The Fine Art of Leaving a Tasting Menu Early, According to a Chef

·12 min read
A chef puts a basil leaf on a small, bite-size pasta dish
A chef puts a basil leaf on a small, bite-size pasta dish

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I love a tasting menu. I love the thought and attention that goes into each experience. As a diner, I love relinquishing control over to a kitchen and service team that are going to take me on a journey when I sit down at their table or counter — ideally counter — so I can see the cooks perform.

The walls of my home office are covered with framed tasting menus, souvenirs squirreled away in my purse at the end of the night. They mark birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, magnificent Thursday nights floating above all the minarets of Istanbul, relics of restaurants that are long gone and much loved, like wd-50, or Pujol's first, modest location in Mexico City.

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They mark Michelin stars and money spent investing in experiences. The menus on my walls project dishes in almost as many languages as the Tower of Babel and I know them by their designs rather than my ability to read them. The smear of gold leaf denoting a private boat ride at dusk through the Venice canals to arrive at Venissa, hair whipping around my face as I calcify the setting sun in my memory, knowing that my only physical souvenir would be that paper menu. The diminutive typewritten script of Reykjavik's Dill. The minute rectangle that marked Chris Kajioka's extraordinary tenure at Honolulu's Vintage Cave.

Many of the menus on my wall are scrawled with the signatures of entire kitchen staffs, born of collaboration dinners that I cooked in someone else's restaurant, shoulder to shoulder with strangers who quickly, under fired orders, became friends. These represent an inordinate amount of effort, sweat, and fleeting camaraderie in a temporary home.

But that is not to say that relinquishing control and investing in these fleeting experiences is always wonderful. Sometimes, whether inexplicably or due to a confluence of circumstances that are just too much — too much food, too much wine, too much pressure and too much time — you just gotta go.

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A meal that will live in infamy.

"A long time ago, I was doing a tasting menu at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Europe with my then-partner. As a young chef getting hooked up with this reservation, the best thing you can do to show respect is by eating everything and being quick about it.," Dalton Thomas tells me. "I had a friend in the kitchen, so they're sending us even more dishes than what's on the menu. I'm telling my partner all her plates need to be clean. I'm helping her finish what she can't. I'm not hungry at all, I just need to show respect. Then when we get back to the hotel, she pukes in the bathroom."

While Thomas now works in food service sales, this memory is still fresh to him. Like many young chefs, he got his start in New York City, attended the French Culinary Institute, went to Copenhagen, caught the travel bug, and then worked the whole Michelin circuit in Europe, Napa and eventually, China. Working as a chef in fine dining often necessitates (or at least, opens up doors to) traveling and eating in establishments of the caliber to which one either aspires or operates in.

Should I stay or should I go?

Surveying no small number of my friends and colleagues in the fine dining, a too-long tasting menu is not an uncommon situation, though mercifully, they're not too frequent. Everyone remembered that one time they felt the urge to bolt. Sometimes they actually made the move, and sometimes they stayed and endured.

Brian Becher is a GCC-based executive chef with a career based on knowing what the best restaurants in the world are doing and serving, so that he can replicate magnificent experiences in his own kitchens. He echoed the pressures Thomas felt, telling me, "There was only one occurrence where I left a restaurant before my set menu had concluded. I was excited for the experience. I had some common friends with the owner and chef, and the initial hospitality we received was outstanding.  Even more outstanding was the bread service. To this day, I cannot think of another bread experience that matched it in both quality and presentation. Unfortunately, the bread was the best item I was served that night."

Then things took a turn. "The service was exemplary, but the dishes served were over-thought and overworked to the point of being off-putting. I guess I forced down three or four (thankfully small) courses like this before it struck me that I was going to have to continue to do this for an unknown duration of time."

I didn't want to hurt feelings or cause any level of animosity.

Becher knew he couldn't keep it up much longer. "Perhaps if the restaurant team were not in the same social circle as myself, I could have simply declined to finish the menu. But I didn't want to hurt feelings or cause any level of animosity."

He told the service team he was feeling ill and asked for the check, paid, and left. "I felt so relieved once I stepped out the door. I remember this vividly."

There's no turning back — or is there?

Despite all the preparation you've done as a diner — you've flown or traveled to a destination restaurant, your friends are counting on you to participate in this meal, you're pushing through jet lag or physical discomfort, you've saved up for this meal — you feel compelled to leave. On the other side of the equation, the restaurant typically knows exactly how many guests are sitting for their tasting menu. They've prepped precisely. If you're recognized as being in the industry, they're typically going above and beyond for you, putting on their most earnest performance for one of their own.

When the reason you feel compelled to leave is physical, whether from an underlying condition or a result of circumstance (and being open with one's physicality at a restaurant can, of course, cause its own embarrassment) a graceful exit can be elusive. You can feel like you're held hostage by this situation, tethered by social conformity and the desire to not offend.

Here are some ways to endure or navigate out of a tasting menu with grace, mostly according to Thomas, input from Mahira Rivers, former longtime critic and James Beard Award-nominated columnist for Resy.

Honesty and respect are key.

It took Thomas a few years after witnessing his partner puke after a meal to learn that respect is dealing with the situation in a mature manner.

