The Right to Refuse Ketchup

Photo credit: Mark Vogel/StockFood
Photo credit: Mark Vogel/StockFood

"Chef reserves the right to refuse service of ketchup," declares the menu at Mad Fresh, an American bistro in the palm tree–dotted city of Fort Myers, Florida.

Wait, what?

A unapologetic disclosure on the restaurant’s website explains:  ”We know, we know. People love their ketsup”—which, apparently, is a valid spelling variant of “ketchup”—”But honestly, be ready. If you’re over 10 years old, ketsup will NOT be provided … We simply ask that you trust us. We know what we’re doing!”

If that sounds like a bunch of hooey, consider that Mad Fresh is hardly alone on this one. Thrasher’s French Fries, a decades-old seaside shack with a handful locations on the Delaware and Maryland shores, has a similar no-ketchup-allowed rule. Malt vinegar is the condiment of choice, instead, at Thrasher’s. (Just look at this French fry slinger’s hat!)

And don’t even get some Chicagoans started on the touchy subject of ketchup on hot dogs.

"No, I won’t condemn anyone for putting ketchup on a hot dog. This is the land of the free," the late Chicago newspaperman Mike Royko gamely wrote in the Chicago Tribune in 1995. “Sure, it would be disgusting and perverted, and they would be shaming themselves and their loved ones. But under our system of government, it is their right to be barbarians.”

The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council is of a similar mindset. Like Team Mad Fresh, the council proposes an age limit: “Don’t…Use ketchup on your hot dog after the age of 18,” reads its etiquette guide for eating “America’s most sacred food.” However, “Mustard, relish, onions, cheese, and chili are acceptable.”

Not everyone is vehemently anti-ketchup, of course. How else could it have become the second-most popular condiment in America?

New York City chef Wylie Dufresne is a proponent of popular ketchup brand Heinz. “When Heinz landed, nobody was talking about umami. They got very lucky, with this wonderful swirl that happened to hit all the right notes,” he told Grub Street this week.

Former Washington City Paper critic Chris Shott agreed. In his 2011 explanation of Heinz’s success, he wrote: ”Heinz, it seems, hits every fundamental flavor that registers on your tongue: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami.”

Of course, the question as to whether it’s within a restaurant’s rights to dictate a customer’s ketchup use is a whole different ballgame. (A ballgame with no ketchup for the dogs.) But let the record show that plenty of chefs have refused to honor patrons’ other condiment-focused dining requests in the past.

In 2011, for instance, chef April Bloomfield denied basketball player Kobe Bryant’s request to ditch the pungent Roquefort cheese that came with his burger. The same year, Gjelina in Venice, California refused to serve Victoria Beckham her salad with dressing on the side. And famously anti-substitution chef Sang Yoon never allows alterations to his gourmet burger, which comes festooned with Maytag blue cheese, arugula, and a caramelized onion and applewood-smoked bacon compote.

The right to refuse ketchup will likely be claimed for years to come, but there’s no law that says you have to dine at those places. Here’s to letting your ketchup flag fly, Heinz lovers, (or maybe giving the malt vinegar an honest shot once in a while).