Below the braised fish and soba noodles on the menu at DC’s Sushi Taro are a couple of items that head to the kitchen, not from it: For $5, diners can send a round of beers to the cooks. For $10, they can buy the chef a sake.
Sushi Taro chef Nobuhiro Yamazaki says that the idea was inspired by his restaurant’s regulars, who gave the kitchen gifts of Champagne to celebrate its receiving a Michelin star this past fall. The menu items are a way for diners to show appreciation to kitchen staff, who aren’t legally allowed to partake in tips.
Justin Zelikovitz, an employment lawyer who specializes in wage disputes, says that the practice leaves him uneasy: “It’s a close call whether it constitutes an unlawful tip pool, and I think that would probably depend on the particular circumstances.”
If restaurants are serious about supporting the kitchen, Zelikovitz adds, he would rather see better wages or improved health care: “The answer is to care about that kind of stuff—not one-off, weird, kind of paternalistic foisting Scotch upon someone who may not want it.”
Still, chefs appreciate the nod—and it seems to be catching on. The ramen shop Daikaya was among the first local places to introduce the practice when it opened in 2013. Toki Underground, Haikan, and Bantam King have also added for-the-kitchen items to their menus. When some-one buys the team at Kyirisan drinks, chef Tim Ma hangs the ticket in the window to the kitchen. “The kitchen will be motivated by that to a certain extent,” he says. “It’s become a really fun thing.”
Now customers want to take shots with the cooks. “One table will see that that happens, and then the next table wants to do it,” Ma says. “By the end of service, I’m like, ‘Okay, well, at some point we have to stop.’ ”
This article appears in the March 2017 issue of Washingtonian.