Knowledge of the food in your restaurant can be divided into a few parts. First it is important to get a general grasp of the menu and the foods offered. Second you must learn to recognize each dish when it comes out so that you do not accidentally take the wrong dish and delay another table from getting all their food. Third you need to understand what IS and IS NOT possible to change or substitute. This is accomplished by asking the kitchen questions and learning what sauces and ingredients are made to order or prepared in advance.
Everyone has different techniques for studying. You probably know the ways you learn best. Three effective methods are verbal repetition, flash cards and writing it out by hand. You can use any combination of these that works well for you.
On all three methods, I recommend you start with the broadest categories and work your way down to individual items and their ingredients. This gives you a reference point and a framework to fill in. For example, your first set of flash cards will be each of the sections of the menu: appetizers, salads, entrées etc.. On the other side of the cards list all the names of items that are in those sections of the menu. This will start familiarizing you with the dishes.
Then get a set of cards for the first section, appetizers. Each card will have all the ingredients of the dish plus any interesting facts about your restaurants preparation of the dish. The other side will simply have the name of the dish. You can apply this broad to specific approach to all the learning styles.
When you verbally repeat the menu, try to spend a certain percentage of time in front of a mirror and watch your facial expressions. Smile! When you are listing ingredients, practice painting a picture with your words. Sometimes this is easiest if you describe the dish from bottom to top, like you are building it in front of the guest.
Above all, remember that being able to list every ingredient is not the goal of studying the menu. The reason you do it is so that you are comfortable with guest questions, not mixing up two different dishes in your head, and so that you can tell them WHY a dish is great. Why it is great is different and much more important than WHAT is in it.
In order to put the correct dishes on your guests table, it is necessary to recognize what it looks like when it is prepared and presented on the plate. There are going to be a few dishes that look similar. But there are always small differences that you can use to identify them correctly. Ask the chef, managers or co-workers how to tell dishes apart that seem similar to you. There is probably a very obvious difference you haven’t noticed.
After you finish your training, it is a good idea to continue practicing. The easiest way is to run food for other waiters. Bring the ticket with you if necessary, but make sure you name the dish as you present it to each guest and say any modifications listed on the ticket. This will quickly get you comfortable with food recognition and will help prevent future mistakes. Avoid mistakes by being competent.
If guests have allergies or they are particular about an ingredient, it will be necessary to know what is and is not possible to accomplish. When in doubt, ask the chef of the evening. You cannot keep a list of every single item’s ingredient in your server book. You just need to know some simple guidelines.
On a Friday or Saturday, kitchens get backed up when servers submit multiple special orders. You will always want to accommodate the guest when possible, but a little preventative maintenance will go a long way. The best way to prevent highly modified orders is to be ready with suggestions that fit what they are looking for while making the least changes.
Guest: Could I get a Margherita Pizza without the tomato and add pepperoni?
Now since you know the ingredients on the pizzas:
Margherita: marinara, mozzarella, tomato, basil
Pepperoni: marinara, mozzarella, pepperoni
Instead of ringing it, taking off an ingredient and adding one (three steps), now on the computer you just ring:
Pepperoni +Basil (two steps)
You should always be happy to substitute side dishes for a guest. But keep in mind, certain items cost significantly more than others to make. People are generally understanding of this, but it is important to mention it beforehand so that they don’t have sticker shock when they get the bill. A simple explanation when they order, such as, “that may be a little more for the (substitution), is that OK?” will let them know and also give them the opportunity to agree before you bring out the more expensive item.
When you do a substitution you need to look for a button in the POS system that will adjust the pricing on the ticket for you. Don’t type in a message for artichokes instead of mushrooms unless there is no button for the substitution, and if you do, make sure any necessary up-charge gets added. Most of the time there will be a button and it will appropriately adjust the price. If you find no button for the particular substitution, then be sure to ask the chef or manager the amount for the up-charge.
Now keep in mind that familiarity with the way your products are prepared will help make it much quicker for you when guests have questions. If your guest wants marinara with no garlic, you may already know that at your restaurant, it is prepared in advance so you can’t change it. If they want cream sauce with no garlic, and that is made to order, then you can modify it for them.
But knowing what can and can’t be changed, requires you to ask questions and become familiar with the answers. Find out how things are done at your restaurant. The very best time to ask is on your first or second night at a restaurant when you are looking at the food as it comes out. Bring a small pad of paper and ask questions about what you can change, food allergens, cooking methods and anything else you think a guest may ask. Keep these notes with you the first few weeks so that when guests ask, you have answers. If you aren’t 100% sure about something, especially an allergen, go double check with your chef.