For people who care about their food

A heated debate!

Dinner plates stacked for a buffet[The following is a guest blog by BuddyBoy of Medway River Fire Departments. (He of the “Whatever happened to soup spoons?” question. I think he likes to keep me on my toes.) Now he wants to know why it’s so rare to get a warm plate in restaurants.]

Your article about portion sizes evokes discontent about another aspect of eating out, the issue of “warming the plates”. I hate eating lukewarm food that should be served hot, so getting it on a cold plate ensures it’s almost cold by the time you are halfway through it. I have lobbied (for want of a better word) all over the place here in Canada yet no one seems to want to answer to the issue. Here is the crux of a letter I have sent to various organizations, associations, food critics and the like:

I have an issue with many restaurants in that so many of them serve good, hot food on cold plates. Steaming hot food served on a cold plate is fine on arrival but quickly becomes cold part way through the meal. This is particularly notable for light foods such as fluffy rice, etc. Most restaurants serve food that is just hot enough, so it soon gets cold if the plate is not warmed. Buffets are a particular problem. They obviously can’t keep their food as hot as it would be if served à la carte, yet most provide stacks of cold plates! It is my belief that, in the main, restaurants do this because they have given no thought to the matter, yet it affects almost all they serve.

Now, I have searched the web up and down, I have looked in books and have raised the issue with reporters and the like, all to no avail. Here are my questions/comments that I hope you can assist with.

  • Is it an acceptable practice for a restaurant to serve hot food on an unheated plate?
  • Would it be proper for me to ask that the food be served on heated plates at the time of ordering, or would that be considered impertinent? After all, by doing that I am indicating I expect the worst and I have never felt good about doing that. Alternatively I wait until the food is served, at which time it may be the most wonderful meal but on a thick, cold plate. If I complain then it is really too late. I am in a dilemma, I feel ill at ease and yet my expectations are surely reasonable, are they not?
  • Are there any guidelines given to chefs and restaurateurs which provides them with advice about this matter? Are there any references to which I might turn?

Professional chefs and the like have agreed with me privately, but they have no answers. Am I an eccentric in this regard? You would think they would teach something about this at cooking schools but apparently not. I have scoured the web and you find lots of must dos and how tos, such as the layout of tables, what cutlery, etc., yet never a mention of this issue. Perhaps this could be a cause célèbre for Not Delia.

[Thanks for raising this issue. I hope I can find some answers for you soon. My initial reaction is that plate warming equipment (cupboards and drawers) are readily available from catering equipment suppliers – so why is it so hard to get hot food served on warm plates? Watch this space!]

23 Responses to “A heated debate!”

  1. UK Eating Out

    A very valid ‘complaint’, I’d say, but I can understand the author’s dilemma. I think it’s always going to be a problem unless you get a kind of acceptance that a cold plate is simply unacceptable. It strikes me that there’s potentially a hygiene issue here also, but I’m not sure. We’re advised to let warm food cool before it is refrigerated and, whilst there is not the same extreme change in temperature here, it could potentially be an argument. What I’m wondering therefore is whether the requirement for a hot plate could be argued as a point of basic food hygiene. Afterall, a basic food hygiene course is something anyone working in a kitchen should have gone through.

  2. Not Delia

    I completely agree, and I’ve been pursuing this angle in researching my reply to Buddyboy.

    Hot food should be kept hot. Cold food should be kept chilled. Simple. No arguments!

    BTW, you can do a food hygiene course online and get the necessary certificate. (Cost £25) If you don’t need the formal qualification you can look at my series on food hygiene. (Free). Basically I just took my old college notes on the subject and rewrote them into better English. 😉
    http://www.notdelia.co.uk/category/health-safety/

  3. Matt Chatterley

    Some good restaurants (at least here in Jersey) still do warm up the plates – the downside is that you really notice when somewhere doesn’t!

    Although I’ve never complained because of this, I’m pretty sure it’s a contributing factor when food is disappointing.

    And frankly, no, I don’t want to eat my dinner off a piece of slate, even if you think it’s cool, Mr Flash Pants “Restauranteur”. 🙂

  4. Mitch Adams

    This is a very valid complaint and a real dilema. From the perspective of somebody in the catering industry I would suggest that you are perfectly entitled to ‘ask’ for a warm plate, but that it is all in the wording…

    Instead of ‘telling’ the waitress you require your food to be served on a heated plate, implying that they wouldn’t normally and therefore seemingly expecting the worst. Try asking politely ‘Do you serve food on hot plates?’ giving them the opportunity to quash your fears without patronising them.

