Chef Life #3

Hatch, Ahuriri, Napier

A couple of months ago I ran into one of our suppliers at work and after a friendly exchange about my move to the kitchen he asked, “do you miss the customer interaction?”

I still get asked on a regular basis which is better/harder/more enjoyable between kitchen and FOH and whenever I do I keep coming back to that customer interaction question. 

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but after much further consideration I’ve concluded that it’s probably been one of the biggest changes for me aside from the obvious shift in day to day activity. 

Dealing with any situation slightly out of the ordinary as a new waiter is extremely difficult as you don’t have the experience both in your job and at life to know what the best way to respond is. Customers tearing you a new asshole because they don’t like your Margaritas? Arrogant middle aged man four gin tonics and a bottle of pinot deep demanding you go to the dairy to buy him smokes? Someone doesn’t want an egg on their dish and is upset and offended when you ask if they have an allergy the kitchen should be aware of, as your training requires you to do? Fries are cold/steak is overdone/French toast is dry and often enough the customer does exactly what you’re not supposed to do: shoot the messenger.

Even as a semi-experienced waiter it’s hard to respond to these situations because you toe that fine line of knowing it’s your job to be polite and try to smooth things over as best you can while not feeling dead inside from all the ass licking you feel like you don’t get paid enough to do.

And further still, even as a manager when you’ve finally realised that you’re not licking ass, you’re basically a novice actor (but probably paid more), getting off on the fact that you can pander and smile while ultimately knowing that if someone’s going to be a cunt, more the fool them because you’ve done your best while NOT being a total shit head –   those situations are a straight up hassle. Especially if it results in the waiter (or you) (I definitely don’t mean me) crying out back.

In the kitchen you’re more akin to a cog in a machine than a cognitive being. If food gets sent back, you make it again or you make something different. If it’s busy you work faster. Or you don’t, or it’s so fucking busy that you can’t, and you run behind while FOH deals with hangry guests asking where their eggs on toast are.

Not a lot can happen in the work day that requires or elicits an emotional response. This isn’t to say the job doesn’t require brain power or that being a chef isn’t mentally taxing, but that particular level of personal impact that customer service has on you is completely removed from the lower ranks of the kitchen.

Fucking up in the kitchen is completely different to fucking up out front. As a chef you can put your head down and try harder next time. You can apologise to whoever’s in charge, and you might get told off by a senior, but in the context of a customer complaint, you will almost never have to face the complainant themselves.

As a waiter, whether or not a complaint was your fault personally, you have to deal with it personally, apologise personally, and take on whatever reaction the customer chooses to have – personally. Your manager might even be stressed enough about dealing with this complaint that they take it out on you too.

In my career as a waiter/manager, I was never trained to deal with the effect one or multiple negative reactions towards me would have during a given shift, or over many years. And to my own discredit as a manager, I never systematically trained anyone else to deal with this either. I didn’t realise how massive this aspect of working FOH was until I took some time out from that environment.

Now and then a guest will come to the pass, poke their head in and say thanks/good job/best *blah* ever. And it’s awesome! But never have I ever in my hospitality career seen a guest come up to the pass and criticise the chefs, or attack them for doing a shit job, and nor have I ever heard of it happening.

Disregarding entirely the multitude of reasons for negative customer interactions, this facet of the customer service experience is reserved for FOH only, and is one quite big reason that I am glad to be done with it for the time being. Because from the top to bottom of the FOH hierarchy everyone is exposed. No one is safe, shielded, or sheltered from impatience, disrespect, lack of reason, intoxication, or sheer rudeness. You might encounter these things in the kitchen – but you’re not expected to smile at the person responsible afterwards.

TL;DR I was asked if I missed interacting with customers and I answered politely yet truthfully while also omitting a resounding FUCK NO.

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Image credit to this local photographer at the opening of Hatch last December. Cheers Bruce!

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