A row over a £1.50 parmesan supplement charged in an independent east London neighbourhood restaurant is suddenly the subject of national media interest (and outrage). It started with a tweet by food writer and events organiser Rosie French, who ate at Ombra on Vyner Street, near London Fields, on Tuesday evening.
The tweet, which was directed at national restaurant critic Jay Rayner, said: “Any thoughts on this “parmisan supplement” @jayrayner1? Wasn’t mentioned to us during the awkward, painfully slow, grating at the table. Would have let her carry on had we known!”
Rayner, in his first reply, only to French (and, by default, those who follow her), said: “Where in gods name was this?” She told him. He then asked his full 212,000 followers for their opinion, too: “An extra (unannounced) charge of £1.50 to have more parmesan grated over your pasta. Has anyone else experienced something like this?” (It was only last month that Rayner himself wrote in The Guardian: “Don’t moan about the cost of a restaurant meal – unless you don’t care about paying the chef and the waiter properly.”)
The story, some might say predictably, was first picked up “EXCLUSIVELY” by the right-wing tabloid newspaper, The Sun, under the headline: “BILL’S NOT GRATE Food writer left stunned after restaurant charged for grating parmesan on her meal.”
The choice between asking a national restaurant critic’s opinion on Twitter instead of raising it with a waiter or manager at the restaurant is a matter of personal taste, but it’s worth returning to some facts. Rayner says the charge was “unannounced.” In fact, the charge is written on the menu, albeit the same size font as the service charge and note regarding dietary requirements. Mitshel Ibrahim, the head chef at Ombra, has admitted that the charge listed is £1, not the £1.50 which French was charged. He confirmed to Eater that he has offered her party a refund.
The reason, he says, that it is £1 on the menu and £1.50 on the system is that the restaurant recently reduced the parmesan supplement by 50p. He admitted and regretted the restaurant’s mistake for not updating the till system but says what’s upset him more is that “people thought they were being greedy.” (He’s already received an email from someone saying they will never visit his restaurant and instead go elsewhere in the area.)
Ibrahim, who has been surprised by both the shock and attention the issue has generated, told Eater that no-one has ever complained in the restaurant about the charge. He also said that because the kitchen grates parmesan on the pasta before it is served, most don’t ask for extra. He suspects that many view extra parmesan (often referred to as “cheese”) as “a commodity.” He said “parmesan is often the most expensive ingredient in a plate of pasta.” The restaurant, he pointed out, uses 36-month cured parmesan, which costs £22 per kilo. He and his team cost each dish, as is common in professional kitchens. Parmesan is an expensive ingredient — and Ibrahim might be forgiven for expecting a customer to pay a little extra if they ask for more.
Even if the practice may not be common across the board, Eater is aware of at least one other notable fresh pasta restaurant in town that charges a supplement for a similar grade parmesan when extra is requested.
Some have pointed out that staff should have told the customer about the charge, even if it is listed in small print on the menu. Ibrahim says that “we shouldn’t say that before or as we grate it because it doesn’t feel like good service.”
He also said that he feels his restaurant is victim of its non-status. He pointed out that his kitchen orders ingredients from the same suppliers used by Michelin-starred restaurants like The Clove Club and Lyle’s, as well as other cult favourites like Luca and Brawn. The chef, though he’s never before felt the need to “shout about it,” has worked in the kitchens of The Clove Club, The Dairy, and Koya (when it was run by Junya Yamasaki.) In other words, he has pedigree. He said, “I didn’t want to say where I’ve worked because everyone is always talking about where they’ve worked.” This episode, he said, has forced him to reconsider.