Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Service Issue Revisited: Serve Us Vs. Serve It Properly

Recently I've read some articles, including one from the Dallas Observer interviewing "No Reservations" Travel Channel personality and chef, restaurant critic and author, Anthony Bourdain.  Some of the interview focused on diners sending back food that had been "properly prepared" to have it recooked as the diner liked it.  Houston Press Food Critic Katharine Shilcutt  is referenced in the Bourdain interview as having recently published a review of Brasserie 19, lamenting how diners sent back properly prepared food, but didn't fault the chef for giving the customers what they wanted.  This was a correct assessment on her part, I might add.

Just in case you didn't know, Chefs have varying degrees of responsibility, depending on their level and the type of restaurant they work in. Generally speaking, they are responsible for preparing a wide variety of creative and high-quality dishes on a daily/nightly basis, and within cost. To this end, chefs need to do any or all of the following:

  • Plan, price, and create a daily menu
  • Prepare and cook food according to the customer's specifications
  • Arrange and garnish the food for serving
  • Develop their own recipes
  • Prepare the specialties of the restaurant
  • Buy food supplies and cooking equipment
  • Hire cooks and other kitchen workers
  • Supervise kitchen staff
  • Maintain cleanliness in the work place
  • Keep records of supplies

After considering all of these things, the wheels of my mind have been turning for a few days now as to how all of it relates to service issues in general in the restaurant industry.  I've also considered this in relation to the tastes/preferences of the diner and the underlying economics of it all.  Let's take a look at some different perspectives.  I've come up with four major angles, but if you have some others, I'd love to hear them

1.  The Diner Is Always Right (Consumer Sovereignty)

Consumer Sovereignty is considered one of the Hallmarks of a Market Economy.  Variations on this include the first rule of Media "Give the People What They Want."  If diners want burritos, they're not going to go to a burger joint.  If diners want their scallops pan fried instead of char-grilled, they'll request it as such.  A restaurant cannot expect to get good customer feedback in social media, good word of mouth in real life or even good reviews from local newsweeklies if they do not respect what the diner wants.

Given issues about different service industries that have cropped up in the media during the past few months: my "Service and the Single Diner" article, Alan Richman's GQ article about a NYC restaurant Service Failure, CBC's Doc Zone's episode "Customer Disservice" and others, it would seem prudent for restaurants to recognize and respect Consumer Sovereignty, and many restaurants do this.  Several restaurants I have reviewed, such as Red Robin Burgers and Tony Thai, have been willing to make adjustments in their recipes that aren't on the menu (no-added-salt for my mom at Red Robin, subbing Tofu and Bean Curd in a Thai Noodle dish for my Vegetarian sister-in-law at Tony Thai).  Even Whataburger has been willing to add a fried egg to my burger provided I order it during breakfast hours.  In many of those cases, giving the diner what they want, even if it's "not in the recipe handbook," generates Customer Goodwill, which has economic value, and that in turn leads to larger tips for the wait-staff and repeat business, along with good word of mouth in real life and an Social Media.

Based on the point made earlier, that chef's need to be able to prepare and cook food according to the customer's specifications, this makes perfect sense.  Brasserie 19 is clearly doing well on this front based upon Ms. Shilcutt's article.  However, in reading her reactions to what was going on, I'm sure she'd argue the counter point: 

2.  The Chef Knows What He/She is Doing

Certain dishes take time to prepare and based on culinary school education and work experience, professional chefs know that there is a right way to prepare a specific dish per tradition and recipe sepcifications.  For example: use the correct mix of eggs, flour, cheeses, etc., and the correct procedure of whisking, mixing and adding ingredients in the correct order, bake at the right temperature, and DON'T STOMP ON THE FLOOR, and you get the perfect Cheese Souffle.  Do the ingredients out of order, at wrong temperature and do a bunch of clogging as it bakes, and you get a hot, milky, cheesy mess.

For professional gastronomes, food critics and former chefs, witnessing people sending back food that is prepared perfect as being "too rare" or not spicy or salty enough is an anathema, and many critics lament over this kind of Diner behavior.  I read in another food blog where a food critic criticized an ignorant foodie sent back a dish saying there wasn't enough cream or milk in some kind of rice dish, when the official proper recipe didn't use ANY cream or milk in it, and that the creaminess came from rice gluten coming off in the cooking process to give it a creamy texture.  Not knowing what goes into a recipe pretty much takes away some diners' ability to criticize or tell the chef how they want it prepared.  A little education and investigation PRIOR to trying or critiquing a dish is important, fellow foodies.

