The Answer is Always Yes

jpeg knife fill

The pen and knife

Begrudgingly, yes.

About a year and a half ago I was frustrated beyond my normal state of mild aggravation. The object of my frustration was a slew of obnoxious guests, who riddled me with a slew of obnoxious requests. And my answer, which has been a source of both more frustration and a dangerous responsibility, was yes. One simple, single answer, in no small way, changed my entire approach to the career I’ve been excelling at for 17 years.

Before I tell you how, allow me to convey my prior frustration.

There are guests who need more than others. They normally have a server running around from the get go. They need a new table, they want the lights turned up, or the music down, or the water to have more ice, and a lime wheel (not wedge). Then they get a turn with the cook, in my case I was running several banquets from the back of the house, understaffed and overtired.

Forget the menu. They use the menus for props in their conversation, nothing more. They already decided what they wanted before they even decided where to go. Don’t worry, though, they will completely change their mind once they’ve received what they ordered. Yeah, those kinda customers and that kinda day.

What people don’t understand is that when they ask for something that isn’t on the menu, it leads to frustration and aggravation for two reasons:

  1. The first, we cooks are creatures of habit. Most restaurant cooks don’t deviate too far from what they were taught in the first few weeks of their jobs. Many might not know how to make whatever it is those persnickety people want. Of course, my employers have invested heavily in cross-training our cooks, which certainly relieves the burden from everyone else when something out of the ordinary ticks down the kitchen printer.
  2. The second reason we have difficulty with some of the more zany requests is because we are expected to serve people quickly. Even the difficult people. And we have a clock in our head that says, no, you can’t have that because it will take a half an hour to prepare, and there is no way that is acceptable under any circumstances! And another clock in our head that says it’s about to get really busy and we have one hundred other things to do in order to please all of our normal, happy and easy guests.

So, there is somewhat of a paradox. A line that has to be walked. A philosophical question that begs asking. Is it acceptable to say no to one guest for the benefit of the others? Or, phrased another way, is it acceptable to jeopardize the dining “experience” of some dozens of guests in order to please one picky, rude and unappreciative guest? (By the way, every time I’ve seen a customer walkout on a check in my career, the first thing the robbed and perplexed waitress always says is, “But they were so nice.”)

On that day, when that monumental answer was given, I made a decision that no matter what ridiculous question or request came next, I would proceed, with a creepy forced smile on my face, in the affirmative. And then came the sign.

As official as a new policy in a restaurant can get, a piece of 8 1/2 by 11 computer-printer paper with a rule scribbled on it, taped to a wall or oven or common area becomes governing law. I hung a sign on my hot-box, which I typed and printed in black ink. It read, “The answer is YES. What is the Question?”

That sign became my mantra. It became my best friend and my worst enemy. It stared at my back all day long and every day I worked for months until it had had enough food splattered on it that it had to come down. But it stayed with me.

The front of the house used it against me, which was the primary reason I posted it. It answered for me, before my temper and impatience could take over my ability to make a good decision. It has tested me. It has brought me to the brink of madness at points. I mean, people are allergic to colors now. Sometimes they want things that they simply can’t have. But I have to try. Because of that little answer, that word, I have to try to make every last stinkin’ guest happy.

But if it wasn’t for the relationship I have with the front of the house it wouldn’t work. That is, if the front of the house allowed me to call all of the shots, unquestioning of my reasoning or motives, the answer might have been “no,” the first time. If the front of the house didn’t get a little kick out of seeing me squirm, it might have been a “hell no.”

Once you’ve said no, it gets a lot easier to say it again. But, having said it so seldom, someone has noticed my efforts.

I’ve been nominated and selected as a finalist for a very competitive local award for “Hospitality Excellence.” I owe my gratitude and my new found philosophy that “the answer is always yes (with a smile)” to my hot-box sign and the front of the house for making me stick to it.

If you follow this blog and enjoy my writing, I ask that you take a moment to visit The Howdy Awards page and vote for me. You will note that I’m on the second page as the only finalist wearing a chef coat. My colleague, Dan Brown, a front of the house member who understands this philosophy and delivers on it every time he meets a guest, could also use a few votes. He is pictured with the goofy hair on the first page.

You may only vote once, and it will ask you to verify that you have a facebook friend because someone tried to cheat the contest in previous years by using bots. It won’t post to your wall.

Thank you for reading, and for your continued support of The Sober Sous Chef!

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