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May 29, 2014 at 1:25 PM

Chefs tell all: How you can become a restaurant VIP

David Chang, whose Momofuku restaurant realm extends from New York to Toronto to Sydney, Australia, has never been known for his softer side. His reputation for shock talk rivals that of Anthony Bourdain. In the May issue of GQ Magazine, the much-lauded, 36-year-old Korean-American chef offered unvarnished advice to diners who aspire to most-favored-customer status in restaurants.

“Would you like priority seating at busy, popular restaurants… servers to remember what you like and don’t… the choicest cuts of meat, the most pristine fish, extra courses on the house?” Chang writes. “Then you want to become a regular—or what we in the business call a PX table, for person extraordinaire. Ultimately, the experience you’re after is ‘soigné.’ That’s chef-speak for culinary perfection from your first drink to your last dessert.”

What are Chang’s tips for soigné-seeking PX wannabes?

“Avoid eating on weekends, when it’s a zoo. The best diners eat Sundays through Thursdays, earlier or later in the evening, so the staff remembers you better…

“Don’t be a (slang for male body part deleted here)….When you become a PX table at one spot, you soon become a known commodity at many others. And if you’re a (male body part) somewhere, they’ll remember you everywhere. Also, don’t do drugs in the bathroom.”

“Order like you know what’s going on…If you request well-done meat and you’re not pregnant, you have no concept of flavor. (Sorry, this is how we think.) If you send a dish back because you think something is ‘off,’ you’re probably wrong. (And the kitchen will hate you for it.) Above all, try dishes from outside of your comfort zone — those are probably the ones the cooks are most proud of.”

How does this advice resonate with Seattle chefs? Read on:

“I totally agree with what David Chang is saying here, and I am not the biggest advocate of his personality. I am super happy to see regulars and I treat them like family when they come into the pig. I usually will always send out a bite of food or a full plate to the table and stop by and chat and catch up. It’s usually something I have on the menu that I want a little feedback from. I trust their opinions. My regulars usually stop by on the weekdays, which is smart on their part; we aren’t as busy, so there is more attention put on the food and them. On the part of being friendly, all my regulars are great but I have worked in restaurants where a few of the regulars were complete asses. Yes they were still treated well and with a smile, but when you treat people like you own the restaurant or that your (you know what) doesn’t stink…you’re not winning favors in anyone’s eyes and as Ludacris puts it….you are not pimpin!! Or soigne’!” ~Derek Ronspies, Le Petit Cochon

Chef Derek Ronspies of Le Petit Cochon

Chef Derek Ronspies of Le Petit Cochon

“I really don’t like the concept of VIP or whatever. I cook for everyone who comes to my restaurant like they are a friend and things will go well generally. I’m sure David Chang’s mom could get a well-done steak if she wanted one at Ma Peche.” ~Charles Walpole, chef-owner of Blind Pig Bistro and Babirusa

“Fundamentally I agree with David Chang’s points. In the simplest form, it’s come often, tip well and engage genuinely and you will be rewarded. We encourage our service teams to engage with regulars and build out an experience that is unique to them. Regulars make the service team’s heart sing, and you’ll usually have a deep, mutually engaging relationship. Most often these regulars are regulars at a couple of joints and are pro’s at dining out.” ~Eric Tanaka, Tom Douglas Restaurants

“It’s not about how many times a person comes in or what they order. It’s more that those I consider friends and regulars of the restaurant come in with a different attitude. They are excited, open-minded, curious and engaging. They’re warm and supportive. They understand the challenges of the business. These are the people I remember because I’m able to share something with them about my food, our unique selection of Japanese whisky, or a new special I created, and they are interested to learn and experience.” ~Mutsuko Soma, chef-owner at Miyabi 45th

Chef Mutsuko Soma of Miyabi 45th

Chef Mutsuko Soma of Miyabi 45th

“I agree and disagree. I really don’t think that restaurant people think about it that much. Obviously the best way to be a “VIP” (and I hate the word VIP) is to be a regular. And it’s not because guests are in spending money, it’s because we appreciate that they like what we do. It’s also because we get to know them and everyone tends to reward people they know…It’s really no different than every other industry… The better you know people the more you want to give them a “VIP” experience…In no way am I saying that you need to be a regular to get a good experience, you should get a great experience every time you go. At least that’s our goal for our guests.” ~Ethan Stowell, Ethan Stowell Restaurants

hollysmith17

Chef Holly Smith with guests at Cafe Juanita. Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times

“There is so much bluster in [Chang's] language I find it kind of exhausting. It seems to hint that we have hidden better meat in the back. I’ll tell you with less bravado that we do, of course, VS (that is my PX since I’m less cool) people a lot. Why? Because I want to sleep well knowing that I worried 1,001 times over the plate, versus the 1,000 times I would have… There are VS because we can tell you’re really with us for the adventure, the experience, and then there is a VS because you are collecting experiences and read that you should get tight to get good stuff. We can tell the difference. You’ll still get VS’d but the community aspect I love so much about restaurants will be missing….Yes, if you order it well done I assume you and I are less simpatico but I don’t think you have no sense of flavor. I assume you’re still scared of food based on childhood experiences. If you were my friend I’d be methodically working on you to get you to medium rare. There is no room for contempt in customer service; if you want your steak medium well, it’s my pleasure to hit a perfect medium well.” ~Holly Smith, Cafe Juanita

“I always try to make an effort to make every customer that special customer and give everyone that extra bit of attention and I preach that to the rest of the kitchen on a regular basis. But I can’t say it doesn’t make me smile to see a familiar face, and I would be blind if I didn’t see that same smile on people from the front of the house when they come back from a table of regulars. If a little bit of extra attention floated their way I wouldn’t be too surprised…As far as prejudice towards the way people order? I like my steaks medium rare, but my father always orders his meat well done and he’s always a VIP in my book.” ~Walter Edward, Tallulah’s

John Sundstrom file photo by John Lok/The Seattle Times

John Sundstrom file photo by John Lok/The Seattle Times

“I’d say with Seattle’s much smaller population and visitor ratio compared to NYC, we try to not take any guests for granted. David Chang can probably afford to be a bit more cavalier than I would…As democratic as we try to be, if someone dines with us several times a year or more, we’re very grateful for that business and will reward them in some fashion. Guests who dine with us as much as once per month, year after year, have likely become friends…We know their names, and not just because of an Open Table prompt…Of course it can go the other way, too. Maybe there’s a guest who dines often and spends well on food, but always brings their own wine, asks for special glassware, runs the servers ragged, keeps our staff hours after closing and then tips poorly. Someone like that stands out in everyone’s memory as well. The servers might flip a coin to see who gets “that guy” on the next visit. Because as welcome as the revenue is for the restaurant, no one wants to deal with a pain in the ass. Calling ahead for special requests or diets, asking nicely, treating our staff with respect, all go a long way even if you’re not a regular. Have fun, eat and drink well, be generous go even further.” ~John Sundstrom, Lark

OK, diners, now it’s your turn.  Take the poll and share your candid comments below.

Comments | Topics: Charles Walpole, David Chang, Derek Ronspies

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