San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer was asked by a reader what he thinks about the somewhat inexplicable disappearance of salt and pepper shakers from restaurant tables and dining rooms. “The chef was excellent,” the reader explains, pointing out a recent meal. “No question, but I cannot believe that he hits his seasonings perfectly every time.” What’s more is that a front-of-house staff member at Oakland’s Bellanico allegedly told the reader the tables weren’t set with salt shakers because the chef, who is presumably able to command his cooks to use the precise amount of seasonings day in and out, didn’t “find it necessary.” In any event, Bauer responded it was “simple” and that he didn’t like it, writing, “I think it smacks of arrogance.”
This did not sit well with Bellanico’s chef Jonathan Luce, who wrote in to tell Bauer that he has never instructed his staff to inform diners that extra salt wasn’t necessary with his dishes, though he admits that “the goal is to put out dishes that are perfectly salted.” His cooks are instructed to taste and retaste the dishes that come off their stations each night. And there’s more:
As a chef, I personally do not have a problem with the trend of disappearing salt and pepper shakers at quality restaurants. I interpret it as a statement of confidence, and a sign of the care that the chef takes when it comes to taste. I also have no problem asking for salt if a dish is under salted, but I certainly don’t think to myself that the chef must be arrogant.
Of course, this isn’t limited to one restaurant in Oakland — salt shakers and pepper mills are all but extinct in New York City, too. No self-respecting chef these days would cop to under- or oversalting food, and the only real sign of arrogance would be asking for salt from the kitchen and getting shot down by a server or manager.
We may be living in an age of better-trained chefs, but the missing salt is also an issue of economics. In an era when traditional restaurant criticism has widened up into a multiverse of insta-reactions on social media and multiple knocks on Yelp — points off for smudged stemware, missing toilet paper, or low levels of Telicherry peppercorns in the grinder — it pretty much makes no sense for a restaurant owner to pay someone extra to maintain and clean salt shakers if they are liabilities instead of accoutrements.
More than that, however, the question of disappearing salt shakers is really a question of shrinking tabletop real estate. Much in the same way restaurants have long realized they get an added benefit from cranking up the volume of whatever Johnny Cash or the Notorious B.I.G. soundtrack they may have in the form of turning more tables in a short amount of time, a long row of stark two-tops without salt shakers allows restaurateurs to simply pack their dining room with more seats and smaller tabletops and serve more customers overall.
It may just happen to turn out that the chef is evenhanded and supremely fair with the fleur de sel, but just like the simple maneuver of taking away white tablecloths and linens allows bistros to turn and burn with greater efficiency by decreasing the time it take to reset tables, restaurants with dining rooms that are uncluttered with shakers and mills can move along more efficiently. Salt-shaker-less restaurants, at least in theory, should ultimately be more appetizing for the customer as well.
A chef’s perspective about removing salt from the table [InsideScoop SF]
Related: Platt: Why Restaurants Are Louder Than Ever