Anyone who has spent even a little time working in retail has probably heard at one point or another, “The customer is always right.” I have certainly uttered those words myself to a young cook once or twice and the truth is that the customer is always right, except when they’re wrong.
While there’s little in this world that upsets me more than a customer leaving our business unhappy, sometimes you just have to draw a line in the sand. Our restaurant serves over 10,000 meals a week and I would be lying if I told you that we didn’t make mistakes. Even the best restaurants in the world have off nights or overcook the occasional steak. Good chefs, as hard as it is, swallow their pride, own up to the mistakes, and try their hardest to rectify the situation (before the guest leaves the building). Often these mistakes can lead to a lasting relationship with the customer, which I have experienced more than once. After making a mistake I ensure that the second plate is cooked as perfectly as possible, then deliver the dish to the table myself to apologize. This type of interaction demonstrates to the guest my sincere concern for their contentment and overall dining experience. This typically leads to turning things around for them (not always, but quite often). Most people just want to be heard and know that the server, manager, or chef is empathetic towards them. I have built a great deal of lasting guest relationships over turning a poor experience around and look at it as more of an opportunity, rather than an obstacle.
Then you have customers that you simply can’t win over, no matter what you do. Today, information is so readily available and people tend to mistake themselves for experts — at everything. The rise in popularity of chefs and food culture has unleashed a surplus of “food critics” on us poor chefs. They think they know exactly how to make borscht, or how mercilessly foie gras is actually made. Their vast product knowledge affords them the liberty to tell you, the classically trained chef of twenty years that you are wrong and your dish was prepared incorrectly. Not that long ago I had a customer tell me that my hollandaise tasted “off”. I’m sure she knew all about how the perfect balance of egg yolks, white wine reduction, and clarified butter come together to make the most delectable of the five mother sauces…
You see, a real hollandaise sauce, made with real egg yolks and real clarified butter, with no addition of stabilizers or thickening agents, will likely result in three basic problems. It could taste too buttery (although that seems ridiculous), or it could be too acidic or wine forward (meaning there is too much white wine reduction for the amount of butter), or it could have split, which you could tell after your first bite. To make the bold statement that my hollandaise was “off”, the hollandaise that I had made fresh, myself moments earlier was truly insulting. But for some reason, she felt entitled to another eggs Benedict, with hollandaise that wasn’t “off”.
Then there are customers that insist their properly cooked steak isn’t done to their liking. These are usually the same people that ask the kitchen to cook their steak between medium rare and medium, and just a little closer to medium, because they don’t like too much pink. Give me a break people. You are asking someone to take a two inch thick piece of meat that has been sitting at 34°F, place it on a grill that is likely above 900°F and stop it from cooking precisely at 138°F and then stop it, resting it perfectly and evenly cooked. That kind of perfection requires a great deal of skill and practice, and sometimes, when there are 30, 40 or even 50 pieces of meat being prepared by the same cook, at the same time, he or she could make a mistake or two. If the mistake is genuine, it should be up to the restaurant to rectify the problem and make things right. So the right thing to do would be to throw a perfectly cooked steak in trash, reach into the cooler, and cook another steak. Have you ever tried getting half way through a movie and demanding your money back because it just wasn’t quite funny enough? No, I didn’t think so.
I have heard everything under the sun in my two decades of being a chef. My hollandaise is too buttery, my pulled pork is too fatty, my fries are too greasy, and so on. Thankfully I work in the kitchen where I can throw a tantrum whenever need be. If I was a server, personally I wouldn’t have lasted a week in this business. Sure we make mistakes, it’s bound to happen, and we need to own up to it. But we aren’t the only ones. There’s a big difference between the kitchen actually making a mistake, and the customer thinking they made a mistake. Any chef worth his salt should have the dignity to admit their mistakes, because it does happen. But we shouldn’t necessarily be left to foot the bill when a customer thinks we make a mistake. So next time you are thinking about sending something back to the kitchen, ask yourself, is it really something that the kitchen did wrong or is it just something that you don’t like as much as you thought?
Chef Paul Shufelt is a business partner and executive chef of Century Hospitality Group. He’s competed in the Canadian Culinary Championships and Best in Chow Burger Wars, has been featured in Avenue magazine and is leading a fundraiser for the Canadian Culinary fund.
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