    Of course if the answer is ‘no’, your expectations have been settled before you meal is ordered and you can make your own decision from there…

  5. UK Eating Out

    Fair enough, Mitch… but I suppose you could argue that it’s a question that needs to be asked at the time of making your reservation. If you’ve booked a dinner somewhere, it could be that alternatives aren’t easy to come by at short notice if you are given the answer you weren’t hoping for.

  6. Not Delia

    Could it possibly become some kind of USP for a restaurant?

    “We serve great food, and we serve it on hot plates.”

    Keep the comments coming, thanks. I’m trying to compile a reply posting to BuddyBoy who started this in the first place.

  7. UK Eating Out

    I suppose it could be. But at a good restaurant, it ought to be taken as read, and to state it as something you do could give the wrong impression.

    For the sake of comparison… for me, if a hotel boasts that it has en suite rooms, that’s a bit of a turn-off. Call me a snob, but I expect to have my own bathroom when I go and stay in a hotel and if a hotel prides itself on such a feature, then I would suspect it’s not the kind of hotel I’d want to stay in. It wouldn’t occur to a top-end hotel to say all their rooms are en suite, and nor should it be necessary – in my opinion – for a good restaurant to boast that they serve food on warm/hot plates.

  8. Not Delia

    I agree about the hotel analogy, I completely take it for granted that we’ll have en suite facilities. We even have that in the cheap and cheerful room above a bar where we quite often stay.

    But the hot plates can’t be taken for granted, especially – as BuddyBoy says – at buffets. They invariably have stacks of cold plates for you to put your hot food onto.

    I must admit I’m enjoying all the debate on here. This issue must be one of the most talked about subjects ever on Not Delia. I’m going to take up the banner and fight for the cause! We want hot plates!

    It wouldn’t be too difficult to warm the plates. It’s quite easy to buy the kit from catering suppliers.

  9. UK Restaurants

    Well… would it be fair to say top restaurants don’t really “do” buffets? 🙂

    Maybe. Maybe not.

    With a buffet, there is of course the converse hygiene argument if there is also cold food available and you are providing only hot plates. In the case of a buffet – if there is both hot and cold food – perhaps the solution is to offer both types of plates.

  10. Not Delia

    Top restaurants don’t usually do buffets, in my experience. But five star hotels do. Typically, they’ll have their coffee shop, buffet place, and their fine dining restaurant. I’ve not been lucky (or rich) enough to have experience of the fine dining too often.

    But I’ve been to a lot of five star buffets. I like that kind of food!

    All that’s needed is to have a hot cupboard for the plates and someone to take them out, half a dozen at a time, and let the customers have a warm plate to put their hot food on. What’s so difficult about that?

  11. Buddyboy

    My goodness! This is the best response by far that I have had from the many places that I have tried to explore this issue. There are clearly many people who frequent this site who truly care about their food, eating out, etc. What intrigues me so much (apart from the aspects which frustrate me) is that there are volumes of professional advice about which knife to place where, how to fold a napkin, how to do the most inconsequential things, yet virtually nothing about this. Now, wouldn’t you have thought such a fundamental aspect of dining would be thoroughly proscribed by the experts? Not so. I have contacted food critics (best response: “Good luck with this”), restaurant associations (best response: “Frankly, I never thought about this. You are right. We’ll bring it to the attention of our members.” They never did!), and pored cook books and the web for some authoritative reference. I have found a few supportive opinions, but not yet one that I could copy and give to restaurateurs I care about. I even had a few responses on other blogs against warming plates because they might burn the holders hands!

    One restaurant I had asked to warm the plates (always, always politely) sent them out so hot they scalded the waitress’ hands, and I mean literally. She was quite upset. Another restaurant served me fried eggs and bacon on an ice cold, thick plate in the middle of a Canadian winter. It was evident the stack of plates had been standing on the window sill of an icy window. I had to send the meal back. The surprising thing is that most seem to resent being asked for warmed plates.

