People have amusing ideas about how I do my job as the Free Press restaurant critic. Some believe the fantasy depicted in old B movies, in which some overstuffed man in a dinner jacket sweeps into a restaurant, and a trembling chef prepares dish after dish for him to taste — after which the critic leaves without paying.
It’s not like that. I make a reservation under another name, and my friends and I order lots of dishes so I can taste as many things as possible. But the chef doesn’t even know I’m there. (Yes, I’m sometimes recognized, but it’s rare.) And at the end I pay with a credit card in someone else’s name and quietly go home.
There’s no sweeping. No trembling. No freebies. It’s much less thrilling than movies portray. I think what people love most about the fantasy version, though — even more than free food — is the idea of a chef cooking just for them.
But that scenario is no fantasy. It’s what many chefs call a course-out — a meal made up of multiple dishes that he or she chooses, prepares and sends out just for you and your guests. And you don’t have to be a VIP to enjoy the experience. All you have to do is ask at the right places, preferably in advance. It’s done a couple of ways.
The best, most chefs say, is to call the restaurant, make a reservation and say your party would like to be coursed out — or put another way, “We’d like the chef to cook for us.”
The chef or someone from the restaurant should get in touch to ask about your budget, any allergies or special dietary restrictions, and any strong food dislikes. The chef designs the menu, but within your limits. Some dishes will be from the menu; others may be under development, and some may be created in the moment.
Chef James Rigato of the Root in White Lake — this year’s Free Press Restaurant of the Year — does at least a few course-outs a week. Some guests just sit down and tell the server they want Rigato to cook for them; they’re usually regulars, other chefs or friends.
Other people — usually special-occasion diners or serious food lovers — call several days ahead and discuss parameters for the meal. They may not want dessert, for example, or they dislike fish.
“I just had a guy who booked a four-top and said, ‘Can the chef do a special menu?’ I said sure. … He said, ‘No foie (gras). No bacon. About $100 a person.’ ” Rigato even printed up a menu for the party.
Guests should always say how much they want to spend for food — and drinks, too, if they want the house to do pairings, Rigato says. The starting amount you should expect to spend for a course-out locally is between $60 and $100 per person, depending on the restaurant, chefs say. Expect four or five appropriately sized courses. The cost is several times higher for a comparable experience in top food cities such as Chicago, San Francisco and New York.
Many of the area’s top chefs do courseouts.