Iron Chef Michael Symon told me a long time ago that the difference between good and bad cooks is that good cooks know how to season food properly. I remember what he said every time I go into a restaurant where there are no salt and pepper shakers on the table. Of course, most “better” restaurants don't put either on the table because their chef knows exactly how much seasoning his or her food needs. I'm down with that. Unless, of course, they don't. And then you're screwed.
It takes cajones to ask for salt and/or pepper in “better” restaurants because many servers are afraid they'll anger the chef. Years ago, I had a favorite local restaurant that was nearly perfect. Very cool setting, a hip crowd, and an ultra creative menu. But the chef underseasoned her food and there were no shakers on the table to correct the seasoning. So, whenever I would visit this restaurant, I would bring my own stash of sea salt and surreptitiously season the food with the thought that I might be banned from the restaurant forever if I got caught (think Soup Nazi). I know it wasn't just me, because others at my table and sometimes those at nearby tables who saw what I was doing would ask for a hit of my contraband.
What you just read is a long windup to one of my restaurant pet peeves — the pepper mill. The restaurant I just described is an exception, not the rule. Most of the “better” restaurants I visit season their food properly. If a sin is committed, it's one of excess (overlyseasoned food). There is no retreat from that scenario, but I find it more tolerable than underseasoned, bland food. What really annoys me is the peppermill routine. You know what I mean because a lot of you do it. You send servers to tables with what looks like a medieval weapon to ask customers if they would like cracked pepper.
I'm sure plenty of you can explain where this ritual originated, but it begs the question: Does the food need pepper? If the answer is yes, then why didn't the chef use the proper amount of pepper before the dish reached my table? And, if you agree with Michael Symon's above statement, then the presentation of a pepper mill suggests to customers that the chef/cook in your kitchen is not a good one.
I know that if I was a chef who took great care to season my food properly, I would not allow servers and customers to rain pepper upon my parade of hard work. In your defense I will say that when the pepper question is posed to customers, a majority of those at the table will give the mill-wielding server the green light. Perhaps it's this subconscious thought that they are getting something extra for free. It just seems like a silly, outdated custom from the 1970s that should have gone away like shag carpeting.
You tell me. What's up with the pepper mill? Is it still part of your service ritual? Send me an email and I'll share the best of your thoughts.