UnderCover Waitress: March 2011

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Chef Knows How to Cook

The idea that the customer is always right is downright ludicrous. There are some customers that businesses shouldn't mollify so they will come back. Serving a customer shouldn't cost the restaurant.

Take the family of Very Important Person. Party of eight arrived late - par for the course for the entitled. Sister has a gluten allergy; I do my job and I do it well. (Never mess with food allergies.) She can't have the expensive filet because the sauce has gluten in it, but I check in with the kitchen as to what sauces she can have. There are two that evening and I approach the table to tell her the choices.

Used to having anything and everything she wants, she can't decide between the two. She decides she will have both sauces on the side. She will have her meet grilled without sauce to medium-rare.

The chef agrees to grill the meat without either sauce and put both of them on the side. The flavors are quite different and do not complement each other; they are presented in two small dishes.

Again, I do my job well. After delivering dinner and allowing my table to start eating, I approach to find out if I can do anything else for them. Sister, for whom we just went out of way to accommodate, is not happy. Her medium-rare filet is overcooked, dried out, and well-done.

Let's see. I take a look at the inside of the meat -- it's red. Absolutely, perfectly cooked. I gently call her attention to the deep red color of her medium-rare filet. She bristles, and tells me it is overcooked and dry. "But you asked for it to be grilled without sauce, that will make it dry." She is so mad she is shaking, so I continue, "Let me tell the chef and see what he can do for you."

I have never seen this chef this angry. I could almost see the steam coming out of his ears, and this was the only time in all the years I worked with this person that I was frightened. In the most quiet and even tones, he instructed me to ask the "lady" what she would like him to do.

I return. I am informed by a shaking and indignant twenty-something that he will cook her a new filet, this time rare, and to go. She has lost her appetite. I have to admit I rather enjoyed asking her if wanted it grilled without any sauce. Unable to admit she is wrong, she wants it grilled without sauce. I can't imagine it was any moister after being grilled without sauce and sitting in a refrigerator all night. Bon Apetit.

Another fun moment of this memorable evening was the mother attempting to defend her daughter's stupidity. She asked me whether the sauce on her plate was on top of the meat or around the meat on the plate. Mrs. Einstein didn't know that chefs baste the meat with sauce while cooking, then decorate the plate with a little more, and she wasn't going to let some stupid little waitress tell her something she didn't already know.

In the restaurant industry, we don't require that customers know how to cook. We do need our diners to trust that we are professionals who know what we are doing. Word to the wise: if you think we can't cook, don't eat in our restaurant.

The hostess and I were a little taken aback that Sister insisted on boxing up her second, free filet herself. She was most likely afraid I would dust flour on it or spit on it. I never would, but I had visions of letting the chef teabag it. He never would.

The absolute proof that these folks are missing some cards in the deck is that they continue to waltz in, always expecting us to be happy to see them.

I love Mark Bittman's books:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Consider This Dinner

Relatively late afternoon for the whole family, so we took the kids to a local restaurant for dinner. The place has its ups and downs. On the plus side, it is clean. This is non-negotiable with me; if a restaurant is dirty, I won't eat there.

Also on the plus side, they have nice staff who stay forever. They really are lovely people. My youngest child is a bit of a celebrity there; many staff members fell in love with her back in her toddler days.

It seems once people get hired at this place, they stay. A restaurant taking good care of its front of house staff is a good reason to give them some business. And this diner must be doing something right, because I can't imagine the tips are high. Lots of elderly people frequent the place and the food is not expensive.

That being said, the food is not especially great. There is nothing wrong with it, but if you order fries they obviously came out of a bag in the freezer. They do have some interesting things on the menu, but much of the food is rather bland. If you are careful about ordering non-fried items, it is healthy.

My older child seems to be developing quite the gourmet taste. Resigned himself to the fact that we were going to the diner. He glanced at the menu and looked up at me. Said in a very calm voice, "Mom, I just want you to know, I do not consider this dinner."

Can't fault the kid for liking good food.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tea Drinkers

I love tea. Warm and friendly, there is a bounty of varietal tea flavors available from around the world.  Good quality English Breakfast tea makes my mouth water, as do strong chai spices mixed with aromatic black teas and a little honey and milk.

Some wake you up, others put you to sleep, and don't forget that fresh, organic tea herbs maintain some medicinal qualities. Yes, I love tea. But like many waiters and waitresses, I hate tea drinkers.

We brew coffee all day. $2.00 for a little cup of coffee and you can have all the refills you want. There is sugar on the table and plenty of small pitchers of cream in the fridge ready to be served. We are ready for the coffee drinkers.

