Chefs with Issues: The politics of restaurant reservations
July 8th, 2013
08:00 AM ET
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Editor's Note: Kelly English is the chef/owner of Restaurant Iris in Memphis, Tennessee. English was named one of Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs in 2009. In 2010, he was named a James Beard Award Semifinalist for Best Chef: Southeast.

At three o'clock on a Friday afternoon, like clockwork, my phone starts to ring. It is one of my friends from college; he forgot his anniversary and needs a table tonight. I am forced to tell him one of my least favorite things: No. It's not in a chef's DNA to tell people "no" - we hire front-of-house people for that.

“We have known each other for years, you must be able to put me somewhere,” he said.

I really wish I could.

The manager of one of my favorite bands is passing through town. He wants to make reservations for the drummer for tomorrow night.

“Would backstage passes help?” he said.

I really wish they did.

My restaurant is located in a turn-of-the-century Victorian home in Memphis, Tennessee, and has thirteen tables. There is nary a string hanging from anywhere in the building that can be tugged. I have been fortunate to hire incredible people in every position, and that has translated into a table that is pretty hard to come by. I have disappointed my friends, parents and even my wife by being booked solid, but we choose to honor the reservations we have.

There are people who come through town that I would die to cook for, but having a certain stature will not magically make a table appear. That person will have to eat elsewhere, and we're happy to help direct them to one of the many other excellent choices in town.

I have heard nearly every type of criticism and suggestion regarding our seating capacity. People tell me to expand, but to me, that would change what we are and how we do it. People tell me to find a new location, but part of where we are is part of who we are. What many people see as an opportunity to change who we are, I see as a chance to reaffirm our commitment to our guests and locale. I love everything my restaurant has turned out to be, and I wouldn't change a damn thing about it.

Being in the business of fine dining isn't about the money; a few months' work in a fancy restaurant will tell you that. It is about the connections. The bonds with the people who grow the food and the people who consume it should be extremely meaningful to any good chef, and it is not something that should be jeopardized for a few extra seats.

As a chef, I would love to cook for everyone; as a business owner, I would love to seat them all too. However, owning a small restaurant in a town that isn't New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans or San Francisco means that I simply cannot afford to keep a table in my back pocket in the off-chance that someone "important" comes to town and wants to come in.

My mission has never been to cook for celebrities anyway, but to cook for regular people as if they were celebrities.

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soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. the shek

    What ?? this is an article written by the chef himself ?? The resto is nothing outstanding in the
    first place !

    There ARE no 5 star, inspired cuisine restos in Memphis freekin TN in the first place ! the place is full of
    wannabe mediocrity

    July 17, 2013 at 11:46 am |
  2. Kelsey Maynard

    I eat at Iris. It is in my neighborhood and I consider it to be a place for special occasions. The food is excellent. Kelly English probably has no idea who I am but he has made some of the best meals that I have ever had. When my girlfriend and I went for our anniversary, he made us a special menu with a note attached and the staff decorated our table. When I went for a friend's birthday, he made a special note for them too.

    There are personal touches here that I have never seen before. The staff is so kind and so knowledgeable. I wish every restaurant had a staff like Iris. If you want to go there, make a reservation a few days ahead. You will love it.

    July 11, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
  3. jeff

    "cant keep a table for in your back pocket someone important"? Why not? If your place is so busy surely you will have at least one walk in to take your "important" table should nobody important show up.

    July 11, 2013 at 1:55 am |
  4. Christy

    Way to go Kelly English! My husband and I both work hard for our money and are not "celebrities", even in our own minds. But we choose to go to Iris twice a year for special occasions. The food is ridiculously good, the staff is superb, and the environment is second to none. This man has zero arrogance and it makes me angry to hear others describe him as such.

    July 10, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
  5. SB1790

    Have actually eaten at this place. The fact that you can't get a seat creates this sense of 'it must be wonderful'. The food was okay but there are a great many other choices in Memphis. I think it's more the bragging right for most people that they got a table. If he expands I think he thinks he might loose that sense of special.

    July 10, 2013 at 9:42 am |
    • Thinking things through

      More likely, if you got a table you picked an off night or time, or reserved enough in advance. I think the article is the chef's explanation about why he can't play favorites and bump people if celebrities or best friends call at the last minute. Which is something good for me to know if I ever become best friends of a restauranteer.

