Customer Encounters #20 – Pick’n’Mix Takeaways

One of my favourite romantic comedies is When Harry Met Sally. I remember laughing at this particular scene (unfortunately it’s not that orgasm scene), and then I realised that it’s not funny because I’m actually the person with the notepad taking the order, and that Sally would be every restaurateur’s customer nightmare.

Now I don’t mind picky eaters on the best of days, other times I do get really annoyed. Anyone who has been a waiter or waitress will know this feeling only too well, and the minute someone starts rattling off a very specific order, with very specific instructions on where to put things in a box or on a plate, the first thing you want to say is “I hate you.”

Occasionally we will get the odd customer that comes in and ask for a special fried rice without shrimp or without egg and it could be because they’re allergic, that’s perfectly fine. It could be things like taking out the beansprouts and onions from the chow mein because they don’t like eating their vegetables, that’s also fine as well. Instead of sweet and sour sauce they may want curry sauce with their chicken balls, no problem at all.

Then there are items where certain ingredients are just non-negotiable because they’ve already been prepared beforehand or it just wouldn’t work as a dish if you took one thing out.. A popular request I get is for sweet and sour chicken balls but without the batter, egg fried rice but half cooked so that the rice is a bit crunchy, pancake rolls without the pork but replaced with shrimp.

Where it gets really complicated is when some people take the pick’n’mix thing a bit too far and start treating it like a buffet but without the food cart, reciting a long-winded order and forcing me into a corner to play a helter-skelter-esque game of “guess what I want to eat and how I would like it cooked”.

It’s not that we don’t want to give the customer what they want but more out of the fear of the potential repercussions of how that customer will react when the final product isn’t exactly what they envisaged. This is why all restaurants have something called a menu,

Asking a restaurant to concoct a dish especially for you is the same as going to McDonalds, asking the person behind the counter to rip the batter off the chicken nuggets, put it into a Big Mac, take out the pickle and ketchup, putting fries in it on top of the nuggets, then taking the sauce from a fillet-o-fish and putting it on the side, and not on the burger.

It is also on par of going into Zizzi’s and asking them to create a dish especially for you because you decided you didn’t like what you had last time. In fact it’s also probably the same as going into Zizzi’s, deciding that you don’t really like Italian food and asking them to cook you a Chinese meal instead.

Ok maybe I’m exaggerating you get the idea.

I had something of a nightmare encounter with one customer, David, who decided that nothing on the menu was good enough so asked us to create a spicy prawn dish especially for him.

David said the last time he came here he ordered deep fried king prawn with chilli salt and pepper (king prawns deep fried in a light batter, with red and green chillies and pepper, and it is effectively a dry dish). He said he didn’t like it because of the batter and asked if we could take the batter off. Unfortunately the batter was non-negotiable because it’s actually difficult to cook without the batter and partly because dad gets very annoyed about having people tell him how to cook their meal.

David even argued that his local chippie take off the batter from his fish and chips for him so couldn’t understand why we couldn’t do the same for him. I’m just wondering if he does the same whenever he’s in a fried chicken shop.

We eventually settled on squid with spring onion and ginger, and he seemed happy enough and went home without a complaint, even sampling the dish in front of us and saying it tasted good.

So it came as a surprise when he turned up the following day telling us that he didn’t like the squid dish he had yesterday. He basically decided he didn’t like any of the alternatives I suggested on the menu and asked if he could have a prawn dish with just onions and chilli i.e. an item that doesn’t exist on the menu that we basically had to make up.

A customer who comes in asking for a vague to specific combination of ingredients are very difficult to deal with because you don’t know if the customer is going to come back and complain about the dish because we didn’t cook it right, and no one likes seeing unhappy customers.

At the end of the day we can only prepare meals within the confines of something we distribute called a menu, and 99% of the people who come in work within that confine quite happily.

So David, I have a suggestion for you: why don’t you cook your own meal? This would effectively eradicate the problem of me having to guess how you want your meal and where you can at least have all the creative control in the world of what your dream dish should look like. As much as we’d like to be your personal chefs do acknowledge that we are also serving other people as well and that you waste my time trying to figure out what you want when I could be helping the other customers who are standing behind you in the queue.

Customer Encounters #15 – Usual?

