Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Clash of Cultures: The service's differences between Western and Chinese restaurants

Clash of Cultures:

The service's differences
between Western and Chinese restaurants
(and some personal experiences...)

Sino-Western Clash of Cultures by ©LeDomduVin 2019

Recently, 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 the service in a high-standing Chinese restaurant always like that? or is it a question that the staff (of this particular restaurant) does not have the "Savoir-faire" (the "know-how") or did not necessarily receive the proper training?

Or, is it my background as a seasoned Chef 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 that 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, to which I included some blunt opinions and personal experiences relating to this Sino-Western Clash of Cultures. I let you judge. (**)

Meanwhile at the restaurant...

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 designating westerners) going into an upscale Chinese (Cantonese) restaurant, as sometimes we don't get any greeting at all (culture or education?).

That said, I had no greeting whatsoever in plenty of western restaurants too. So, I guess it just depends on the personality and mood of the first person you see on your way in (receptionists are not always the most agreeable persons among the restaurant staff, while they normally supposed to be, it is usually a dry, frowning, unsmiling face welcoming you in some places...). 

My children probably helped with the joyful greeting we received, by making an impression, being mixed kids with Afro-curly hair and tanned skin (their mum is Afro-American), which always seem to generate a smile on the face of most Hongkongese and more especially Chinese people we meet... also generating an uncontrollable need for them to touch their hair (it was a bit offensive for my kids when we first arrived in HK, as they are not 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 anymore... here again just a question of culture and curiosity).

The receptionist invited us to follow her to the restaurant main dining room where a waitress joined us and showed us our table (so far, so good).

We sat down, they put the towels 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 also some tea 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 menus (***). A practice I'm not acquainted with, as usually the Maitre D' or the waiter/waitress gives you a breather to take, at least, 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, then 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 ignored my requests and continued on her promotion of the "à la carte" dishes, without really letting me have a look first (nothing more annoying than an insisting and over-enthusiast upselling waiter/waitress while you haven't 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 into something more of our liking, then abdicated to a few of her suggestions, saying that we will order more food later if needed, while thinking that I would have prefered to take the set menu rather than "à la carte".

So, let's stop there for a minute to reflect on what just happened. 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 HK restaurant's staff knows that). On the contrary, we, westerners, 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 face it, we were not in a western restaurant, and 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 just took for granted that it was maybe this particular restaurant's way to take food orders... or maybe she is just zealous by nature (still a bit annoying and upselling in my opinion, but why not, after all - although in a less annoying and pushy way than that - I have been there myself, countless times, during my years in the restaurant business).

She had left only a couple of minutes ago, when I realized, looking at the menus more attentively this time, that they had a set menu she (probably) purposedly ignored 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 an eventual 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, or very rarely should I say....).

The two waitresses (a waitress and a Chef-de-rang actually, clearly distinguishable by their outfits) 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 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). Moreover, rare are the customers remembering immediately the exact name of the ordered dishes seen on a menu minutes before, without giving the menus a second glance or ask the waiter. So, announcing the name of the dish while putting it on the table, should be a given in all restaurants around the world.  

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, (not communicating on anything else either for that matter). 

And I can say with a certain assurance that it is a question of culture and traditions, following a rule widely applied to all businesses (not only restaurants) by most Chinese people (Asian in general in fact) in order to keep the face and do not disrupt intentionally or accidentally: 

"Only speak if only spoke to, especially with superiors, senior managements, important guests, VIP, customers and foreigners, otherwise, don't say a word, be respectful 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. (And don't get me started on that I have thousands of stories to tell). 

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 were chosen for us, and therefore, prior tasting whatever was in the bowl in front of me (as I like to know what I'm eating) I called a waitress to ask her. 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 earlier above). She called the man-in-black, the Maitre D' (here again just an assumption as I had no clue who or what he was). 

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 probably never received any proper training whatsoever (in my opinion). Understandably (and as I worked in the industry for so long), I may accept that, (and although they should), 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 here...). A Maitre D' like that would have never lasted in my team, I'm telling you (maybe a little harsh I know). 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 so occasionally, my bluntness never served me well...), but as he was gone, thus I just mumbled a "thank you" to myself, started eating and continued the conversation with my kids. Despite the irritating difficulties to get the name of it, the dish was really good I must say.

As my daughter was only wearing a simple summer dress and started to feel 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 be 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: "I don't 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 and 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). But, that night, in this particular restaurant, the service lacked attentiveness and things were done in a manner too uncommunicative for my liking. 

