Smooth Saline

Hey, chefs, you’re absolutely right! Now put salt on the table, anyway.

salt shaker

Illustration by Steven Stankiewicz

The bartender’s face went ashen, and briefly I feared I’d misspoken. But he soon returned with the salt I’d requested, tucking the tiny dish inconspicuously into the overhang between my water glass and plate of pasta. Delicious! Sure enough, a sprinkle was all that was needed to bring out the floral herbs, the salumi’s unctuous depth. Moments after my final bite, he whisked away the entire place setting with fraught efficiency. “Let me make this reminder of imperfection disappear before Chef notices!” he did not, in fact, say. Yet I could see it in his eyes.

You see, my palate is pitched very high for sodium—I like to blame my years taste-testing everything from gravy to goulash at Cook’s Illustrated back in the day—and thus I’m a strong proponent of offering salt at the table. This puts me at odds with countless local chefs, who take umbrage that their creations might leave the kitchen lacking. The general consensus: A seasoned culinary pro should, well, season like a culinary pro.

“I don’t allow salt on the table because I don’t want to give diners an opportunity to ruin the flavors,” said one veteran, echoing the views of several I spoke to. I get that…to a point. I’m firmly in the chef-as-artist camp. I would never dream of asking for, say, more rosemary in my entrée. But here’s where I differ: If, as science tells us, salt functions as a flavor amplifier, maybe adding extra is less akin to demanding Picasso “bump up the magenta” than to slipping on eyeglasses to view the painting with sufficient clarity.

Most chefs I interviewed said they’ll provide salt if asked, and as a confident diner, I have no qualms about doing so. But I suspect far more patrons in that situation simply leave underwhelmed rather than risk getting pegged as rubes. In that case, neither the diner nor the restaurant triumphs: It’s a lose-lose proposition, and all for ego’s sake. So the next time your veal tastes less than vivid, ask for the salt. Or better yet: Take a pinch from the dish the chef has thoughtfully provided right on the table.