want it to look like?
I always began to worry when the guests indicated their temperature preference either a) too confidently or b) with as much indecision as a squirrel contemplating its escape route from your fast-approaching vehicle. Left. Right. No left! RiiiiighLeft! Right! My insides start screaming, “Ahhhh! Sorry, but I’m going to kill you involuntarily!”
The confident person usually barks something like, “RARE. I want it red, I want it to just kiss the grill. A flirtation on each side at best. Just stop it from mooing and bring it out, you understand?”
“Yes, sir! So you want it cool in the center, correct?”
“Good heavens, no! I want it warm. Who wants a cold steak?”
Right. You want it medium rare. I won’t say so, but I’m definitely writing down medium rare.
To be fair, most of the confusion comes from our varied interpretations of what meat looks like when cooked at different temperatures. Our ideas of medium versus medium-well vary as much as our families and the regions in which we are raised. I was raised in Kansas by a protestant mother who married a third-generation farmer. Therefore, there was only one color of meat in my house, really really brown. During the occasional meal out, my step-dad always ordered his burger medium. And by medium he meant hockey puck, of course.
After studying this handy dandy graphic, I must say, I disagree with the chart. In my assessment, the medium-rare clearly looks medium and the medium is a medium-well. I showed it to my chef husband and he disagreed with the picture AND with me. At The Capital Grille, we had even more specific options – rare, rare-plus, medium-rare, medium-rare-plus, and on and on. Given my music background (i.e. marching band), I was always dying to ask if they wanted it medium-minus, the equivalent of medium-rare-plus. Not funny? Sorry, band nerd joke.
It grills down to this – the worst case scenario for us servers is when an unhappy guest sends back a perfectly cooked steak. Yes, we want the guest to be happy, but we also don’t want to take the abuse the chef is about to pile on.
“Sorry, chef she wants this brought up a bit please. “
“A bit? What’s a bit? How did she order it?”
“She ordered it medium but she says its…”
“It IS medium. If she wanted it medium-well, why did you order it medium?”
“She said medium, but now she thinks it’s too pink.”
“So you didn’t describe the temperatures to the table like you are supposed to do. Great. What the f&*k do you servers do anyway?”
“No, no, I did! I told her medium was pink to the edges with a hot center but..”
“Fine. I guess I’ll just do my job and YOURS, too. Come back in 7 minutes.”
Returning to the guest’s table, “I’m so sorry about that ma’am. I brought it to the chef’s attention and he apologized profusely. He is going to correct it right away and hopes you understand that it will just take a few minutes to make sure it’s perfect for you.”
It’s right around this time that the guest usually rolls her eyes and let’s out a sigh. This is her husband’s cue to reduce the tip by three percent for every minute that she has to wait. Nevermind that she, like many others, doesn’t know that she’s been calling medium-well steaks medium for years and it is up to us to figure that out. I’ll get verbally abused by the chef and financially punished by the guest, but hey, a guest wants what she wants.
My only wish is that the guests would indeed tell us, exactly, what they want. Give details, draw pictures, chart it on a graph, write it in calligraphy…anything. Just don’t rely on my mind reading skills so often. Yes, it’s my job to read my guests, but when they give me blank pages, I’m at a loss. So please, be specific if you like something a certain way.
Here are the temperature guidelines from The Capital Grille. Use these as a reference point, give details when needed, and enjoy not being a tool.
Rare – Cool red center
Medium Rare – Warm red center
Medium – Hot red center
Medium Well – Hot pink center
Well – No pink, dry as hell (just kidding)