“Could we have some salt please?”
A hush fell over the restaurant – or I should say an even bigger hush seeing that the restaurant was more like a library run by a particularly austere and anally retentive librarian.
The waiter/owner strained their neck backwards as though trying to distance their nose further from my odorous being, and sneered down, preferring to look at the venison on my plate rather than me.
“No, you may not.”
This was many, many years ago in a gourmet restaurant in Kirkudbright, Scotland.
I was a salter then. I’d been brought up a salter and had never strayed from automatically showering my food in a blizzard of the stuff before taking the first bite.
Around about the same period I read about a famous chef who’d thrown a customer out of their restaurant because they’d demanded on being brought salt to season their meal. At the time I thought the chef was a pretentious git.
Now I’m 100% on his side. If I ran a restaurant and someone asked for salt, I’d come at them with a cleaver, cursing and shouting directions to the nearest McDonalds.
I don’t know how, or when I changed this stance on salt. It happened gradually over the years as I moved from viewing eating food as functional or to round off a boozy night out (fish and chips or scotch pies in Scotland, curries in England) to actually appreciating it and the creation of cuisine that invoked more than just a satisfyingly swollen belly.
There’s no doubt that a diet of cookery programmes on TV leading to a love of pouring over recipe books were savoury ingredients, or that a move to Manchester and exposure to the occasional ‘proper’ restaurant helped.
Somewhere in the mists of time I simply stopped automatically asking for salt in good restaurants.
Having worked with chefs and become friends with some, as well as interviewing quite a few over the years, I now think of the good ones as artists. The dishes they create are carefully and lovingly constructed and the finished article is not designed to be messed with. If I bought a painting from even the most humble street artist I wouldn’t ask to borrow his brush so I could add a stroke here, a dash of colour there. So, generally, I don’t treat the work of a chef any differently.
Chain restaurants and junk food outlets are different kettles of fish. But salt shouldn’t be needed in one of their establishments either. Their mass produced fare is often already salted into the ‘red for danger’ zone and anyone asking for salt at one of those should think about checking into salt rehab.
But I did say that I don’t automatically ask for salt in a restaurant. That doesn’t mean I don’t do it now and again. We’ve cut down on the amount of salt we use in our own cooking, preferring to utilise other herbs and spices to bring create flavours. But there are some basic restaurants where any seasoning at all can be meagre – inoffensive food for unadventurous palates. Sometimes you are presented with food that is simply just bland and needs perked up with whatever is available – salt.
But what I never, ever do now is to put salt on food without tasting it first. Like the restaurateur in Kirkudbright, I sneer, my lip curling with culinary superiority, when I see anyone else doing it. I am no longer a salter. I’m a foodie.
By the way, the venison in the restaurant in Kirkudbright all those years ago was over-cooked and would have benefited from a sprinkling of salt.