Clash of Culture:
The service's differences
between Western and Chinese restaurants
Last night, I went to an upscale Chinese restaurant with my kids and the food was great, tasty and flavorful, but I must admit that the service was weird and unusual and left me intrigued...
Thinking of it, I'm not sure if it is a question of culture or a lack of knowledge?
I mean is it always like that or is it a question that the staff does not have the "Savoir-faire" (know-how) and did not necessarily receive the proper training?
Or is it my background as a seasoned Head Sommelier and Restaurant Manager in upscale French and western restaurants that influenced me to mainly notice the flaws in the service provided to us during our dinner last night?
I'm not sure and I can't decide. I guess it is probably a bit of both. You'll tell me after reading how was our dinner experience last night. I let you judge. (*)
We arrived at the restaurant on time and were greeted with open arms, which I appreciated, being a "white guy" (a "gweilo" as we say in Hong Kong, a Cantonese slang word designating westerners) going into an upscale Chinese (Cantonese) restaurant, as sometimes we don't get any greetings at all (culture or education?).
My children also making an impression being mixed kids (their mother is Afro-American) with their Afro-curly hair and tanned skin, which always seem to generate a smile on the face of most Hongkongese and more especially Chinese people we meet... also generating the need for them to touch their hair (it was a bit offensive for my kids when we first arrived in HK as not being used to be touched by strangers, but we have been living in HK for 8 years, so now they don't mind it so much... here again just a question of culture).
The receptionist invited us to follow her to the restaurant room where a waitress joined us and show us our table (so far, so good).
We sat down, they put the towel on our laps, brought us some warm/humid towel on the side to be used to wipe our hands (the usages here in HK and China allow you to also wipe your face with it too if you want to). Poured us some warm water in our cups and asked us if we wanted some tea also or any other drinks, while another waitress gave us the menu (so far, so good).
Then things started to get a bit more complicated...
The person assigned to take our order started to make some suggestions from the "à la carte" menu, pretty much immediately after we were given the menu, a practice I'm not acquainted with, as usually the Maitre D' or the waiter/waitress gives you a breather to at least take a minute or two to look at the menu, prior giving suggestions. She was insisting on this and that, while I was telling her that I would like to have a look by myself first and decide whether I will take her suggestions or something else in a moment. I was also asking her if she had a set menu, as it probably would be better for my kids and give them the opportunity to sample more things.
But, she continued on her promotion of the "à la carte" dishes, without really letting me have a look first (nothing more annoying to me than an insisting and over-enthusiast upselling waiter/waitress while you have had the chance to look at the menu yet). A little annoyed and overwhelmed by the situation, and as I didn't want to lose my cool in front of my kids, I said no to a few of her suggestions at first, trying to guide her more into something more of our liking, then abdicated to a few of her suggestions, while thinking that I would have rather chosen to take the set menu than "à la carte".
So let's stop there for a minute. This situation could have happened in a western restaurant too. I do not believe that it is necessarily a Hong Kongese or Chinese thing. But there again, thinking of it, most Hong Kongese and/or Chinese I know have for habits to seat down and usually order pretty quickly (and restaurant's staff know that), on the contrary to us westerners who, unless in a rush, usually prefer taking our time to look at the menu, order some drinks while deciding what to eat and appreciate the beginning of a dinner with colleagues, friends or family, which will surely last for a few long hours eating, drinking and conversing on various topics, redoing the world all over again ("refaire le monde" as we say in French) until satisfied.
Well, let's say that we were not in a western restaurant, I didn't want to make a big fuss about it as all I wanted was to spend quality time with my kids, and I took for granted that it was maybe these particular restaurant usages and habits to take food orders... (still a bit annoying and upselling in my opinion, but why not, after all - although way less annoying and pushy than that - I have been there myself countless time during my years in the restaurant business).
She had left only a couple of minutes when I realized, looking at menus once more, that they had a set menu that she (probably) purposedly ignore or avoid to show me. Looking at it, I thought to myself that maybe it was not too late to change my mind and order the set menu as I wanted to, rather than going for her suggestions. The set menu offered more choices and thus more food to experience.
I raised my hand, a waitress came but she didn't speak English (and I do not speak either Cantonese or Mandarin, even after 8 years in HK, needless to say, that I've tried, but I'm useless at both, my pronunciations and tones being totally awkward and thus incomprehensible to the natives...).
She called someone else. A waiter dressed all-in-black came (the Maitre D', I'm assuming). I asked him if it was still possible to change for the set menu instead. He went to check, then came back with a negative and surprising answer: "Sorry Sir, the food has already been prepared and its already on its way" (but we just placed the order a few minutes ago.... ?!?).
