What To Do In A Restaurant

Notwithstanding the boom, the restaurant industry in India is still on a learning curve. And yes, we’re talking about both sides of the table

Published: Jun 4, 2012 12:00:00 AM IST
Updated: Jun 1, 2012 11:34:08 AM IST
What To Do In A Restaurant
Image: Sanjay Ramchandran
TABLE MANNERS Raising your voice is not the way to get good service

In the 1996 movie Big Night, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci), recent immigrants from Italy, struggle to make their restaurant ‘Paradise’ work on the Jersey shore. The movie is set in the 1950s, when Italian food has caught on in the US, but in a distinctly Americanised avatar.
On the Jersey shore, however, Pascal’s, another Italian restaurant, is a huge hit despite—or, probably, because of—very mediocre food, which leaves the brothers desperate, especially because they create superlative cuisine. It’s a poignant story with a bittersweet ending.

You’re probably wondering why I’m starting my piece with a film summary you can find on IMDb.com. It’s because I find the story a very relevant parallel to the Indian restaurant scene today. Going out for a meal has ceased to be a luxury in many Indian cities. If the mushrooming of eateries and restaurants of all shapes and sizes isn’t evidence enough, one just needs to look towards the equally fast-sprouting hotel management institutes, producing an army of drone grads to feed the food business.

However, while our intentions and aspirations to discover new and exciting foods and restaurants are bona fide, quite often our approach is skewed. Discovery, by its very definition, denotes stumbling upon something unexpected in the course of a search. In food and beverage too, it’s the process of finding and enjoying foods and drinks that should surprise and delight, ideally cushioned by service to ease the passage of discovery.

Unfortunately, some people nowadays seem to get their thrills from showing up an establishment through their vast and seemingly informed views.
A dining-out experience involves fulfilling a need for either the very familiar (safe bet) or for novelty (adventure). Neither of these involves home kitchens, where terms can be dictated by momentary whims and personal preferences. A restaurant is certainly not the place to go and dictate recipes and ways of cooking that either undermines the skills showcased, or completely negates what’s on offer.

Raising your voice is not the way to get good service; it may have the waiter grovelling by your table but the cheap intimidation tactic
will make him hate your guts. Try being nice and you’ll probably win the guy over. Good service (depending largely on training standards) is guaranteed to people who treat their servers like professionals in a service industry.

With those ground rules established, engage the server with intelligent questions. Or, admit straight up that you don’t understand the menu and seek help: You’ll probably get it. If your intelligent questions are met with unintelligent or downright ridiculous answers, by all means throw a tantrum! But please refrain from asking one of the waitstaff whether the lettuce is certified organic, the chicken is free range or if the snapper contains mercury: He was trained to give you good service, not to satisfy intellectual pursuits. There are chefs and managers who answer such questions, pass them a note with the question if the place is busy.  

On to the ordering: Stating upfront that your budget for wine is Rs 2,000 is not embarrassing, it’s a statement of the fact. Chances are something decent would be available in that range. If it’s a restaurant with a bar, ask for the bartender and see what cocktail he can whip up for you; you’d probably be pleasantly surprised.

With food too, similar rules apply: Ask questions to find a good match for your palate. Creating your own combinations and then whining about them later is quite silly; just because pesto and tomato sauce tastes good in isolation, they don’t equal ‘tasty together’! Cooks are creatures of habit. Take them away from their comfort zone and, nine times out of ten, you’re asking for trouble. A head chef may be able to surprise the diner, but he’s not the one cooking all the time. However, when a tried-and-tested dish falls short, by all means go ahead and raise hell.

What To Do In A Restaurant
Image: Corbis
OFF THE STREET Food increasingly seems to be a volume game; if you make it, they’ll eat it

Turning Tables
Restaurants and restaurateurs, too, need to mend their ways if they are to push the envelope on the dining out ethos: Too many of them find it easy to peddle mediocrity, purely because it’s an extremely sellable commodity—as Primo and Secondo found out. Almost everything related to quality dining in self-proclaimed ‘good’ restaurants, consequently, remains theoretical at best. The service staff are untrained and seldom qualified, and shockingly poorly managed and demotivated. Many a chef works on a formula of excess (portions, spice, fat, etc) because too many palates crave food that is close to home, irrespective of cuisine. Education is perhaps the only way to get someone to appreciate different things: Delivering exactly what the consumer wants will not encourage the growth of variety, despite the boom we are now seeing.

I’m personally aghast each time someone asks for cream sauce with everything; it’s not the way to make food taste better, for one, and is a sure shot way to mask flavours. Cream sauces and the like are essentially baby food: Shove it down to make the nutrients count and keep the flavours idiot-proof. Consider a scenario where someone opts for the dense and heavy cream sauce with an equally dense dose of pasta over a perfectly good tart with goat cheese and fresh ripe tomatoes simply singing with flavours because it’s ‘fattening’ and, really, all I can think of is that person needs one of two things desperately: A new nutritionist or a nutritionist anyway.

One may argue that my views seem biased towards the industry that deals with fine dining alone, but that’s because I witness it on an ongoing basis—and also because I struggle to remember the last good samosa I had off the street. They’re half the size, stuffed with frozen peas and served with chutney that has been progressively watered down. One bhatura with spicy yet delicate, large chholey is all it took to feed me when I was a growing, ravenous teen; my recent nostalgic forays had me struggling to tackle the oil-clogged, poorly fried, sub-sized puri-like bhature with unnecessarily over-spiced, tiny chholey.

Similarly, I can’t remember the last time an attendant at a mid-sized eatery smiled at me in welcome; they all seem so miserable, shafted, it seems, by the employer and the customer alike. The meal that follows is simply a belly-filler, seldom a memorable experience. Even my sandwichwala at Mahalaxmi station in Mumbai seems troubled by the constant ‘hurry ups’ his patrons keep throwing at him. The chaatwala is kept busy with preposterous questions about pee in the masala paani. Ironically, I’ve never ever heard someone complain at a McDonald’s.

Food increasingly seems to be a volume game; if you make it, they’ll eat it. The romance seems to have dissipated. The painstaking nuances and passionate obsession with perfect ingredients and freshness is what made me fall in love with food; these also seem to be the fastest eroding virtues on the dining scene. It’s a nationwide phenomenon, just in case the Bengali sits up and says, ‘But I still buy fresh vegetables and fish!’ Look at it holistically and beyond your fridge, and you’ll understand.

The sad part is that most restaurants don’t open for sustenance alone; they probably set up shop like Primo’s Paradise and soon became Pascal’s. Overall apathy and a misplaced sense of eating fuel this in a very large part. A little joie de vivre in our excitement with food, a little more trust in those who put it together may just alter things from the grassroots up; Bhubaneswar and Baroda can potentially be as exciting as the streets of Bangkok and hopefully prevent another Paradise Lost.  

The writer is executive chef, Olive Beach,  Bangalore, and Olive Bar and Kitchen, Mumbai.

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(This story appears in the 08 June, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Aditi

    ive similar thoughts to what uve written , ekdum apt article !

    on Jun 11, 2012
  • Harsh

    I miss the good old 80s and 90s when eating out used to be casual and without the pressure of being best-mannered. I think customers at least need to dine without thinking too much about the food combinations. If you like cream sauce, go ahead with it. How does it matter if that\'s baby food? If you like it, don\'t care about anyone. After all, one goes out to have a good time and fun!

    on Jun 6, 2012
  • Dips Sherman

    Manu brings some great insights. Restaurants that do not keep its tables full, sooner or later run out of business...And a great chef knows that...Rest is a matter of fine tuning...

    on Jun 4, 2012