It’s Ready When We Say It’s Ready

“Just send everything out whenever it’s ready.” You hear this phrase uttered a lot waiting tables. It’s maddening. Well-intentioned guests say it as though they’re doing everyone a favor but, in reality, it’s an inconvenience to have everything served piecemeal. It’s not their fault—most people have no clue how restaurant kitchens operate. Spoiler: there isn’t a ready fairy that sprinkles ready dust on your food as soon as it’s done. Professional kitchens require disciplined organization to deliver a food experience both flavorful and punctual. Most of the time, this does not allow for the luxury of sporadically sending food out to random tables throughout the night. In the chaos of service, readiness is constantly in flux.

When your food comes out is determined by a confluence of factors: where other tables are in their meal, how busy the restaurant is and what menu items you’ve selected. But the path toward readiness doesn’t always begin the moment you place your order. In fact, most times it starts much later. The kitchen might’ve been just about to begin grilling your steak when a striped bass from someone else’s table is sent back undercooked. Now your steak will have to wait a few extra minutes while the grill cook “re-fires” the fish. Proverbial shit happens, but shit splatters all over the proverbial walls in restaurants. Nothing that relates to restaurant timing—including the availability of your table at the time of your reservation—occurs in a vacuum.

Ever wait gratuitously long for a main course when you didn’t order an appetizer? Your waiter implored you to start with something first, but you didn’t listen. You were certain he was just being solicitous. The truth is he warned you because long waits don’t only occur when dishes take longer to cook. Your food is often delayed because a busy kitchen has to finish the main course orders for the other tables who ordered before you. Even though you wish it would, time doesn’t stop for the kitchen to start cooking just for your table. If they start cooking your food right away, it will be at the expense of everyone sitting in the dining room who has already had appetizers and are expecting their next course. Preparation will begin on your dishes only when the kitchen has pushed out the rest of the tickets that came in ahead of yours. We’ve discussed this concept—what restaurants call “order fire”—in an earlier article.

To help the kitchen stay organized, most restaurants require the server to “course-out” dishes—to design a road map for your meal. When these schematics are poorly drawn, the guest experience usually suffers. Chefs will terrorize servers who make a habit of sending order fire tickets to the kitchen; firing food is cyclical and single-course “as ready” orders disrupt the flow. If you don’t want your food coursed, it will go in as an order fire. The server might go back and ask the kitchen to send the food ASAP but the Chef will tell him—usually profanely—that the food will come out whenever the fuck the kitchen says. Servers have little control over timing; it’s ultimately the Chef’s prerogative. If a salad takes five minutes, a pasta seven and a lamb chop fifteen—the kitchen will begin cooking the lamb chops first, fire the pasta eight minutes later and then begin making the salad two minutes after that. At the fifteen minute mark, all three dishes are sent out simultaneously and the order ticket is spiked. Fifteen minutes doesn’t sound like a very long time but it feels like an eternity when you expected at least the appetizers to be ready right away.

So why are chefs so averse to sending food out whenever it’s ready? There are a few important factors that help to understand why. Chefs don’t like loose ends. Staying organized is critical when the kitchen gets busy and sending out the salad, the pasta and the lamb at different times can lead to confusion. Did Table Fifteen’s salad go out yet? Do you still have a lamb working? Streamlining how food is fired minimizes mistakes. More importantly, in the heat of the dinner rush, different orders need to bundled together for efficiency. If the Chef has a total of three lamb chops ordered all day (“kitchenspeak” for in total), he may hold your table’s order an extra five minutes so he can instruct the grill cook to prepare all three lamb chops together. To be put more plainly, your food is ready when we say it’s ready.

Sending food at random creates havoc in the dining room, too. Servers need time to clear dirty plates, to reset and change silverware. Food runners will arrive to the table confused about where they’re supposed to put the plates down. Restaurants function like well-oiled machines and anything that violates protocol grinds the gears. It also leads to sloppy service. Do you really want to cut your lamb chops with an appetizer knife or eat your pasta on a plate with leftover salad dressing on it? Once you refuse to play by our rules, you have to sleep in the bed you’ve made for yourself.

As with many things that relate to restaurant service, it’s always best to defer to the expertise of the staff. A wiser approach would be to tell your server to send the order however he thinks is best. Remember, smooth service is in everyone’s best interest. Don’t sabotage yourself by thinking your way is better.

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Taking No For An Answer

All restaurant workers have at some point been innocent victims of irate guests who can’t get what they want. Dealing with the fallout from having to say no may be the most consistent and nerve-wracking part of working in the service industry. It’s the root of the majority of customer complaints. You wanted something, and we wouldn’t do it. These misguided feelings arise from the idealism of the American consumer—who has always been taught that paying “hard-earned” money for goods and services entitles you to have everything your way. If a restaurant refuses to meet your demands then you can simply take your appetite elsewhere.

