The other night some friends and I went out to dinner. I wanted to order the salmon, but not if it was farmed; I have concerns about environmental damage from farming. I asked the server about it and he didn’t know and had to go and ask the chef, and it turned into this huge production. My friends were all waiting to order while the server tried to find the answer to my question.
So my question is: What is the correct way to question the server about where an ingredient comes from? If the answer isn’t to your liking, what’s the best way to encourage the restaurant to get its ingredients from better sources?
Dear Mysterious Origins,
More of us are concerned about where our food comes from these days, but most restaurants have not kept up with our need to know. Adria Blotta, co-owner of Barbrix in LA, says her restaurant serves “an environmentally conscious, very intelligent demographic.” Nonetheless, she doesn’t get a lot of questions about ingredient sources, other than, “Is it organic?” When a CHOW editor dined there recently and asked who made the restaurant’s charcuterie, the server vaguely said, “I’m not sure, but it’s local,” and didn’t go to the kitchen to get a more conclusive answer.
Let’s face it: At some restaurants, there’s clearly no point in asking, because you pretty much already know the answer. (If it’s a budget place and the menu doesn’t list the origin of a single ingredient, you can assume that the salmon is farmed and the meat is from a CAFO.) If you have a problem with it, avoid the most suspicious ingredients. Susan T. Barclay, a coleader of Slow Food Pittsburgh, says: “If friends want to go somewhere, like for a birthday celebration, I just try to avoid ordering the meat when I know they’re probably sourcing from a [nonsustainable] national chain.”
But if the restaurant aspires to transparency in its food sourcing—that is, the menu mentions where some ingredients come from—it’s not unreasonable to ask where other ingredients come from. Try to keep your question as clear and short as possible. “Do you know if the salmon is wild? Are the strawberries locally grown?” Be prepared for the server to be baffled by your questions, however. Barclay recalls, “I once asked at a very nice upscale pub where the beef came from, and the server just looked at me and said, ‘From a cow.’”
Don’t tsk-tsk at the server, who isn’t the one responsible for sourcing ingredients and may not have been trained properly to handle such questions. Just have a backup option ready in case you don’t get the answer you want.
Another idea is to do your research in advance. For instance, if your concern is animal welfare, you could check out the Eat Humane restaurant database of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), which lists restaurants serving products from animals that were reared humanely.
If you want to encourage the restaurant to source better ingredients in the future, Sharanya Prasad, the US programs manager of the WSPA, advises that you write your complaint on a comment card or email the restaurant the next day. (Bear in mind that such ingredients are usually more costly, so prices may go up.) But when ordering, it’s best not to dwell on the matter. A busy server doesn’t want to listen to a lecture about the evils of aquaculture. Nor do your fellow diners.