As food has taken center stage in American mainstream culture—with our kitchen heroes gracing the covers of national rags like Time Magazine or being summoned for interviews by 60 Minutes correspondents—there hasn’t been a better time for concerned participants to step up to the podium and voice their opinions. And this needn’t apply only to public intellectuals like Michael Pollan. Chefs themselves have left the narrow walkways of their kitchens to embrace their public roles as cultural ambassadors or agents of social change.

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You could call it a Foodie Golden Era: not in terms of absolute equality across the board (socio-economic, racial, and gender gaps still loom large for everyone to see); but there is a greater momentum than ever before in establishing conversations around these injustices, or drawing up new queries altogether. Some chefs believe in a major overhaul of pre-existing foodie culture (think Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson’s mission to feed healthful, affordable food to the masses), while others take a small-scale approach to challenging more basic elements of how a restaurant is run. Modern chefs are spokesmen in a way their forebears couldn’t possibly imagine, giving them an unprecedented amount of freedom to speak openly about an industry that often resists change. From photography bans to gratuity for line cooks, here is a round-up of game-changing restaurant policies and philosophies that point to something much larger than the food being served.

Policy: Twitter Ratio

The Scoop:
You see Roy Choi everywhere these days: on the streets (checking in on his Kogi trucks), in the news (with a feature-length profile in the California Sunday Magazine), or even on television (escorting Anthony Bourdain around Chinatown). Choi galvanized the city of Los Angeles with hybrid Korean-tacos, and in the process, became an admirable figurehead for the food scene at large. But unlike some of his other contemporaries, Choi’s core restaurant philosophy always centered around a fundamental idea: accessibility for the masses. It was a revolution everyone could bite into, packed inside a handheld taco. Which brings us back to his Twitter account stats: 40.7K Following, 37K Followers. PR reps spend their entire careers trying to protect the cult of celebrity by building a devout following—while only paying attention to a select few. Choi shatters this notion of elitism by welcoming everyone into his inner circle.

Worthy of mainstream integration?
For someone of Choi’s esteem, it’s almost unfathomable to think that he would commit this PR sin. But that’s the beauty of Choi: he constantly reminds you that he’s not untouchable, and neither are his kitchens. To ask all celebrity chefs to embrace their online community in the way Choi does is unrealistic; many chefs want to protect the status of their ivory kitchens. Then again, not many people are getting a response like Choi is. But that’s what happens when you have your ear close to the ground, listening to the people.

Policy: Tips for Line Cooks

The Scoop:
While some waiters walk away with $400 in tips on a Friday night, line cooks grinding it out in the very same restaurant are rarely rewarded a comparable token of appreciation. This discrepancy has always caused an unspoken rift between FOH and BOH, and perhaps rightfully so: the kitchen staff works just as hard as the waitstaff. But Alimento head chef Zach Pollack is looking to bridge that gap by offering a gratuity line on his checks specifically for BOH. That means as a diner, you can tip both parties, or, in a ground-breaking move, just tip BOH instead of your waiter. The tips are pooled and divided among line cooks, dish washers, and other hourly workers.

Worthy of mainstream integration?
Pollack writes in a statement: “At Alimento, we believe a great meal comes together not from the effort of any single person, but from the successful cooperation of a team of people…Nevertheless, traditional tipping has created a very sizeable gap between the earnings of cooks and servers, and current State law prohibits restaurants from sharing servers’ tips with the kitchen staff.” A mighty paradigm shift? Yes, but also one that seems to balance out the axis of power. As Eater points out, this gives the customer a chance to reward the chef for a great experience that “was otherwise marred by bad service,” and visa versa. At the end of a meal, a service charge can come as a shock (although we do agree that such fees help increase living wages); which is why we support the option of being able to throw some extra cash (as opposed to just a six-pack of beer) to the kitchen.

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(Photo: eatyourbooks.com)

Policy: No Photographs

The Scoop:
You could make the argument that the rise of foodie culture had a strong correlation with the the widespread use of iPhones. Suddenly, diners could easily document their meals without feeling embarrassed or intrusive. Posting epic meal pics became just as routine as brushing your teeth every morning. Which is why Evan Funke’s ban of photography at his Italian restaurant Bucato seemed like such a grand gesture. Resisting the urge to break out your camera phone was made even more difficult by the fact Funke offers some of the best hand-rolled pastas in Los Angeles.

Worthy of mainstream integration?
Funke has gone on record to talk about several things that bother him about food photography during a meal (both amateur and professional): One, a vast majority of the pictures are shitty quality, which he feels represents his food poorly; Two, taking time to snap pictures means you’re allowing the peak moment of the dish to slip away; Three, it doesn’t allow diners to “unplug” from the digital world. Despite our obsession with food porn, we do agree that the idea of taking a break from social media is a positive one. Some moments at the table are sacred, and better left undocumented. While we salute Bucato’s philosophy, we think the decision to prohibit photographs should be left to the discretion of the restaurant. Not all dining experiences have the same lofty tones. We’d also like to think that a picture commemorates an experience—a fond memory to look back at. Funke isn’t a hardliner though: he also acknowledges the value in being able to see the photographs of food from different chefs around the world.

Policy: Restaurateurs Grading Their Own Restaurants, Publicly

The Scoop:
We’ve told you before about Frank Prisinzano, a well-respected NYC restaurateur who made headlines when he posted an honest critique on Instagram about his restaurant, Supper. It would be easy for a successful businessman to reaffirm his prejudices by sitting down at his own place and waxing poetic. But Prisinzano did no such thing. He praised certain elements (service) while also admitting when things needed some adjustment (“The burger was cooked perfect but formed wrong. See how it’s more meatball than burger?”).