    It’s easy to say don’t go there. I live in a rural area with a limited number of restaurants within driving distance. I have my local restaurants sufficiently aware of my concern that they do accommodate my “special” request for warmed plates. But that’s my main point. Why am I made to feel like an eccentric about this, that they are being really good to me, “accommodating” me?

    I agree with the point that if a restaurant boasts of warming the plates that is suspicious. I should not have to ask for warmed plates any more than asking if all the ingredients are fresh and edible.

    Like the absence of proper soup spoons from anywhere except commercial establishments, this whole issue leaves me frustrated and flummoxed. Aaaargh.

  12. Jessica

    This is an interesting debate and thinking about it, just one restaurant here in London Ontario that I’ve been to provides warm plates – it’s the Mandarin all-you-can-eat chinese buffet place.

    When I was living at home, my mum and dad always warmed the plates. They were always on top of the potato pan or in the oven before dinner was served.

  13. Not Delia

    Hi Jessica

    Lovely to see you here again. Interesting that your mum and dad always warmed the plates – and I’m guessing they didn’t have food hygiene training or qualifications. It’s just common sense, isn’t it?

    My cooker – a bog standard domestic model – has a warming drawer below the oven. I just take it for granted that I’ll put the plates in there if I’m making something in the oven. Otherwise, I’ll heat the plates by some other means.

    If you put hot food on a cold plate, the food gets cold quickly. It’s not rocket science, so why do so many restaurateurs seem to miss this point?

    My next step is to see if I can get any chefs or restaurateurs to comment.

  14. Michael Saxon

    Dear All,

    If I may, I would like to offer some thoughts as far as International Hoteliers are concerned with regards to hot/warm plates for hot food.

    Firstly, when all plates are put through the dishwasher in the kitchen, if the dishwasher is set to the correct temperature level, the water should be so hot that it not only kills any germs available, but should ensure that they steam dry by themselves due to the very hot water used.

    If this is done correctly there should be no issue as far as hygiene is concerned, no outlet should be washing the dishes in a sink or by hand, as the water is simply not hot enough to kill the germs. Whilst the plates may appear to be clean, they simply will not be clean enough for food for consumption.

    If the health department ever comes to our establishments they always check the temperature of the water in our dishwashing machines and keep this item at the top of their check and priority lists.

    All plates/dishes/bowls that will be used as a receptacle for serving hot food for consumption should be hot. The plates should be hot enough to be carried by service staff using a clean dry towel or cloth, but not enough to burn your hands. The service staff should always carry their clean dry cloth so they will not be burned, but if the plate is too hot, the customers may get a shock if they touch a scalding hot plate, very hot plates may also make the food so hot that they may burn their mouth.

    It is also important to ensure that the plates and food are hot, as most restaurants are air-conditioned which will ensure that the food cools very quickly, especially if the plates are only luke warm. There is no point for the chefs to toil to ensure that the food is hot and then placing the food on a plate ill tempered for the purpose.

    Lastly, hot food is very good for a healthy tummy environment and helps to balance the bacteria in the tummy as well. Anything cold, iced or even chilled is not always a good thing for a healthy balanced tummy, hot drinks and food are far better to ensure you have a happy, balanced and regular digestive system.

    Hi Kay, I hope that this helps a little, it is lovely to see that you are encouraging such educational, interesting and very important debates.

    Great Job!!

  15. Michael Saxon

    Dear All,

    I failed to touch on the subject of buffets.

    For the cold buffet counters, the room temperature plates can be placed on top of the counter in between the dishes or at the beginning of the buffet line. There is however an unfortunate trend today whereby the plates are placed on shelves below the cold buffet counter and the guests are encouraged to bend down to pick one of them up.

    This is ok if the plates are well enough off the ground to avoid dirt or dust coming up from the floor or from people’s footwear.

    Hot plates should be kept at the beginning of the hot buffet counter in a plugged-in heater or “lowerator”.

    This plate “container” or “holder” has a heater element at the bottom under the metal plates that the hot plates sit on. The temperature should be set to ensure that the plates are hot enough to be held by the customers’ hands but obviously not hot enough to burn their fingers.

    The buffet counter should be designed so as to ensure that there is an electrical power point at the beginning of the hot buffet, so that you can plug in the lowerator and set the temperature to the desired degree.

