When the customer isn’t always right.

In my day job, I have the enviable task of seeing how other kitchens operate. This maybe for a day, a week, a month or even longer in some cases, but what never ceases to amaze me, is customers. From the bizarre to the down right rude, just when you think that there isn’t something new you haven’t seen, somebody throws you a curve ball.

I guess I really should be prepared for this by now, at the tender age of 16 I entered the world of professional cooking and almost immediately introduced to the heathens that actually want a steak tartare cooked! This was 1988, and the culinary landscape was much different than what it is today, but that doesn’t excuse ignorance, and I guess this is what this post is about.

There is an adage in some kitchens, which many have attributed to Marco Pierre White, although I’ve yet to find any evidence that this is actually true:

The customer isn’t always right; they’re often confused, mis-guided or ill-informed; but not always right.

Some less talented, but egotistical chefs have used this train of thought as a green light to: ‘I’m right, & the customer doesn’t get my food’. That isn’t to say all the blame lies with those behind the stoves. Recent experiences have proven to me that the hospitality industry, is more challenging now to meet customers expectations, than it ever has been. There are some dietary requirements so common place, which 10-15 years ago just weren’t even thought about. Coeliac, vegetarian, pescitarian, vegan, nut allergy, diabetic, Jewish and Muslim are all regular occurrences, in terms of dietary challenges, which most kitchens will encounter in one form or another during a week.

Any operator worth his salt would do his utmost to find alternatives and go beyond his customers expectations. But of late, it seems that customers are taking this consideration too far. As a chef, any advanced warning to a dietary requirement can help me prepare a choice of dishes, unfortunately this isn’t going to happen when the customer notifies the Restaurant manager when she sits down at the table to order her food.

A recent experience, whilst testing, actually highlighted the rudeness that some people are prepared to exact on hospitality staff. A couple were going to be dining for four nights(although they only booked on a day to day basis). On day 1 during their meal, they demanded to see the chef. Whilst the chef was aware of the allergy and took all necessary pre-cautions to prevent contamination, this clearly wasn’t enough for the customer. The chef was questioned vigorously tableside, with the customer allegedly saying:

I have eaten in Michelin starred restaurants in Europe, I would expect some of these dishes to have eggs in them, which will make my partner very ill.

By this very statement, the customer is implying that he knows more about the chef’s food than he does. Yet the customer knows so much about food, that it was acceptable for his pregnant partner to eat unpasteurised cheese for her dessert.

My reply when the chef told me this the following day was:

I’ve worked in Michelin starred restaurants in Europe & UK, and I’ve forgotten more about food than he’ll ever know.

Now of course, I’d never dream of saying this to a customer, let them drown in their own ignorance. But, if you’re a customer eating in a nice restaurant, please bear this in mind. We, as an industry, are there to serve you, bring you a level of joy, excitement and well being to enhance your dining experience. So maybe a little courtesy wouldn’t go amiss?

If you have a dietary requirement, maybe inform the restaurant when you book your table. Yes, even those who are vegan on a Friday, but order a steak on Saturday. Let us know, ultimately, it will only benefit you.

Another weapon, and it is a weapon, used by the general public is the Tripadvisor site. Among many of its flaws, Tripadvisor I believe can actually help a business. If there are trends within your feedback, act upon them, either way people have taken time to post about their experiences. But what I’m finding is that users of that site are threatening businesses with negative reviews, for one assumes a better deal (money off next time, upgrades etc).

Whilst the likes of a few take a stance, see some of the older Sat Bains’ responses , it is hard for the industry to take a stance against this type of blackmail. And that is what it is, Blackmail. The hospitality industry doesn’t need to be beaten with a stick like Tripadvisor.

As an industry we’re here to see you enjoy your stay, but if customers are willing to stretch and test the patience like a somebody who didn’t get enough hugs as a child, to the detriment of fellow guests, then we have to draw the line. Sometimes we’ll fall short in peoples expectations, but it won’t be for the want of trying.

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