Tea? If you want to drink tea, you probably want to see a selection. Which means we bring you a tea caddy to sort through. We pour hot water into the cute china tea pot, grab the special tea cup and make sure it's warm, lemon slices from the bar and the honey. Except the honey is empty which means going back into the kitchen for honey, being told it's in the mud room, and I don't need to point out that the big thing of bulk honey is heavy and sticky. Ironically, it is also kept on the highest shelf. An extra trip to the hand washing sink to wash off the goo and we approach your table balancing just one tea service that takes up an entire tray. And you are probably wondering what took us so long.

Those with compromised immune systems should not drink tea. The tea drinker before you didn't wash hands in the restroom, and had a toddler coughing all over the tea pot. While the tea cups go strait to the dish washer to be disinfected for the next person, the tea pots just get rinsed out between uses. (They get washed now and then.)

The issue of the tea caddy on the table is a source of constant problems. After watching a tea drinker shove all of the black decaf tea bags into her purse, I decided it would be best to remove the caddy as soon as possible. That is why some waitresses ask what flavor tea you want when you order it -- saves us the hassles of the tea caddy.

Sure, we can remove it right away, but that sends out the message that "we think you are going to steal." The adversarial energy does not lead to generous tips.

Then there is the bigger question: if coffee cups are "bottomless," why not tea cups? The price is the same, but if somebody wants a second tea bag they can be charged twice. Had a table request a second tea bag which I politely brought to them. I thought about it and decided to charge for the tea bag, believing that is what the owner would expect. The looks on their faces when I picked up the check told me they were unhappy, and yes, they paid in cash and took the tea charge out of my tip.

Regardless of whether I should have thrown in the extra tea bag or not, word to the wise: if you can afford to spend $50-$100 on yourselves for one meal, you can afford the extra two bucks for an extra tea bag. Don't take it out on the working stiff.

So, yeah, I love tea, but I don't love tea drinkers.
ESP Emporium Healthy Loose Leaf Teas

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Astroturf Restaurant Reviews

Ever read restaurant reviews? Don't bother.

Years ago, a new sushi restaurant on the West Coast wanted to get some positive press and attention. The owners did the same thing that lots of restaurants do when they want good press.

Was friends with a woman who had just gotten a job working for a local rag. She and her husband invited my roommate and me out to dinner. The deal was two free entrees for a positive restaurant review. There were numerous reasons, however, that they did not deserve a positive review.

I can read and understand coupon deals. One thing that got under my skin was that the sushi we were expected to order (it was a sushi restaurant) was not covered in the coupon deal. Hard to review something if you don't taste it, but then, this was more like paid for creative writing as opposed to an honest review. What was and was not covered became a bone of contention between my friend and the restaurant owner.

The restaurant owner obviously felt that this was a business deal that he needed to get over with. We received horrible service that night and, honestly, the food wasn't that great. No wonder they needed to bribe a newspaper for a good review. My friend had little choice in the matter; if she wrote an honest review she could easily lose her new job.

I don't know what percentage of reviews are honest and written by people who were not known as restaurant reviewers when they ate out. I don't know the percentage of paid for, astroturf restaurant reviews. I certainly don't trust any restaurant reviews when the paper publishes the reviewer's photograph. Hard to dine out incognito when everybody knows what you look like.

I do know that I don't believe everything I read.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bill Gross Tells Investors About The Time He Acted Like A Cheap Prick To A Waitress « Dealbreaker: A Wall Street Tabloid – Business News Headlines and Financial Gossip

You know you deserve the name "Gross" when being a pain to the waitress is fodder for bragging.

Imbedded in this story is a link to a 3rd Rock from the Sun clip in which Dick reinvents American tipping practices, and is well worth the laugh if you have not already seen it. Would love to turn it around, how about a waitress telling a table:

"Okay, this is how I do things: if you say 'please' and 'thank you,' you will get your drinks faster.

If you ignore me when I approach the table, I will leave and come back when I feel like it.

If you interrupt me while I am telling you the specials because you are too good to listen, I will wait to put your order in so you wait longer for your food.

And if I really don't like you, by the time you order dessert and decaf. coffee, I will go out of my way to brew regular coffee and serve it to you.

If you blame me because you don't like what you ordered, I will simply stop serving you."

Pretty antagonistic either way, but we can dream...

Bill Gross Tells Investors About The Time He Acted Like A Cheap Prick To A Waitress « Dealbreaker: A Wall Street Tabloid – Business News Headlines and Financial Gossip

Sunday, March 6, 2011

New York’s Puritan Chefs Want It Their Way - NYTimes.com

I have so often preached that a good restaurant will accommodate diner's needs. This is because I got tired of angry matron waitresses barking "no substitutions" in unkempt restaurants. I got tired of being lied to in places such as Applebee's. At chains such as 99 and Applebee's, the food is pre-cooked and frozen, then thawed to order. Hamburgers are all cooked brown on the inside. If you try to order a medium rare burger at Applebee's, the servers are trained to explain it is illegal to serve "undercooked" meat. This is a complete fabrication and an insult to any diner's intelligence.