Customer's respect can only be gained with attention, acknowledgement and consent (in my opinion). Unless the customer is a total douchebag, yet, even with this type of customers, the service staff has to be attentive, patient, polite, respectful and courteous enough not to aggravate the situation and create more complications, and disturbances for the other patrons around. 

That said, although it should happen everywhere, this type of service mainly occurs in 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 attention and 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 at your local eatery 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, especially when paying the bill. Don't get wrong, I'm not saying that all Michelin and non-Michelin high standing restaurants are not worth trying if you have the chance and a wallet big enough to afford them, I'm just saying that in some of them if you set your expectations as high as the price you'll pay at the end, then you might end up disappointed. 

Just saying and I won't elaborate on that... but eating barely nothing of something unrecognizable and somewhat tasteless or weird served in a specifically designed plate has never been my thing... Fortunately, restauranteurs and chefs have returned, over the last 10 years, to a more substantial and nature-friendly cuisine preserving the essential and original aspects, colours, aromas and flavours of all the ingredients and elaborated with more local and seasonal products (nature-friendly as I was saying...). 

Some Chefs never derivated from that path, crafting an authentic cuisine with authentic products, and those are usually the best. I'm not saying that trends, evolution and progress are bad things, and I do not want to denigrate the other chefs either by saying that. However, it is true, and it is a fact, that the chefs who are constantly changing their methods (and thus derivating from the authentic path) in search for more innovative technics and more complicated dishes usually end up as fashion victims (like the fashionable Molecular Cuisine, a big thing back in the 2000s, which faltered and vanished nearly completely from the cuisine scene), despite a few rebels who converted to fusion/molecular/contemporary cuisine and are still trying to fit in an industry that has decided to go back to more authentic and classic with a twist type of cuisine.          

But let's not talk about the food no more and let's go back to the service with a recap of the service flaws of that night (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)

- no communication whatsoever (but there again it could just be the language barrier)

That's quite a few already, unfortunately, it was not the end... (sigh)

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 with some kind of sweet barbecue sauce. A dish which caught my eyes when I had a quick glimpse at the "à la carte" menu. Well presented and tasty too. I did not call the Maitre D' this time, no point.

Then suddenly my daughter, who was drinking the hot water which tasted like rusted metallic pipes and chlorine (the reason why my son and I asked for some tea, as, at least, it masks and somewhat enhances the taste of bad tap water), changed her mind and asked if she could taste the tea. I oblige her request by pouring a little in her cup. And very proudly she said: "Yes, I was right, I don't like tea!" (8 years old... don't ask...). 

A waitress saw the low level in the cup, came and pour more tea in her cup while I told her that she didn't want any, she prefered to drink water, but she didn't stop and fill up the cup. I asked her for another cup to put the water, she just nodded and disappeared.... and never came back with the extra cup. So I pour my daughter's tea in my cup and refill mine with it. Immediately after, and without leaving me the chance to pour some water into my daughter's cup, another waitress passing by grabbed the teapot on the table and went to pour some tea for my daughter. I stopped her in extremis, explaining that she didn't want any with some hand gestures (it usually works better than words, especially when you do not speak the language), her, as well, nodded and disappeared.

You see, in Hong Kong and China, in most restaurants, a customer's cup should never be empty, it is part of the usages and the culture (I guess that it is the same with wine in western Europe, a glass of wine should never be empty 😊), and usually the Chinese restaurant staff tend to be over-zealous on that matter, and if not the staff, the Chinese host or colleagues you are eating with, will do it too. I guess it is courteous and polite to take care of filling the cup for others. Nothing abnormal with that when you have a bit of education and "savoir-vivre". Which is not always the case in some western restaurants where sometimes your glass of water and/or wine may have the time to dry up before seeing another drop of whatever it was filled with previously.

I went once, a few years ago, to a supposedly posh restaurant in Beaune (Burgundy) where the waiter, the Maitre D' and even the Sommelier passed by our table dozens of times without acknowledging us or even refilling our glass of water or even wine (which is worst), yet the Sommelier, was in a very important conversation with a table nearby for the past half an hour and couldn't possibly have time for our table, and for the other tables around us for that matter. We waited a very long time in between each course, service was somewhat inexistent and they barely noticed us on the way out. For the price we paid that day for the food we ate and the few bottles of wines we drank, it would have been better to go in a brasserie eating a simple "Steak Frites Bearnaise", instead of going to a supposedly Star Michelin Restaurant and come out with such a disappointing experience. (Sounds familiar?)

The third course, "Sweet and Sour Pork",  arrived a few minutes apart from the second course, and no announcement for this dish either. It didn't matter anyway as I gave up on trying to make them understand that it would be good for us to know what was served. Instead, I was enjoying my conversation with my kids and the food was very good, so I couldn't complain. And in any case, I would not have been able to, not speaking either Cantonese nor Mandarin, and them barely speaking English. I also gave up on trying to make them understand that my daughter did not want any tea... (sigh). 