Worthy of mainstream integration?
It’s a ballsy, potentially alienating, move to call out your staff on a public forum, especially as someone peering in from the inside. Then again, millions of Yelpers throw up their unfiltered comments onto the Internet every god damn day. Prisinzano admittedly brings some fresh perspective to the whole thing: “It’s added value for all, and if anyone thinks there is any kitchen on this earth that doesn’t make mistakes, they are being very delusional. Mistakes are what drive us towards perfection. I do not rule with fear. I rule with love and constructive criticism. It’s not a public humiliation, it’s us doing what we always do for all to see.” We think this is a good fit for certain restaurants that have special relationships with upper management. But if the staff has no personal connection with the boss, it’s probably best to air it out during a meeting.

Policy: Pay-What-You-Want

The Scoop:
There are a handful of restaurants around the world pulling the ol’ Radiohead stunt: instead of marking up a dish with a designated price tag, these places leave it in the hands of the customers to decide how much a meal is worth. At Lentil As Anything in Melbourne, the restaurant “is founded on a manifesto that aims to promote community values and counteract the feelings of division and inequality caused by money.”

Worthy of mainstream integration?
In theory, all of us would love to free our minds from the clutches of money. But is it wise to let consumers dictate the market? The costs of running a restaurant are extremely high, and we’re not sold that the average diner would take this into account. The policy could potentially make sense for higher-end restaurants (just like it did for the already established Radiohead) whose clientele is consistently seeking out “luxury” experiences. And it could even work in cities with strong Hippie centers, like Berkeley, where ideals still hold great value. But even in a fine dining context, overhead fees can be so expensive that the most revered restaurants barely break even. We feel it’s best for restaurants to quantify an experience; that way, a customer can decide whether or not to eat there, or simply move on to the next place.

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(Photo: wallpapermay.com)

Policy: (All) Children Left Behind

The Scoop:
We’ve seen grumpy restaurant owners refuse service to finicky patrons before. But some are taking this to the extreme: there are now policies that either ban children or “impose restrictions.” At one Texas restaurant, kids under the age of 8 are refused service after 7 pm; in Pennsylvania, children under the age of 6 may not dine at McDain’s. Much of this is a response to wild, inappropriate behavior from little tots running around, ruining the “dining experience.” But in other scenarios, children have even become safety hazards (there was a charcoal grill incident in Korea). Meanwhile, other folks are complaining that the policy is a violation of human rights.

Worthy of mainstream integration?
I can’t think of a more disappointing experience: finally, after a full year of saving up to dine at the French Laundry, you’re seated next to a table that has a bratty, obnoxious three-year-old, loudly proclaiming that he only eats pasta with butter. No thank you. If there are dress codes, why shouldn’t behavior codes be extended to children? At the very least, we believe high-caliber restaurants should politely place restrictions on age (a ten-year-old is much easier to manage than a one-year-old). Parents often wear blinders when it comes to seeing their children for who they really are. We just don’t always have faith in their discretion.

Policy: Pay-It-Forward

The Scoop:
Here’s how it works: in addition to buying a coffee for yourself, you can also designate purchases for “suspension.” A person who’s unable to afford a beverage can request a “suspended” coffee, free of charge. The organization Suspended Coffees—involved with hundreds of cafes around the world—believes that these simple acts will “restore faith by highlighting the simple acts of kindness happening all around us, and encouraging others to do the same.”

Worthy of mainstream integration?
We can certainly vouch for acts of kindness, and we see no harm in giving patrons the option to do so. Sure, you run the risk of funding a bunch of lazy college students or free-loaders. But the idea that a small donation could make an impact on someone’s day is a powerful one—even if it borders on being a sentimental gimmick.

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(Photo: agilegeoscience.com)

Policy: No Substitutions

The Scoop:
One Wall Street Journal reporter dubbed them sushi bullies: “Top sushi chefs who serve only what they want, how they want it and to whom they want. Their rules are often posted on signs throughout their restaurants. Some chefs are notorious for ejecting patrons who annoy them.” You like dipping your nigiri in soy sauce? Forget about it. Not a fan of wasabi? Too bad. At Sasabune in New York and Sawa Sushi in California, chefs are unyielding in their approach, and expect patrons not to tinker with their creations. Otherwise, you get the boot.

Worthy of mainstream integration?
We appreciate the theatrics involved here; an element of fear can go a long way into generating excitement and buzz about a place. At the now shuttered Nozawa, customers who had been previously kicked out would even show up in disguises. Restrictions can be useful to a certain degree, especially for weeding out fussy types that ruin the flow of a restaurant. Yet in this day and age, there are a host of allergies and food intolerances that affect people in real ways. Plus, we wouldn’t want to give up all of our liberties: sometimes, you just want extra grilled onions, and that’s just that.

Policy: Tickets Required

The Scoop:
2014 was the Year of the Restaurant Ticket. Several restaurants like Per Se and Alinea adopted ticketing systems like Tock, which require patrons to pay for a meal (or sometimes simply to reserve a table) up front, in advance. As part of the digital tool-kit, Tock also allows restaurants to integrate “dynamic deposit tickets,” meaning that the prices of tickets can fluctuate depending on the desirability of a reservation. A Wednesday dinner, for instance, will cost you a lot less than the 8 pm reservation on Saturday.

Worthy of mainstream integration?
A ticketing system certainly benefits the restaurant: it cuts down on no-shows and allows kitchens to operate more efficiently. It also saves them money by removing middle-man fees enforced by the likes of Open Table. From a customer’s perspective, not having to awkwardly address the bill at the end of a meal can be psychologically refreshing. But if a reservation can be commodified, shouldn’t other aspects of the restaurants be too? Shouldn’t a table by the bathroom be cheaper? For this reason, we think it’s best to shy away from a restaurant-wide adoption of the policy.