It’s nice when you frequent a place so often that the person behind the counter knows what you’re going to order before you even say it, and it does make you feel a bit special

I used to work for in Westminster and every week I would go into the Starbucks near the station and order a caramel macchiato. One day I went in, quickly popped into the loos, came out and decided to order something different until the guy behind the counter pulled out a cup and said “I just prepared your usual” (”ooooh the Starbucks guy fancies you!” Squealed my friend).

Like every takeaway we have our regulars, and I’d say about 80% of the time they will order the same thing over and over again. 

Rob always orders a king prawn chow mein, chicken with cashew nuts and egg fried rice. Judy always has a king prawn curry with egg fried rice. Lucy always wants the special chow mein without beansprouts, green beans and pork and so on and so forth.

The funny thing is that the “usual” orders I normally forget are from the people who expect you to remember what their usual is, and when I don’t remember it makes me feel awful, but at the same time you cannot help but feel somewhat irritated that they somehow feel special. “How dare you forget my usual? Don’t you know who I am?” their expression will read once they register the blank look on my face.

It even happens over the phone, some people even get offended that I sometimes can’t remember their usual based on the sound of their voice.

The only reason why I forget someone’s usual is because I see God knows how many faces at any one time in the takeaway that I often forget. The main reason really is the fact that I don’t work at the takeaway every day, only the weekends, and whenever a customer asks me for a usual it normally is because the days they normally come in are the days when I’m not actually there on shift.

Last night we had a guy who came in, don’t know what his  name is, but let’s just call him Ian for now. Ian had a worn out tracksuit with a baseball cap sporting a logo of some form, grey stubble and looked quite tired.

I served Ian before probably a month or so ago, and that was the first time I served him. He just simply said “usual”. I just looked at him blankly and said “sorry?”

“You don’t know what I want do you?”

He then realised he was confusing me for my mum who normally knows what Ian’s regular is. He then asked for my mum to serve him instead because she knows what he wants. I’m kinda stuck here because mum has her hands tied preparing the order of another customer, so I can’t exactly pull her away from the kitchen.

But he was so adamant that my mum serve him that he wouldn’t even tell me what his regular was – which was spare ribs with sauce, two pancake rolls and king prawn on skewers, the latter item is something we don’t have on the menu.

Another customer, also carried about him this air of self importance and “don’t you know who I am?”-ness. We’ll call him Keith. The first time I served Keith he did the same thing and assumed I knew what he was going to order the minute he walked into the door and spent a lot of time giving me a weird look when I didn’t know what his usual was. After a few minutes he eventually told me he wanted a spicy king prawn fried rice.

“That’s £5.50.” I said.

He tossed a £5 note onto the table.

I asked where the 50p was and he gave me a strange look and simply said he always paid £5 for his order. I went back in feeling slightly confused and discovered that my mum offered it to him for £5. She would just give him fewer prawns.

Customer Encounters #10 – How Many Grains of Rice?

Now we are all obsessed with value for money, some more than others I suppose, but this often goes to the extent of asking how many prawns, pieces of sweet and sour pork there are, how many spare ribs is in one portion. I often get asked a lot how many spare ribs there are in one portion or how many prawns there are in a king prawn fried rice or king prawn chow mein.

My answer for spare ribs is normally “it depends on how many we can fit into the one box but normally four or five”. For king prawns it’s about eight in a regular dish and ten in a large or something along those lines.

For items that include things like prawn or squid people will normally ask how many prawns there are, which is a reasonable question to ask.

Just before the Christmas holidays a new  customer came in and after much deliberation asked for a large duck fried rice, and he asked me how was the duck served (as in was it one whole piece sliced and placed on top, sliced and then fried with the rice, or shredded like crispy aromatic duck and then mixed in).

He then asked me specifically how many slices of duck there are in a duck fried rice.

“erm… I’ve never personally counted but I can guarantee you that it is definitely duck in the duck fried rice.”

This seems like a bizarre question to ask, but I assume that when customers order anything they assume that some takeaways cheat their way by perhaps cutting the slices too thinly and passing them off as “more slices of duck” or cutting them too thick so there’s less but the slices are “meatier” so to speak.

That said one of our regular customers did complain that the duck in our duck chow mein is practically non-existent or too thin.

By far possibly the oddest customer question on how many slices of meat in a dish.


Happy Christmas and a Happy New Year all

Been a bit silent on the blogging front this week mainly because of Christmas, which I thought would be relaxed actually turned out to be quite hectic.