To my surprise (and dismay at the same time), although just ordered minutes ago, the first dish arrived in front of us. Not only they take your order rapidly, but they serve the food as fast. There again, nothing to do with western restaurants where one has to wait (or even languish sometimes) for his/her first dish to arrive on the table, carefully crafted by meticulous chefs, to whom we (customers) must abide by their rules and whatever time they think is needed to be satisfied by their "chef-d'oeuvre" (masterpiece), while eating the bread and butter at our disposal to prevent fainting with hunger.
No choice anymore, the kids and I had to dig in and discover the first one of the upsold dishes we didn't really choose ourselves. It was a transparent, gelatinous soup with white stuff floating in it, including two heads of baby green asparagus and an unknown brown "aliment" to add a dash of colour on top.
Yet, prior to sinking my spoon into it, I took a picture of the bowl and its content (always ready for a post on Facebook and/or Instagram, you know what I mean... - sigh -) and also took a few pictures of my kids to mark this special moment together (we don't go to the restaurant very often, very rarely should I say....).
The two waitresses (a waitress and a Chef-de-rang actually) left the bowls in front of us without announcing the name of the dish or saying a word before disappearing from our table. Which is something that I couldn't help to notice as I usually like to wait to hear the waiter/waitress say the name of the dish and eventually describe what is in it prior starting to eat it (like in every normal restaurant).
However, here in Hong Kong (and even in China), in Chinese restaurants, I often experienced "the silence of the waiter/waitress" (could be a good title for a movie...) not even releasing a whisper of whatever he/she just put on the table. And I can say with a certain assurance that it is a question of culture: only speak if only spoke to, especially with VIP and foreigners, otherwise, don't say a word and be invisible. Strange habits, but rather pleasant and discreet compared to the haughty and unconcerned (sometimes even annoyed or frustrated) attitude some waiters/waitresses, Sommeliers and Maitre D' may have in some western restaurants.
Back to the dish, of course, needless to say, that in the confusion during the order taking, I totally blanked on the name of the dishes that she chose for us, and therefore, prior tasting it (as I like to know what I'm eating) I called a waitress. She didn't speak English (could be annoying but it is the case in most Chinese restaurants here in HK and of course in China, after all, I'm the alien here, and moreover a permanent resident of Hong Kong, therefore I should at least know a few words to get by... but no, I'm useless as I said before). She called the man-in-black, the Maitre D' (I assume).
Confused and somewhat unconfident, he said: " Sir, what can I do for you?"
I replied: "Could you please tell me what is the dish and what's in it? "
Bewildered, he said: "hmm... let me check... wait a moment..."
It is at this moment that I realized (and thought very loudly in my head), that despite the question of culture and habits, the staff of this restaurant had received no proper training whatsoever (in my opinion), as I may accept that a pass-boy or a waiter/waitress may not know what is the name of the dish or what is in it, but from a Maitre D' it is unacceptable, especially in an upscale restaurant where you supposedly pay for the food, the decor, the atmosphere, etc... but also and more importantly for the service (it is the old Head Sommelier and Restaurant manager talking...). I was about this close [...] to call Denis Courtiade 😊 (**).
He came back and said: "It is a braised winter melon soup with crab meat" and he disappeared as quick as he came without leaving me the time to say anything. I could have said anything that went through my mind at this moment (as I do occasionnally, my bluntness never served me well...), but as he was gone, I just mumbled a "thank you" to myself, start eating and continued the conversation with my kids. The dish was really good I must say.
As my daughter was only wearing a simple summer dress and started to fill cold (it is always cold in the restaurants in Hong Kong, actually, it is always cold, as summer as winter, everywhere in Hong Kong for that matter whether you're in an office building, a mall, a supermarket, etc... the air conditioner is always running, full throttle, no matter what...). So I asked for a small blanket to put around her shoulders. The waitress obliged my request and presented the blanket to my daughter who declined it, for the time being, saying that she was ok for now ("the indecision of an 8 years old little girl" - sigh - this also could a good movie title 😉). I told the waitress we will keep on the empty seat at the table just in case she needs it later.
My son told his sister to drink the Jasmine tea we were drinking to get warmer, but she replied by saying she does like tea. Probably while I was too busy talking to my kids (my son facing me and my daughter to my right), the blanket we kept on the empty seat to my left had disappeared. Probably another waitress picked it up, and without asking us anything. These little details (plus all the ones cited above) were tickling the edge of my nerves. Not only the service was weird (for my taste and experience), but there was no communication whatsoever either coming from the restaurant brigade.
