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In The Weeds: How to Order a Steak and Not Act Like a Total Tool

November 3, 2009
A Public Service Announcement

moreyouknowI will borrow a page from Bill Maher today and make a new rule.  New rule! If you don’t know how to order a steak, learn.  Or become vegetarian.  These are your options.

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.

degrees-of-meatTo 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)


11 Responses to “ In The Weeds: How to Order a Steak and Not Act Like a Total Tool ”

  1. John Williams on November 3, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Or here’s a description of rare…
    CUT off the horns and wipe the ass

    I have had people want some kind of detailed description of how we cook our steaks…and I simply repy…Its not a science dumb ass it’s a art form…besides you probably feel you cook the best steak on your apartment balcony Hibaci.

  2. Tara on November 4, 2009 at 9:48 am

    I saw this week’s title and assumed this would be a short but sweet article saying, “Medium-rare and like it!”

    I remember your hubby first telling me about this new girl he was dating. I believe his first description of you was, “She eats her steak medium-rare!” A must in our family.

    You and Matt come from similar backgrounds. Currently medium-rare eaters, but well-done eaters in a former life. Matt remembers the rare occasion of eating dinner in a restaurant and being asked the “how would you like it” question upon ordering a steak. The only response he had heard at this point was “well done” so he went with that assuming it meant “good” and who wouldn’t want their steak cooked “good”? :)

  3. Sara on November 4, 2009 at 11:12 am

    Is it possible to post this EVERYWHERE?! Seriously, there are very few options and the fact that people keep screwing them up is unacceptable. Maybe Emily Post should be informed…

  4. teleburst on November 5, 2009 at 11:58 am

    I actually covered this same subject a while back (in a more wordy and convulted fashion!)

    I’m curious what your husband might think about my article…

  5. Alan on November 7, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    I was watching Letterman a few weeks ago. He had some movie producer on, who saw a steak prepared just like he liked in a SkyMall magazine. So he ripped it out, laminated it and kept it in his wallet. Then, when he’s in a restaurant and the waiter asks him how he wants his steak, he pulls out his card and say, “Just like this picture!”

    He went on to say that he performed this in a restaurant in Colorado or one of the Dakotas, or somewhere out there in Injun Territory and the waitress thought it was funny and asked to take the card to show to the chef. A little while later he was asked to leave the restaurant by the maître d’. The maître d’ related that they didn’t just have a cook, but a chef and he was insulted by the picture.

    I actually thought it was a pretty good idea, up until he got thrown out. I’m pretty sure I like my steaks Medium rare or so, but I really know exactly what it looks like, so a picture would help me relay this to the waitress. In your opinion, would a chef really be insulted?

  6. cj on November 9, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    Hi Teleburst and Alan,

    Sorry I didn’t see your comments (for shame! I love comments!) until tonight…Monday. Alan, I asked the chef that is watching Monday Night Football in my living room if he would be offended if a guest brought their own steak picture. He laughed and said no. He said he would laugh and probably tell that story for several years.

    Teleburst, I wish I would have known about your steak temp story earlier…I could have stolen a good chunk of it and not had to stay up so late workin my little blond brain to the stem.

  7. teleburst on November 11, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    I was wondering what Chef (your hubby) thought of my article. Note the capitalization of Chef. I’m old school in that I call my chef Chef, not Joe or whatever his name is. I even call my sous chefs that, unless they haven’t earned the right to be called that.

    I’m especially interested in how much divergence there is between how I characterize the various temps with what his idea of the temps is.

  8. Sally on December 5, 2009 at 6:05 am

    As a customer I really love your blog! It’s interesting that you disagree with the chart because that is exactly how I expect my steak when I order it medium rare.. I guess I should just print out the chart and point!

    Having just ordered a medium rare steak at a steak house and getting it more rare than I expected I ate it anyway and enjoyed it very much!

    The only time I’ve ever sent back a meal is when it was completely wrong and seriously not worth feeding to the dog. Thank goodness that’s only happened once!

  9. Victorie on December 27, 2009 at 11:48 pm

    I was told by my server mother in law that the secret code (oooh fancy) for the way I like my steak is Blood Rare. I see the Rare steak on your chart and it’s about as cooked as that, perhaps a little less. Probably not the most healthy option, but I’ll sign all the, “I won’t sue you if I die eating this steak,” waivers you want if you’re willing to (not)cook it the way I like it.

    I’m pretty easy to please though, as long as it isn’t well done and there’s at least SOME pink, I’m a happy camper.

  10. Bear on December 28, 2009 at 12:44 am

    Give me my “medium-MOO” steak any day!!!

  11. Mnerva on December 28, 2009 at 1:07 am

    I agree with you absolutely on the ordering of steaks, and raise you one: learn how to order fried eggs! It is equally frustrating, trust me. Just like steak temps, egg temps are universal.