Another thing to note is that a lot of cooking is a controlled chemistry experiment.  Some substances won't combine at certain temperatures or pressures.  Some materials that mix correctly in small amounts do not mix so well in larger amounts when prepared for a larger number of portions (see the "Recipe To Riches" episode where fellow Foodie Mijune Pak had issues doing 200 servings of her "Canadian Pie in a Jar").  There are a lot of layers to learning how to prepare dishes properly.  Things that cook well in electric ovens or on electric rangetops may not cook well with gas, and vice versa.  Certain dishes that work well on a charcoal grill or smokehouse don't work well in a microwave oven.

Chefs go through years of training in Culinary School followed by years of working their way up in the kitchens of restaurants in the same way Medical Doctors go through years of training in Medical School followed by years of interning and practicum work.  Think of it this way:  cooks and paramedics handle basic cooking and cursory medical treatment, while Chef's and Surgeons handle much more complicated levels of knowledge and skills regarding food preparation and medicine.  A cook can follow a recipe and produce something edible.  A chef understands the underlying physics, chemistry and methods that make the recipe delicious, makes the elements to a certain consistency, understands how and when to combine the ingredients, and will plate it in a fashion that is pleasing to the eye as well as the palate.

On top of this, an educated, open-minded diner will try a dish that is new to them as the Chef sees fit the VERY FIRST TIME they try it.  They will allow their palate to experience the dish as intended.  They will only and ask for modifications when they have it another time if they truly feel the modifications would make it more pleasing to their palate.

Anthony Bourdain expressed this very well in the Dallas Observer's article:
That's not a problem that's unique for sure. In the perfect world the chef says listen -- are you here to eat my food?

If I show up and I want my scallops cooked this way and I don't want them touching my vegetables that's fine. That's called the Cheesecake Factory. But if I'm coming into a Dean Fearing restaurant, I'm here to eat Dean Fearing's food. OK? I'm not telling him where I want my scallops or how I want them cooked. I want them the way Dean thinks I should try them because I've heard he's good. A lot of people have said he's good over the years -- therefore, I'm going to put my faith in him. Good or bad, I'm going to put my faith in the chef. That's what it's about.
I'm saying that as a customer, not just a chef. That's the way I eat. You know, I go into a restaurant with a reputation and they ask, what do you want to eat? And I say, what are you good at? They know better than me."
3.   Restaurants are Businesses, Chefs are Entrepreneurs, and they need to earn a Profit

This is the reality of the Food Service Industry, and given what I read of Brasserie 19 in various reviews, they have gone out of their way to do what the customer wants, do it very well and have been very successful as a result.  The owners and chefs, often despite their personal sentiments or beliefs about food, will do their best to accommodate or indulge customers desires, within reason, in order to sell more food.  As long as the requests aren't unreasonable, immoral, unethical, or cause such a large increase in costs that they reduce the establishment's profit margins, they will typically go with what the customer wants.  It prevents certain customer from throwing a hissy fit, leaving with a bad dining experience and spreading the bad word around.

One higher end limited chain in Western Canada, Cactus Club Café, quite proudly calls itself "The House of Yes" and it is expanding its operations right now when other restaurants are receding.  As someone who's eaten there, I've found the food to be quite good, but given the fact that Chef Rob Feenie is the major architect of their menu, the only reason I'd ever send something back is if I ordered a steak Medium and it was prepared in some other way.  By the way, Cactus Club Café has never messed up any dish I've eaten there and I've never sent anything back.  At any rate, this model is serving them quite well, given their profitability and other restaurants are following this model because it generates revenue.

Many restaurateurs are having to get very creative in ways to keep customer foot traffic coming in.  Due to the Economic difficulties the United States and other developed nations have been going through, many individuals and families have had to trim their budgets back, and often times, that means eating out is reduced or even eliminated.  In many parts of the US and Canada, fast food joints and lower end casual dining chains have done well because higher end diners have been "buying down", while higher end bistros and casual dining establishments that cater to the upper middle class have suffered a bit, and a number of them have closed down during the past few years as a result of the economic turmoil.

Chains of casual dining restaurants have the luxury of economies of scale--they are able to buy massive amount of ingredients such as meat, spices and vegetables at lower per unit (as in per pound or kilogram) prices.  As a result they have been able to offer meal deals involving an appetizer, 2 main dishes, and a dessert for under $30.00.  This has been successful in plugging some of the leaks caused by economic turmoil and maintain reasonable profitability.