Things were happening around us without our knowledge or consent. Now, don't get me wrong, I have been working in the service industry long enough (28 years already) to know that the best service a restaurant can provide is usually the most discreet and most attentive to the customer's needs, where the service staff moves swiftly, efficiently, discreetly in the less intrusive way possible while being respectful and courteous (and even funny in some circumstances), adapting to the every customer's needs (maybe I'm a bit old school, but that's at least how I learned it and that's how I like it done).
That said, although it should happen everywhere, this type of service only mainly occurs in the high-standing restaurants where patrons have high expectations of an impeccable service inline with the prices they pay.
Understandably, if you go to your local eatery (bar, brasserie, pub, etc..), you surely won't get the same kind of service, but there again you are not paying the same price as in an upscale restaurant... (so no point to compare them), but it does not mean you won't receive a good service either.
Personally, I had the best dining experiences in small local restaurants in France, in the Basque country and more especially in Spain (***). And surprisingly enough (or not so surprisingly in fact), I have been quite disappointed by quite a few highly recognized high-standing restaurants, probably because my expectations were too high.
So to recap the flaws so far:
- pushy and slightly zealous, upselling order taking, without necessarily hearing what I wanted (I'm sure she meant well and was just very excited to recommend whatever the Chef wanted to push that day... rings the bell?)
- super fast arrival of the first dish with no description of the name or the content of the dish
- a clueless Maitre D' who does not know the name of his dishes or the ingredients they contain (without asking a colleague)
- things disappearing without being consulted first or having us saying anything
- a service basically weird to a fault (but as previously mentioned it is maybe a question of culture)
The second dish arrived on the table, and no word on that either when it was put on the table, fortunately, it was obviously recognizable as a piece of slowly cooked beef in some kind of sweet barbecue sauce. A dish which caught my eyes when I had a glimpse at the "à la carte" menu.
💢 Work in progress, to be continued and finished soon 💢
That's All Folks!!! for today, but stay tuned for more posts and stories like this one in the near future.
LeDomduVin (a.k.a. Dominique Noël)
And below, find the explanations of the parentheses in this post
(*) Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or actual events is purely coincidental, ... ...or not, after all, as you may have experienced the same exact things in similar places with similar people... 😊 ... sounds familiar, isn't it?
(**) For those of you who didn't get the joke, Denis Courtiade is a French Maitre D' (probably THE best Maitre D' in the world), director of the worldly renown restaurant "Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée", surely one of the most glorious 3 stars Michelin restaurants in Paris. He even has his own Wikipedia page, that says it all 😊 ... https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denis_Courtiade
(***) I previously wrote a few posts where I talked about some of my favourite restaurants in Spain, if interested you can read them here and here. I even wrote about my experience at "El Bulli" here.
However, if I had to dress a list of the restaurants where I had the best experiences in my life so far, food and service-wise, the followings restaurants will definitely top this list:
Cordeillan Bages restaurant, Pauillac (Bordeaux, France) www.cordeillanbages.com
Le Saint-Julien restaurant, Saint-Julien (Bordeaux, France) www.le-saint-julien.fr
La Tupina, Bordeaux center (Bordeaux, France) www.latupina.com
Le Saint-James, Bouliac (Bordeaux, France) www.saintjames-bouliac.com
L'Hostellerie de Plaisance, Saint-Emilion (Bordeaux, France) www.hostellerie-plaisance.com
Le Jardin des Senses, Montpellier (Languedoc, France) www.jardindessens.com
Le Café des Baux, les Baux de Provence, (Provence, France) www.cafedesbaux.com
La Ferme aux Grives, Eugenie-les-Bains (Southwest of France) www.michelguerard.com
Arzak, San Sebatian, (Basque country, Spain) www.arzak.es
Kaia Kaipe, Getaria, (Basque country, Spain) especially for the wine list www.kaia-kaipe.com
Akelare, San Sebastian, (Basque country, Spain) www.akelarre.net
El Nazareno, Asador Nazareno or Salones Nazareno, Roa (Ribera del Duero, Spain) (the most incredible "Lechazo" slowly roasted baby lamb, I ever ate in my life) http://www.asadosnazareno.es
Irreductibles, Gratallops (Priorat, Spain) www.irreductibles.org
Restaurante Marqués de Riscal, Elciego (Rioja, Spain) www.restaurantemarquesderiscal.com
and least but not last:
El Bulli restaurant, Roses (Catalonia, Spain) www.elbulli.com