      July 10, 2013 at 9:56 pm |
  6. uhnoreally

    self serving commercial

    July 9, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
    • Shirley U Jest

      Translation: A egomaniac narcissistic chef who needs to pay for the this fake blog, this infomercial, to boost his restaurant up to capacity.

      This is a horse apple of an article.

      July 9, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
  7. ajj5

    If you read carefully, the "problem" isn't a restaurant that isn't flexible enough to bend to "special"'s diners who, for whatever reason, feel they deserve treatment above and beyond those who took the time and effort to secure one of the few available seats.

    Critics, whether professional or otherwise, next to quality, value consistency above all else. Considering a restaurant that is at full utilization, If that restaurant must spend extra resources on "VIPs" they are necessarily taking away resources from non-VIPs. This runs counter to consistency. If you have the extra capacity to "do something extra," then great...but for building a restaurant for the long term...extra capacity can be a costly luxury.

    July 9, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
  8. Brian

    I applaud the chef but at the same time he should know the current reservation system is horribly flawed. If something is free "a reservation" and it has value it will be abused and taken advantage of. Why should concierges be allowed to book several reservations and hand them out to their personal network, are they better than a guest who is only in town one night and didn't realize he had to book 21 days in advance but would be hugely grateful to dine with you? Why should the person sitting at a computer screen waiting, knowing when you next table will become available just to snatch them up be more important than an old friend who wants to celebrate an anniversary with you, what greater compliment? Flawed system!!

    July 9, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  9. Ed G.

    I appreciate that he treats all of his guests that were kind enough to make reservations with respect, but his website says:

    "Private Rooms

    If you are interested in reserving one of our private rooms, please email your request with your party’s requirements and we will respond within 48 hours. We suggest booking your reservation 21 days in advance to ensure availability. You may also call us at (901) 590-2828. Each private room accommodates up to 16 guests."

    Surely he could use one of his private rooms for a chef's table (for an additional fee of course).

    July 9, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
    • Penny

      The problem there that few non-industry workers understand is that restaurants make food orders from purveyors with the amount of tables in mind, especially a restaurant of only 13 seats. The reason for requesting a 21 day advance booking, is to be sure there are enough supplies in the house to serve a large party. Also, if service staff and back waiters aren't scheduled for the evening and staff is pulled from another section of the room, all other tables suffer potentially poor service as a result.

      The problem is not the chef nor the restaurant, the problem is the diner who forgets to make a reservation ahead of time and then expects the chef to break out a phantom table he has stashed in the back room without repercussions.

      July 9, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
    • MRS

      This restaurant is in an old home with small rooms. These "private rooms" will be booked as regular reservations if not booked in advance for a private party.

      July 10, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
  10. House Boss

    GREAT JOB! Treat all customers well as celebrities and you will be THE CELEBRITY in your own house.

    July 9, 2013 at 2:41 am |
    • mickinmd

      My guess is the cost of going to that restaurant, if just 13 tables are able to keep it in business, means that the customers ARE celebrities in the first place or the area's very well off.

      July 9, 2013 at 8:00 am |
  11. R. King

    I've known several executive chefs over the years and this is not an uncommon problem. However there is a solution, should Kelly choose to invoke it - the chef's table.

    Different restaurants use it differently, but most often I see it used to provide a little flexibility in situations such as what Kelly describes in his article.

    Imagine the service is fully booked and something comes up. An unexpected celebrity drops in, unannounced (yes, I know it isn't fair to other diners who have been turned down for that seating, but honestly, this is a business and having your restaurant showing up in the gossip column because Brad Pit ate there the night before is the kind of free publicity you cannot buy.) Having a table held in reserve, to be used at the chef's (or the owner's,) discretion can benefit the restaurant.

    However it needs to be used responsibly. Using it too much or without enough discretion can make the chef (and by extension the restaurant,) seem to be playing favorites (which it is, honestly.)

    My favorite restaurant was one in which the chef's table was tucked away in a corner, with a fantastic view of the controlled chaos of the kitchen, but it wasn't readily visible to the diners. To further disguise the table's intended purpose, it wasn't set up. It had a vase of fresh flowers in it. When needed, the flowers were removed, replaced by a white linen tablecloth, two chairs, and the guest's favorite drinks.

