Sunday, April 11, 2010

Stupid Questions

Yesterday, I suggested that restaurant managers asked some pretty stupid questions when they interview potential servers. These are your typical job interview questions, but tailored to the food service industry. So I can't really fault the managers for asking them. Heck, when I managed a restaurant, I asked them. We do this in order to weed out all non hackers, those people who think waiting tables looks easy, so it must be easy; after all, all you do is take orders. They have no experience, despite the lies they've put on their resume, and asking a few basic questions is a good way to find these people out.

But some of these questions seem to come from people who have no idea the business in which they're engaged. Waiting tables is a miserable experience. You stand on your feet for a minimum of eight hours, you're generally not allowed to nosh or drink (I'm not sure why customers aren't allowed to see you drink a glass of water, but I've been chewed out for it at every place I've worked), and you put up with customers' ridiculous nonsense.

So when a manager asks you, with a straight face, "tell me what you love about serving", you have to wonder. Because the answer every professional waiter will give you is either "nothing" or "the money."

But that's not what the manager wants to hear. No. He wants you to blow smoke up his ass about how you love to enhance the guest's dining experience through your professional, efficient service. He knows this is horse-shit; you know it's horse-shit. But he wants to hear it.

I was asked once, "what are your strengths?" My strengths? My strength is in not slapping your customers when they ask me a stupid question. (Oh, and I'm usually the highest-grossing salesman on the dining room floor.) Really, I get a lot of stupid questions in this business. We all do.

For example: Customers invariably ask me for food recommendations. "What's better, the Chilean seabass or the prime rib?" How the fuck should I know? I haven't eaten the food. Let me let you in on a little secret: No server has ever eaten anything but the cheapest crap on the menu. In many places, you don't get to eat anything on the menu; the chef prepares a giant bowl of something for the entire staff, so he doesn't have to make 12 individual dishes. This is called "the family meal". And this is typically off menu, because the owner doesn't want to serve 12 free Chilean seabass dinners to his staff. That's real money out of his pocket. It's much better to cook up a batch of penne alla vodka and throw it at the miserable servers.

Now if the restaurant has specials, and they're serious about having you sell them, the chef will typically prepare one dish, so you can see it and all have exactly one bite. This is rare. Some restaurants will let you order food off the menu, but, again, it's the cheapest stuff on the menu. So if you're really curious about the ceaser salad or the bruschetta, I can give you an experienced opinion. But the Chilean seabass or the prime rib? You may as well ask me how Katie Holmes' pussy tastes, because I haven't eaten that either.

When you ask me which dish is better, or which I prefer, you are basically asking me to lie to you. Now I can do that. Because I can sell bubblegum to a lock-jaw ward. I know how to sell a line. Ask me about the veal saltimboca, and I'll tell you I love it. It's delicious. And I do love veal saltimboca, though I haven't actually eaten it at any of the restaurants in which I've worked. But how bad can it be? Servers are instructed by management, any management, anywhere, to say every dish on the menus is excellent. Even if the veal saltimboca is overcooked and dry, and you know it.

Now rookie servers will make a stupid mistake. When asked to choose between two dishes, a rookie will choose the more expensive of the two. Bad decision, because the customer can see right through you. You lose all credibility (not that you had much to start with, but they don't know that). The smarter answer is to listen to the order in which the customer asks the question. For example, "which is better, the veal saltimboca or the branzino?" Chances are, because the customer asks about the veal first, that's what he really wants; it's his first choice. So recommend that. It's called suggestive service.

Getting back to stupid interview questions. I was interviewing at a seafood restaurant once, one that specialized in raw shellfish. So I was asked to pick three words to describe the taste of oysters. I hate oysters. To me, they are slimey nuggets of cold snot on a half-shell. The manager didn't like my answer. This was silly, in my opinion, because I'm a salesman. Just tell me what you want me to say, and I'll say it. I'll say it with such conviction that you'll think I eat oysters for every meal (even though the restaurant would never give me oysters for my shift meal).

Ditto for wine knowledge. I don't care if I tell you the malbec has hints of raspberries and chocolate. You won't be able to taste it anyway. I could give you the merlot instead, and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. Because the majority of people haven't developed their pallates. I know of restaurants that serve Absolut when you order a Grey Goose bloody mary, because you won't be able to tell the difference over the horseradish and tomato juice. But they'll still charge you for the Goose. All any restaurant manager has to do is tell me what he wants me to say, and I'll say it. Maybe I'll even learn something about the food along the way. So all the questions about food or beverage knowledge is pretty silly, if you ask me.

Remember this the next time you eat out. There's no point in asking your server about the dishes on the menu, because all he'll be able to say is "they look nice" or he'll be forced to lie. Most of the time, he's eaten nothing on the menu in the first place. He's a miserable wretch whose had rice and beans for dinner because most cooks are Mexican, and they make Mexican food for the shift meal. And if he's had any of the food on the menu, it's the cheap stuff, so if you want an opinion between the penne alla vodka and the fettucine alfredo he has an opinion. Otherwise, he's been coached to tell you that everything on the menu is amazing. He's a salesman, and he's selling food.

1 comment:

  1. So are there tips for being a customer at a restaurant? I'm very afraid!