Recall that with smaller restaurants, the Chef is often the owner and operator of the restaurant.  The Chef also has to plan, price, and create a daily menu; buy food, supplies and cooking equipment; hire cooks and other kitchen workers; supervise kitchen staff; keep records of supplies and maintain cleanliness ON TOP of his or her other duties.  There is a word for this and in Economics it is Entrepreneurship.  An Entrepreneur is a person that gathers together other economic resources, organizes them, and uses them to produce and sell good and services.  This is a much rarer skill set than just following a recipe published in a book and cooking it to serve a family of four.  

Furthermore, smaller bistros do not have the economies of scale of even the limited regional chains and often have to chase bargains on certain ingredients or cut corners in ways that may displease the more discerning palates.  Or, in order to prevent the loss of customer good will, they have had to compromise on "recipe integrity" and bend over backwards to accommodate the desires of customers in order to keep the revenue flowing in and stay in business.  In the realm of economics and business, this makes good sense.  After all, would you want to go back to a restaurant that told you "No" when you asked your dish to be prepared a certain way?

4.  A Good Chef Will Experiment or Improvise when he/she Consider Diners' Suggestions

One time back in high school, I was hungry and wanted some dinner.  I'd come home late, after my parents and sister had eaten, and all there was in the fridge/pantry was a pack of beef ramen noodles, half a pound of ground beef, a yellow onion that was getting old, a tomato and some pickled jalepeños.  At first I thought "Ramen with the beef broth packet" but then, I started to sautee the beef, added the Ramen spice packet, chopped up the veggies and mixed them in, boiled the ramen, then drained them, and dumped the beef/spice/veggie mixture over it and started chowing down.  My dad and sister came into the kitchen, wondering what I'd cooked and I showed it to them.  They each tried it and liked it quite well.  My dad even named the dish "Desperation Spaghetti."

Other dishes like "Buffalo Wings" were invented in similar ways.  Having been a Foodie for many years, growing up watching Julia Child, Chef Tell, Wok with Yan, Emeril LaGasse and all the other fine chefs and cooks on Food Network and Cooking Channel, I have heard many a chef stating the need to be able to experiment and improvise in order to come up with new dishes.  This is part of the origin of Turkey, Salmon and Veggie Burgers, Chicken Spaghetti, Chicken-fried Steak, Pulled Pork Burritos, Southwestern-style Eggrolls, Japadogs and other so-called "Fusion Foods."  At times, those ideas have come from odd customer requests to do a traditional dish with a twist.  Just recently I was at a favourite steakhouse of mine, eating a Spicy Caesar Salad.  It's just a Caesar Salad where someone has mixed in hot sauce and red pepper with traditional Caesar dressing and has given it more "BAM!" with the hot spice.

I'm sure that when this was conceived, a Sous Chef may have turned his or her nose up at it and said "How could you even THINK of doing that?!?!  Caesar Salads have been done a certain way for decades and if it isn't broke, don't fix it!"  Whomever did the experiment, clearly created a dish that has sold well at that steakhouse for a long time.  They've had it there for years and if it didn't sell well enough to justify the expense, it would have been removed from the menu.

My point is that one of the major things a good chef does, and is always doing is CREATING.  Creativity is also a necessary skill for Entrepreneurs as well.  Recall that a Chef has to be creative when he or she arranges and garnishes the food for serving (plating a dish well) and a Chef must also develop his or her own recipes.  Better Chefs and Restaurants are known for having a signature dish or genre/sub-genre of  cuisine that is their forte.  Some of those dishes and sub-genres of cuisine have originated when a Chef was asked to cook a certain dish a certain way by a customer, which got their creative juices flowing and led to other experiments and eventually a Culinary Masterpiece.  


While experimentation and improvisation are great, there is always something to be said for dishes done well and done in the proper way.  Restaurants are businesses and in order to be profitable they have to satisfy their customers.  Some customers will want things done the Chef's way, and they will get it as such, and largely be very satisfied.  Others will ask for accommodations and if they are reasonable, they will get it the way they want it and be just as satisfied.

Those of us who do like modifications should defer to the Chef some of the time and allow ourselves to experience things from that perspective.  There are reasons why chicken noodle soup with very few adjustments is considered a comfort food in many cultures.  Those of us who are traditionalists should also consider changing things up a bit and allow ourselves to discover some differences that we may not have considered before, and can add some new dishes to our list of ones we enjoy.

All of us as diners, servers, chefs and restaurateurs should handle these things in a polite and respectful manner to those who grow, prepare, create, and serve our food, as well as to those of use who pay for and consume it.

Eat Happy!!!
Zao an, Y'all!!!


john perk said...

these is very nice article .Larry & Carol`s Pizza
appreciates your views.

Professor Hank said...


That looks like a good pizza place. I'll have to stop over there and try it next time I'm in Pittsburgh!

Hank on Food