    The sign that the plates are too hot is when you see the guests picking up the plates and holding them on the outside rim of the plate as they continuously move them around their hands to alleviate the heat.

    As the plates are taken from the lowerator, the plates underneath will rise to the top as there is also a large spring underneath that will send the plates upwards.

    All the plates should be hygienically sterilized as they should have gone through the extremely hot temperature dishwashing machine.

    Hope this helps.

    Mike

  16. Not Delia

    Thanks so much for your comment, Michael,

    (For anyone who doesn’t know Mike, he’s the top man at one of Asia’s most prestigious hotels – the Eastern and Oriental in Penang. Check out his blog! It’s listed in our blogroll.)

  17. Not Delia

    Sorry, Mike I was replying to your first comment before I’d seen your second one.

    I’ve never even heard of a “lowerator” – must keep my eyes peeled better in future.

    You’re right, no one wants to have their hands burned, just as people don’t want hot food served on ice cold plates.

    The hygiene aspect that we’re on about isn’t whether the plates are clean in the first place, I feel sure they are clean and germ-free. It’s about putting hot food onto cold plates – which no one likes.

  18. Michael Saxon

    Hi Kay,

    I think that everyone would or should agree that hot food should be placed on hot plates.

    Not sure what the logic would be of putting it on cold plates, cost saving surely can’t be an issue when it comes to hygiene.

    If the plates are only luke warm, this is not good either as bacteria like the temperature to be warm.

    Hot plates are much better and safer.

    Mike.

  19. Graeme

    Thermal death time (the amount of heat and time it takes to kill a bacteria) can be a little complicated and depends a lot on what bacteria are present. Wikipedia has a short article on this subject here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermal_death_time It takes a long time to kill off some bacteria and if they are incompletely removed-who hasn’t had a slightly dirty plate in a restaurant-the warming of the plate may encourage cellular growth and produce a biological risk to the patron.
    Leaving the thermodynamics of cell death behind, I prefer a warm plate for warm food and my wife used to do this all the time but recently stopped. I asked her why and she replied she couldn’t be bothered to do it anymore, but when pressed she admitted that she preferred it as well, so hopefully warm plates will be back in my kitchen soon.
    I think that’s where the crux of the matter lies, it’s not too difficult to do, it’s just a hassle, yet one more thing the restaurant owner has to do and in this age of fast food and miserable patrons, perhaps it’s just too much bother.
    Graeme.

  20. Buddyboy

    I think you have hit the nail on the head, Graeme. It’s just “too much bother”. Thanks to Mike Saxon for his knowledgeable overview, all of which makes perfect sense. It contains a fair number of self evidently justifiable “shoulds”, which still begs the question “So why do so many, the majority of, restaurants who are otherwise proud of what they do and care about their standards serve hot food on cold plates? Fine dining always seems to hit the mark with warmed plates; the next level down do not. Why the disconnect?

  21. caroline

    I guess we are spoilt here in the County. I cannot comment on the pleaces at which I do not eat but in those that I do we always have warm plates and are also warned that that they are warm when they are bought to the table. There is no exception made for the children – their plates are also warm.

    One of top establishments here is also one of Canada’s top cookery schools and they are very strict on teaching the whole experience of eating is what the patron is after not just the food. The food can be top notch but if the whole team is not on side then the food may well have been pig swill. Their buffet on a Sunday have the old fashioned sprung loaded heated plate and bowls and their “British Style Pub” also has food served to the table on warm plates. Mind their glasses for Beer and white wine are also pre chilled to a nice temp.

  22. Not Delia

    Well, we were out at a buffet last night and we did yet warm plates. But wait for it… They were stacked beside the salad and sushi bars! Obviously they’d just come out of the dishwasher and hadn’t had time to cool down before they were put out for service.

    Needless to say, the plates for the hot food were at a cool, ambient temperature.

  23. Buddyboy

    I find the results of the poll to date really interesting. Almost 60% have a stated preference for pre-warmed plates, yet fully 28% grumble when they are not but don’t voice concern. With a distinct majority wanting, even expecting warmed plates, you’d think restaurateurs would be ahead of this particular curve, would you not? The fact that the vast majority are not speaks poorly of their business acumen and their professionalism.

    The warm plates at the salad buffet, ND, reflects a cavalier attitude to customer service. Sadly it is by no means a rare occurrence.

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