    One of the secrets to a successful dining establishment is flexibility

    July 8, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
    • Thinking things through

      R. King - the author mentioned he has only thirteen tables, and presumably room for no more. Apparently he has already the right kind of publicity, and it would be a shame if he lost revenue on that thirteenth "chef's table" every day that someone "important" did not come by. You mention bumping out a wall - that's expensive. To put in a seldom-used chef's table? And if the bump out is larger for more tables than that, it will affect the ambiance this guy has worked hard to create. (Nor is there always property space for such a thing.)

      No, I'd say this chef is doing it right.

      July 9, 2013 at 6:31 am |
      • Thinking things through

        (Actually it was a different respondent who mentioned bumping out a wall... Sorry on that one.)

        July 9, 2013 at 6:33 am |
  12. CT

    More power to chefs like this. Too many restaurants have gone broke because they took out a loan to expand, only to see the crowds go elsewhere once they were no longer the trendy spot. Stay small, cultivate a dedicated customer base, and feed them well.

    July 8, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
  13. Steve

    Be smart add a chef's table in an out of the way place or in the kitchen yeah it is tight or what ever, even pop out a wall and add a small booth and save that for those special guests and let them know what big deal it is, and that will win you hearts and $s....

    July 8, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
  14. nigelz

    Save your money. Invest it wisely. You'll be pleasantly surprised if you make the right decision.

    July 8, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
  15. teako nunn

    Eating out is an adventure–we can all cook at home if we wish–when I go on the adventure, I let the owner of the "ride" make the rules and choose the ride accordingly....

    July 8, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
  16. ala-kat

    Bumping customers that had made a reservation to accommodate 'whoever' sets a very bad precedent. I don't fault those that do call to see if they can be accommodated, but when the answer is 'no', it should be left there with a gracious 'thank you, and how much lead time do you suggest in the future'.

    July 8, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
  17. Nursehope

    I worked in fine dining for years. I was the front of the house master. Our restaurant had a scenic view of the Pacific Ocean. EVERYBODY just had to have a table by the window. Every single night there was a heated discussion with patrons who failed to request such seats when they made their reservation. Then there were the romantic booths and the table in front of the fireplace. Same deal. I understand that where you sit is important but not more important than the exquisite food our chefs turned out.

    July 8, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
  18. Din

    If a restaurant requires reservations I probably won't go there, or I'll go at a quiet time. I don't like being surrounded by noisy people anyway and having chefs rushing to get dishes out is more likely to affect the quality. I like a nice relaxed meal with classical music in the background and perhaps a few quiet murmurs from other diners who are sitting far away from my table.

    July 8, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
    • solex

      I bet you would like it if the tables for the other diners revolved slowly around you while you are eating too...

      July 8, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Brian

      That relaxed atmosphere is exactly the reason why restaurants require reservations. They know that it's better to stagger parties at 15-30 minute intervals so you don't have 100 people showing up all at once. That is what leads to a hectic chaotic atmosphere, not the requirement for reservations. Also, during busier times, food quality is more likely to be BETTER, not worse, because it keeps everyone in the kitchen on the ball and the food is rotated faster, which often translates into fresher food=better quality, and everyone is much more alert and on top of their game. So your arguments have no merit. You obviously lack any knowledge or experience of how a restaurant operates. If you want quietude and low din, you should eat at the 5:30-6:00pm hour at the beginning of dinner service. Not many people want to eat dinner then.

      July 9, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
      • Thinking things through

        Brian, definitely to just about all of your points! (Although I PREFER to eat at 6 pm rather than later - that's just how my biological clock is set, as I prefer to dine before any ravenous thoughts set in, and I can best appreciate the nuances of food; and it is an unintended great benefit for me on weekends when things get more crowded later on in the evening.)

        July 10, 2013 at 9:51 pm |
  19. Krystal

    Chef English is one of my favorites and Iris is, in my mind, THE place to eat in Memphis for sure. I agree with him, changing anything about Iris would mess up the groove it has. I was able to manage a table w/o a reservation a year or so ago but have since been making reservations to be sure. Now with all the press this issue has been getting surrounding Iris, I guess I HAVE to make reservations in the future. Good to know.
    On a different note, the Memphis culinary scene is up and coming – English is right in that there are now a good number of other delicious prospects

    July 8, 2013 at 11:20 am |
  20. bryan

    Love this guy. Nice to read the truth about how a restaurant works with limited seating. It's tough to run, it's tough to execute and people don't always understand the realities. Smart chef.

    July 8, 2013 at 10:36 am |
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