While it’s true that all guests deserve to be treated hospitably, people’s demands are often unreasonable and they have a tendency to communicate them with an improper tone. So many restaurant experiences become hostage situations when people can’t accept no for an answer. I’ve witnessed people walk out because of it. Being told no turns grown adults into sulky little children. Go ahead, throw a tantrum. Ask to speak with the manager. They may kowtow to pacify you but is it worth being branded a troublemaker? Most of the time, there are legitimate reasons why your server wouldn’t deliver what you’ve asked for and showing deference pays dividends.

What is often overlooked is the currency you earn for being compliant. Good service requires sacrifices on both ends, and restaurant staffs prefer to take care of people who respect the rules. Not only that, many restaurants work hard to cultivate an obedient clientele, pruning out insurgents. The friction you create by pulling the “customer is always right” card may be a threat to your good standing.

A guest recently asked me: “Do you have a problem with that?” when I gave her negative feedback on her unorthodox order. I was gently questioning her demand that each shared appetizer be served one at a time. There were four people seated at the table and it was impractical to serve it this way. My intentions were good—what I thought to be in the best interests of the table. She perceived me as being inflexible. In the end, she got what she wanted but not without compromising our relationship. I was following protocol. She was just rude. Rude people should not expect their server’s affections.

Most controversial restaurant rules are aimed at the overall health of the dining room, not just your table’s. Placing an order incrementally, for example, wreaks havoc on the kitchen and the timing of other tables may suffer on your account. We owe it to those other tables to prevent you from doing it. Asking you to stow your laptop is a courtesy you obviously don’t realize you should extend your neighbors. The light emitting from it disrupts the ambience we work hard to create for everyone. Oh, you don’t like the music choice too? Well, that’s unfortunate but do you honestly think that we can find one genre of music that will appeal to everyone? Even Pandora’s algorithms aren’t that advanced yet.

When you oppose these rules, you send a message that you put your needs above everyone else’s. Being agreeable, on the other hand, reinforces a positive relationship with the people serving you and builds the foundation for a more fruitful experience. You have to choose your battles wisely. Nitpicking about restaurant policies isn’t worth becoming an enemy of the state. Restaurant people don’t forget faces, and it’s up to you whether we remember yours fondly. If you end up in the doghouse, it isn’t very easy to get out.

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Let The Phone Eat First

A table recently called me over to ask for guidance on the menu. It was their first visit to the restaurant and they wondered which dishes were most photogenic. “Are you here to eat or take pictures?” I asked jokingly. We shared a laugh about it but you could tell they didn’t want to answer honestly for fear of being ridiculed even more. The food arrived and, right on cue, they discharged their iPhones like paparazzi—cropping, filtering and geo-tagging the plates in front of them for several minutes before they finally got around to the business of digesting it.

I’m not above taking pictures of my food. Food is beautiful. The care and craftsmanship that great chefs put into each plate deserves to be archived. I caught myself recently photographing a handsome dish from several luscious angles. To find the most flattering angle I spun the plate, repositioned the camera and even stood up to get a bird’s eye view. Then I tasted it. The dish was shockingly disappointing. But the photograph was gorgeous. A quandary. Should I abstain from posting the photo to social media because the flavor didn’t live up to the image? Should I attach a caption saying that it looks better than it tastes? None of the above, I thought. I should just eat the damn thing!

selfieSmartphone cameras empower diners to capture more than just food they dine out. One night, while artfully reciting the desserts to a table, a woman stopped me mid-sentence, shoved her phone in my face and asked me to repeat my entire presentation for the camera. When I demurred, she treated me like I was being rude. Having a phone in your pocket that can capture video means your waiter owes you a private performance you can broadcast on Snapchat? Is that what constitutes attentive service in the Age of Social Media?

Our need to document food experiences is disruptive to the flow of service and more intrusive to others than we think. A romantic dimly lit dining room transforms into a distracting strobe-lit club with the constant flickering of camera flashes. Waiters struggle to predict the timing of their tables when precious minutes are spent ogling the appetizers. Theaters prohibit photography to protect the audience, why shouldn’t restaurant patrons be given the same courtesy? As with other kinds of live performance, the problem with mobile technology in restaurants is that digital documentation has become a way of validating the experience. It’s hard to imagine that dynamic disappearing anytime soon.

Smartphones have become participants in the meal, there to weigh in on its success or failure. With a touch of a button, we can instantly arouse jealousy in all our friends that we scored a reservation at a trendy place. Of course, there’s something to be said for allowing other people to remotely share in our culinary experiences. But as our attention deficit widens and our manners at the table erode, one wonders if in our efforts to embalm our restaurant visits if we have lost the ability to actively participate in them. It may be unrealistic to ban cellphones from dining rooms altogether. At the very least, though, we need to learn to feed ourselves first. Let the phones have seconds.

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