Restaurant Rudeness

by Jan

In the last few months there has been some snarling about and from restaurateurs in the media. John Lethlean (in the Weekend Australian 2-3 June 2012) lamented the decrease in hospitality from service staff. Everything about the restaurant might be fabulous, but the missing ingredient is hospitality.

And he’s not talking about self-important people who want to click their petulant fingers for everything all the time.

This meant not enough effort into making the guests feel relaxed and comfortable.

It doesn’t cost anything, as we all know.

Speaking of costs, Australian restaurants are considered expensive compared with the rest of the world. And, it seems that this led to closures at the top end of Sydney, for example, Becasse, Montpellier Public House, Berowra Waters Inn, Tabou, Bilson’s, Ad Lib, and Bird Cow Fish.

The other reason for these closures is that some chefs are not great at bean counting, or listening to their accountants.

Customers love eating out but just don’t want to pay a leg and an arm to do so (see piece by Thang Ngo in SMH 5/7/12). People are beginning to understand that twice the price doesn’t always equate to twice as good. They may have woken up to the fact that the excess is pretence and snobbery. And that good food can be found at all prices ranges and in various eat streets.

There was another news story “No Shows: The Knives are out” (SMH 3/7/12), explaining that restaurateurs have to charge customers a deposit in case they don’t show up for their booking.

Apparently some rude people think it’s OK not to phone the restaurant to change the booking, or cancel. If they booked a flight and didn’t show up at the airport, presumably they would expect to forfeit the fare. Why not in a restaurant?

So a deposit for a restaurant booking looks like getting off lightly in comparison. But this deposit system goads and irritates the bad mannered customer, who will shop around for another restaurant, which doesn’t have a deposit policy. It’s a tough decision for a restaurant struggling to get bums on seats.

In early July 2012 another food story was published (SMH) about Wafu restaurant closing its doors. Not only financial reasons but “inconsiderate, greedy diners”, drove restaurateur Yukako Ichikawa to complain about rude and wasteful diners.

She has set down rules for customers about food wastage and over-ordering. And BYO containers for leftovers. There’s a 30% discount for those who ate all the food they ordered.

These are very bold steps in such a difficult market. Some restaurants have such trouble getting diners through the door that they have to make arrangements with websites offering special discount deals. It seems that it’s a buyers’ market at the moment, and the hapless restaurateur has to cop it sweet.

This kind of misbehaviour suggests, not only preoccupation with the self, but also an almost wilfull ignorance of the restaurateur’s lot. It’s as if there’s a disconnect or a delusional perspective between commercial kitchens and the expectations of diners.

Robert Appelbaum (“Dishing It Out”) writes about the gulf in understanding between cook and customer. After the Almanach des Gourmands in 1803, there was not a lot of literature from the cook’s point of view until Anthony Bourdain published “Kitchen Confidential” in 2000. The chef or cook was the hero, and that the cooking business “grows assholes”. To quote Robert  Appelbaum:

This combination of anger and love, competitiveness and camaraderie, of cynicism and reverence, of anarchy and art – that was not what people had come to expect from the hidden world of chefs (p195 Dishing it Out Reaktion Books)

Jeffrey Steingarten said that this revelation had “foodies fuming”. He claimed that foodies didn’t  want to hear about conflict behind the scenes, or oppression that staff may suffer. Here’s Appelbaum’s opinion:

“Here is the contradiction: on the one hand, the restaurant has been one of the few sites of production in the modern world to which people know they can turn in order to remain in contact with what is human in themselves and others; on the other hand, it is precisely not as a site or production that they want to turn, lest they be horrified at what they see. Or rather, they both do and do not want to turn their attraction to the restaurant and its kitchen in this way.”

Perhaps Yukako Ichikawa at Wafu is the first one to express what some restaurateurs may be thinking, but were too afraid to express for fear of customer reprisal.

It’s not just a question of lack of good manners, it’s also a question of customer ignorance. Some customers quite simply don’t understand what they’re eating. And maybe they think that this is someone else’s fault, because they also lack personal responsibility.

Also, some customers don’t understand that a restaurant is a business, whose stock is perishable. If the food is not sold it goes out to charity or in the bin, and that’s clearly a waste of working capital and food. This is especially the case with the selfish “no show” customers.

If self-styled foodies want the imprimatur of being called foodies, then maybe they need to acquaint themselves with that world behind the dining room.

That may go some way to restoring a bit of credibility with restaurateurs who do know their subject, inside out, warts and all.