She minces no words speaking her mind on the subject of why she won’t swap out ingredients on her carefully composed small plates.
“We don’t substitute here,” Chef Jill said. “We don’t do special requests at all. I put the kibosh on that.”
Chef Jill is co-owner of Salt+, a trendy Cleveland hot spot “specializing in composed small plates, killer cocktails and unique wines.” She will be a panelist at the upcoming culinary conference, Roots 2018: Cultivate, discussing changing attitudes and shifts in dining preferences and what to do about them.
Vedaa said the restaurant culture in Cleveland will never fully thrive or move forward as long as chefs “bend over backwards” to accommodate every customer’s request to substitute or eliminate elements on the plate.
The old school customer service model where “the customer is always right” doesn’t hold water with the feisty, outspoken chef. Sometimes, she said, the customer is flat out wrong.
“Art is so subjective,” Chef Jill said. “Food is, too. You don’t have to like what I do, but you can’t tell me it’s wrong. I would never in a million years walk into someone else’s job and tell them how to do it.”
Chef Jill’s unflinching defense of her menu doesn’t mean she isn’t sensitive to guests whose food choices are limited by true allergies, moral reasons for eschewing animal products, or on religious grounds. She said she always seriously considers those issues when developing Salt+ menus.
“I model the menu with food restrictions in mind,” she said. “There’s something on the menu for everyone.”
Words like “allergic” and “intolerant” are frequently and increasingly used by the dining public to mask what are actually food preferences and attitudes, said the chef, who believes the all-things-to-all-people menu bending that goes on in large restaurant chains has spawned an attitude of entitlement that is trickling down to the little guys.
“The issue comes with ‘I want what I want,’” she said. “People should eat what’s in front of them. Just try what I’ve made for you. It’s all part of the experience. Sit back and enjoy it. I’ve changed lots of people’s minds.”
Despite her rigid stance, Chef Jill isn’t completely inflexible. Although she resists making changes to existing dishes that she’s already created, she said she is happy and willing to customize alternative dishes for guests who take the time to communicate their issues far enough in advance so that she can accommodate their needs. What she won’t tolerate is last minute ingredient substitution requests.
“When you ask a chef who’s been working ten to eleven hours prepping and getting stuff ready … I abolished that a long time ago,” she said.
As an example, Chef Jill noted an email sent to her by a man with strict dietary limitations whose friends had dined at Salt+ and wanted him to have the pleasure, as well. “I respect the hell out of it when they take the time to do that,” she said. “If they’re going to take the time to do that, then I’m going to take the time.” And, she went above and beyond simply tweaking existing dishes to accommodate the man’s food restrictions.
“I will absolutely do a whole course dinner for a guy because he wrote me an email a few days before,” she said. “I said, ‘Of course! I want you to have a good experience. I don’t what you to leave not full from the meal, or the experience.’”
Simply put, Chef Jill is a principled chef who is unwilling to compromise what she stands for, and who is fiercely dedicated to intentionally crafting how she envisioned her restaurant when it launched two years ago.
“If you’re damaging your ideal, it starts breaking you down,” she said, adding that, eventually, it damages the potential for the growth of a thriving, diverse food culture.
“I don’t think the Cleveland food scene can move forward until [chefs] put their foot down,” she said.
So far, standing her ground has been good for business. Salt+ enjoyed a successful rookie year, and Chef Jill said the sophomore season has been even better.
“We have a great base of regular diners,” she said. “Your base customers are the ones that come back week after week to eat what you make. People know what they’re getting into − what we do here. The way we sell the food reflects the culture we’ve created in this restaurant.”
Chef Jill credited a strong, knowledgeable cadre of servers for helping “defuse angst or anxiety” over the no-ingredient-substitution policy.
“I’m glad that they’re the soldiers that they are,” she said.
In the end, Chef Jill said growing a successful restaurant depends on three things. First, “Stand by what you do – your art and your food.” Second. “Hire good staff − people who believe in what you’re doing.” And, finally. “Stick to your guns and be consistent.”
“I try to include everyone, but on my terms,” she said. “What’s the point of being a chef if you can’t make the food you want to do? I’m definitely doing what I want to be doing in the way I want to be doing it. I dig it.”
Agree? Disagree? Continue the conversation at our culinary conference: Roots 2018: Cultivate.
The panelists who will be joining Chef Jill Vedaa include Gabe Kennedy (The Little Beet Table), Jehangir Mehta (Graffiti), Heather Smith (SRG) and Yoda Olinyk (Yoda’s Kitchen).