The 4th dish and the dessert followed quite rapidly too, the roasted chicken was delightful, and the desert, a soup of mixed mango and coconut, was refreshing (but not to my taste actually). 

To conclude, I can say that the food was really good, overall, and the presence of my kids was fun and both greatly compensated for the obvious flaws of the service. Fortunately, also, the table behind us was quite loud, which added some atmosphere to what could have been a very quiet dining room otherwise, as the other tables around were not saying a word.... especially a table of two, at the far end of the room, that ordered a bottle of wine to accompany their food, but was too busy on their phones the whole dinner to speak to each other (and to appreciate the wine they ordered too, as the level in the bottle after their glasses were filled never move the whole time).... a sad sight in my opinion... as I do not see the point to go to a restaurant with your lover or your better half (married or simply girlfriend/boyfriend) if it is not to speak to each other, might as well stay home or do something else separately in that case (in my opinion), but I guess their conduct is the reflection of the society we're living in these days.    

The service was not so bad, but it definitely lacked training, know-how and refinement, but at least it was discreet, fast and relatively efficient, which is not always the case (as stated 2 or 3 times already above) in some posh, supposedly refined and atrociously expensive western restaurants where the service is sometimes arrogant, pompous and disdaining, often slow and not necessarily pleasurable at the end (and where you don't get much in the plate either). Don't get me wrong, fortunately, it is not always like that. Not all upscale Chinese or Western restaurants are at either extreme of the example described above, most are usually in between, which balanced the patron's dining experiences, and usually accounts for a nonchalant: "...not bad this restaurant!" on the way out.

For the last words, I will say that what I found really annoying in upscale restaurants, in general, is that, sometimes, you don't get the quality of service or even food, you've paid for. And in my opinion, it happens everywhere all over the world, more often than none, and we, all of us, have dozens of stories of bad experiences in upscale restaurants, dealing with the attitude or frustration of the waiter, being served the wrong dish, or the wrong wine, or waiting indefinitely for the food to arrive, or raising your hand while Maitre D' and waiters and Sommeliers are passing by but nobody seems to notice, etc, etc... And my advice to you will be to never raise your expectations too high as you might be disappointed (and it goes for pretty much everything in life).   
At the end of the day, I had, once again, a clash of cultures in this Hong Kong upscale Chinese restaurant, in terms of the service (culture? traditions? language barrier?, etc...) and how it was provided to us, but I mostly understand why and probably will return to this restaurant as the food was really good, well presented and enticing. While I had major disappointments in upscale western restaurants, without understanding why (at all, which is even more annoying for an old seasoned Sommelier and Restaurant Manager like me), where I will never go back again (even in those where the food was good). Rings the bell?    

That's All Folks!!! for today, but stay tuned for more posts and stories like this one in the near future.

Santé! Cheers!

LeDomduVin (a.k.a. Dominique Noël)

And below, find the explanations for the parentheses in this post

(*) I need to admit that, when in a restaurant, while I usually try to adopt a laid-back attitude about it and keep my observations for myself, I usually can't help myself looking at the service and noticing the flaws, it is a bad habit and a professional default with me.

(**) 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?

(***) The menus came in both paper and digital, basically, we could read from a regular menu with hardcover and several pages inside, a separate printed page for the set menus and the iPad containing the digital form of the cited menus and therefore making the paper version useless, but I guess some people like to have both)

(****) 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 😊 ...

(*****) 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)

Le Saint-Julien restaurant, Saint-Julien (Bordeaux, France)

La Tupina, Bordeaux center (Bordeaux, France)

Le Saint-James, Bouliac (Bordeaux, France)

L'Hostellerie de Plaisance, Saint-Emilion (Bordeaux, France)

Le Jardin des Senses, Montpellier (Languedoc, France)

Le Café des Baux, les Baux de Provence, (Provence, France)

La Ferme aux Grives, Eugenie-les-Bains (Southwest of France)


Arzak, San Sebatian, (Basque country, Spain)

Kaia Kaipe, Getaria, (Basque country, Spain) especially for the wine list

Akelare, San Sebastian, (Basque country, Spain)

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)

Irreductibles, Gratallops (Priorat, Spain)

Restaurante Marqués de Riscal, Elciego (Rioja, Spain)

and least but not last:

El Bulli restaurant, Roses (Catalonia, Spain) (but that was before, and it was restaurant to at least try once in your lifetime, whether you like this type of food or not...)