"Respect is not eating so much that you throw up after, just so you can tell the chef everything was perfect. It's not about feeding someone's ego," Thomas says. "Be open with the restaurant, like hey, I'm jet lagged and not super hungry but I just want to have the best experience here possible. If you have a time constraint, say so. Part of hospitality is dealing with everybody differently. If you're open with them, the restaurant can let you know how long your meal is going to be."

Tip well and apologize in person.

Thomas has not left a tasting menu meal early, but due to time constraints such as getting to a show or making a flight, he has comfortably canceled courses. "I think something to understand is that they're not starting your next course after they sent you the last one. Multiple courses are prepped at once," he tells me. "A couple weeks ago, the chef was sending me more food than I had imagined, before the main course even arrived. I was running late to a flight. I compensated as much as I could, found the chef, and personally apologized for leaving early."

Develop your relationship throughout the meal.

"Hospitality is also about being open, so seek clarity and communication from both sides," advises Thomas. "Let the restaurant know sooner rather than later. Bad news doesn't get better with time."

Bad news doesn't get better with time.

No skips.

"I have seen people who are enjoying the meal, but then want to stop or skip straight to dessert and I think that is offensive," says Thomas. "I think the reason why is because restaurants and chefs work so hard to curate this experience for people, taking into account their individual dietary restrictions to also match the experience they're trying to give everyone. If you're not enjoying a show on Broadway, you're going to be like, let's skip ahead to the next part. I do think it's rude to not take in the full experience."

Be mindful of your dining companions.

"Let's say there's a four-top and just one guest is full. As chefs, we can talk to them and say we'll give them smaller portions to still make them feel included," explains Thomas. "Nobody just wants to sit there with no plates. Service staff can also communicate how many courses are left and so on."

Don't expect your money back.

"I've seen it all. I've seen guests at the end of the meal say, 'We didn't like it. We want our money back.' And that's not how this works," says Thomas. "I think it's super disheartening to see people not liking the meal, but you don't get your money back because you didn't like it. If we took a survey of the room, you're going to be in the minority so it's not our fault that you didn't like the meal. It's just a mismatch."

Know what you're getting yourself into.

"Of course, a diner can do whatever they please and in the case of an emergency, it may be necessary to skip out on a meal. But to do so in any other circumstance is disrespectful or, at the very least, a breach of basic restaurant etiquette," says Mahira Rivers. "Going to dinner at a restaurant is a commitment; it is an unspoken agreement between a chef, their team, and a diner."

It's a transaction, Rivers explains. "As with any commitment that involves money, it's standard due diligence to know the basics of what you're getting into — what are you eating and how much will it cost — ahead of time. That way, you're managing your own expectations, following restaurant etiquette, and saving the restaurant from having to deal with a whole host of issues, such as throwing off the kitchen's rhythm, food waste, or lost revenue on beverages or tips. And if it's simply too much food, a conversation with your server might lead to a solution that benefits everyone."

Consider the physical impact.

In terms of surveying the world's finest, most exalted tasting menus, there are few quite like my cousin Liz Kao, food writer and founder of Taster Taiwan. She's even authored a book on Japanese culinary etiquette. I often look to her for both inspiration and help getting reservations.

It's stressful to both my body and my mind.

I ask Kao if she's lost any steam in the last pandemic years. "It's stressful to both my body and my mind," she admits. "The amount of food and the long dining hours are causing digestion problems. I am currently under treatment for GERD, and I have been refraining from tasting menus as much as I could. Sometimes it's just too much and too tiring. Eating has become like a sport. It's very much like putting your body to a test: How much food can you take until it is no longer enjoyable?"

And the mental as well.

We're at a curious time for dining out. We've been spent the last two and half years weighing the risks. Restaurants have suffered. Diners have grown more impatient.

Kao adds, "The thing with tasting menus is that not only [are they] physical experiences, but also psychological. The storytelling could be overwhelming. And sometimes your brain just refuses to process all the information. Often a good dining experience is simply attentive cooking and good company. Maybe it's time to go back to a good old a la carte menu and a proper three-course meal."

It's OK to send up a flare.

At the end of the day, communication can save you in the moment, but it's also helpful for the chef. My husband, Ari Miller, the chef and owner of Musi in Philadelphia explains how feedback ensures his control over service. "I don't think I'd mind [someone leaving early] so much as I would be curious if it's something that's in my control or beyond. If it's in my control, I'd want to know and be able to see how or if it needs to be addressed. I've had people comment on the amount of food of a tasting menu as being too much or not enough."

Miller has also had some guests, including colleagues, comment on perfect portioning and that's some of the best feedback he's ever received. "It's kind of like grilling meat to temp or baking. You don't really know that it's perfect till the end of the process. Coursing and portioning a tasting menu appropriately are some of the highest senses of professional satisfaction I've experienced."

And just like if a dish is sent back untouched, Miller says, "You suck it up and aim to do better the next time. And maybe let it eat away at you for a little while till your attention turns towards the next pressing issue."

Take ego off the menu.

These days, Thomas prefers a two-hour meal, "with ten courses max for a tasting. This is how I like to eat and cook." Like Kao, he says in terms of general trends in the fine dining industry, "The five-hour meal is pretty antiquated. It's definitely hard to hold people's attention for that long. It's also hard to eat for that long. As a chef, you want to think that the food is the most important thing and why people go to restaurants, but it's actually the people you're with. Without them, the food doesn't matter."