At our little restaurant, the owner/chef wanted to make people happy. He accommodated their requests, such as "no olives," "can I have it with potatoes instead of rice" and "extra veggies but no starch." It sounds idyllic, but unfortunately it can be crazy-making. Check out the recent post entitled Veganism and you will understand why the chef cried in the kitchen.

But I think the motivation behind this new breed of puritan chefs goes beyond the convenience of the kitchen cooks.

Professional chefs go to school for a few years to learn how to create fabulous recipes. They spend hours in the kitchen tasting and perfecting the balance of delicate spices and flavors in the food they make and serve with pride. They watch the waitress walk a plate loaded with perfection to the table; perhaps it is an omellete full of fresh sauteed spinach, delicately carmelized onions and just the right amount of feta cheese. They grit their teeth and develop an ulcer as they watch the customer dump store-bought ketchup all over the dish -- before even bothering to taste it.

These puritan chefs have a point. If a diner is going to go out to a restaurant and order an expensive, lovingly prepared made-to-order dish crafted by an expert, why not trust that this expert is sending out something that tastes good? Why ruin years of study with excess salt and pepper? For a $50 plate of food, shouldn't the chef have gotten it right?

I remember the baked haddock. White fish filets spread with seafood mousse, slices of fresh tomato and olive tapenade. Some seasoned bread crumbs on top and served in a parsly and cream sauce. Described accurately on the menu. Took an order for it one time, and the guy looked up at me. He wanted french fries instead of the artisan rice the haddock usually came with. And tartar sauce. He wanted a side of mayo with relish -- that is what tartar sauce is and yes, we had a jar of it in the fridge. This guy went out of his way and spent a pretty penny for basic fish'n'chips.

Eating out? Try a little taste adventure. Trust the chef. 
New York’s Puritan Chefs Want It Their Way - NYTimes.com

Friday, March 4, 2011

Supply and Demand and Service

A local restaurant just closed its doors for the last time. Their official reason for going out of business is that there is not enough demand. They could not be more wrong about what separated them from success.

The theme of this restaurant was local, organic food. The area there is dominated by an agricultural community and a well-off college community. Neighbors of the restaurant were excited and supportive.

The food was good; the cooks knew their craft. It wasn't expensive. Many of us who ate there were thrilled to have delicious, local, organic food that was also affordable. It was a treat!

The last time I ate there, I requested utensils with my entree as my fork and knife had been cleared with the appetizer. The college kid waiting on us gave me a haughty look over her shoulder and slowly meandered back into the kitchen area. I swiped a set of utensils off of an empty table. It's a good thing I did; if I hadn't I would still be sitting there staring at a plate of stone-cold food. This was a year ago; I have not been back since.

Unfortunately, this one anecdote is indicative of the general service in this restaurant, and it proves a point that too many restaurant owners don't hear: service can make or break a restaurant.

A restaurant that serves bad food will not survive. However, the same care, selection and training of chefs and cooks should be applied to waitresses and waiters. Well trained, professional wait staff will keep a restaurant going; unprofessional, sloppy and even obnoxious service will break a restaurant serving good food.

There was plenty of demand for the food this restaurant served. There was no demand for the shoddy service, and now they are closed. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


A good restaurant honors special requests. Truth be told, it is always extra work to change or modify a menu item, but a good restaurant wants the customer to be happy and will dutifully hold the olives or throw in extra cheese.

It is more difficult to change recipes to accommodate special dietary needs; but again, a good restaurant offering made to order food will make something without dairy or with rice instead of a gluten product.

I once served a table with a vegan diner a meal that cost them $80. They tipped me $100. I assume it was a "thank you" for my efforts ensuring that the vegan had a lovely dinner. (But who knows? Maybe they just liked my smile...)

Unfortunately, not all special requests deserve to be accommodated. Former vegetarian turned vegan waltzed in with his girlfriend and made a point of letting me know that he knew the owner as he helped himself to where he wanted sit.

He went on to explain at length that he used to be a vegetarian. He told me all about the dishes that the chef used to make for him without meat products. Now, however, he is vegan. Without so much as glancing at the menu, he proceeds to instruct me how the chef will prepare a vegetable dish in olive oil for him.

Sighing, I check in with the kitchen. The owner/chef knows the guy and agrees to give him what he wants. Make no mistake: creating a vegan menu item from scratch takes extra time, planning and effort. As I said before, in a good restaurant they will cook for you.

So, why do I hate this guy so much? After enjoying his special vegan meal, they order a Ceasar salad. I inform them that we do have vegan salads, but the Ceasar has both dairy and fish. He responds, "Oh, that's okay. It's not a big deal. Give us a cheese pizza to go, as well."

Back in the kitchen, I thought the chef was going to cry.