A lot of people naturally assume that Chinese people don’t celebrate Christmas because it somehow goes against their beliefs. I’ll have you know that the Chinese generally celebrate anything as long as food is involved (that said we haven’t really celebrated Ramadan or Diwali…).

But anyway Christmas was good and is always a good opportunity for us to eat (as my younger sister would say “face your fears, EAT IT!!”) It’s a new Wong family tradition that on Christmas Eve we have the traditional Christmas roast of turkey, roast potatoes, brussel sprouts and the works.

Unfortunately this year our oven had a bit of a hissy fit meaning that we couldn’t cook turkey (turn up the heat and things don’t cook, turn down the heat and things over cook).  The problem was solved after the parents bought an oven thermometer, so Christmas Eve lunch was saved. We had roast pork, parsnips, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, stuffing, carrots, peas and brussel sprouts.

For Christmas Day however we have a Christmas duck instead of turkey, there’s pork with taro and potatoes, Chinese mushroom with chicken, sea bass with spring onion and ginger mixed vegetables (carrots, celery, courgettes and brussel sprouts), and duck.

For the last three years we have been going to dad’s friends’ place. A reunion with his old school friends (imagine a Chinese restaurant full of loud rowdy Chinese men playing mahjohng). The highlight of the evening is of course not watching the mahjohng (indeed I don’t know how to play it), but the big feast at the end of the evening.

There was lobster, duck, chicken, more beef with taro, sweet and sour pork, tofu stuffed with pork, Chinese roast pork, Chinese jellyfish salad, and traditional Chinese broth.

A wonderful feast it was indeed. Bring on Chinese New Year!

Customer Encounters #8 – Refunding food because you don’t like it

A few months ago a customer from the day before came in with one of our trays and said that he bought a portion of our spare ribs last night and said he wanted a refund simply because “he didn’t like the taste”.

For the time being lets call this man Steve; now Steve looks very much like your typical white guy from Essex; a bit stocky, bit of a beer belly, shaved skinhead, dried skin that was quite raw from the cold, worn out polo shirt, battered jeans and trainers that were probably white once upon a time.

We’re going to name this man Steve because he makes another appearance in this blog in a future post.

Anyway, Steve didn’t go any further into explaining why it tasted horrible, just that it didn’t taste as good as it used to. But as we do with difficult customers, we just gave him the money without another word, and hope that he doesn’t come back.

You would think that that would be the end of him but we were wrong; the next day he came back and asked for spare ribs.

Spare ribs at the takeaway are soaking it in herb infused juices and then storing it in the fridge. Dad would do this in large batches say every week to every two weeks. In other words the spare ribs that he ordered just now would have been no different to the ones he refunded the day before.

We tried explaining this to him yet he remained adamant that he wanted spare ribs from our takeaway. We simply said “you didn’t like it yesterday, and the ones we serve you now will be no different to the ones you refunded, so it’s best we save you the trouble of coming back again to complain.”

Quite naturally he left very much dissatisfied, and to be fair to him, you would be. But given the account I have just given you, would you have taken his order knowing that he was likely to come back and file the same complaint again?

Food for Thought: Hakka Style Chicken with Spring Onion and Ginger

When I first started this blog I wanted to avoid being just some other food blog. I also didn’t want it to be just some other food blog about Chinese food. Not because I thought it was a terrible idea, but more because I never regarded myself as the culinary expert on Chinese food, and I’m still not.

But this doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy food, I do, I just don’t consider myself a culinary expert. But that doesn’t mean I can’t share some of the other foods that I enjoy eating outside the takeaway.

A family favourite in the Wong household is Hakka style chicken with spring onion and ginger.

Hak-ka 客家(the dialect, not the war cry) literally translates to “guest family”. Hakka people (客家人) are Han Chinese people who have migrated from the north of China to the south, often settling in Hong Kong, some going as far as Malaysia and Singapore.

But anyway, one dish that is quite popular is chicken with spring onion and ginger; this consists of a boiled chicken (save the stock, and carve)

The garnish is simply spring onion and ginger chopped finely, put it into a bowl (not a plastic one), sprinkle a little bit of salt, heat some oil until hot and then pour it into the bowl with the spring onion and ginger, but don’t completely drown it in hot oil.