Everything all right with your meal, sir?

Marco Pierre White - don't ask them

Marco Pierre White – don’t ask them

The waiter beams down at you and asks “Is everything OK?” Harmless enough, perhaps, but some people find it irritating. If you’re a restaurant reviewer it is often a loaded question. If you mutter ‘fine, thanks’ and lambast the meal in print later I reckon the restaurant has grounds for complaint: “Your chap said one thing and wrote another.” Personally, I always contrived to have my mouth full at the critical moment or let my wife answer. She’s her own person – up to a point!

I raise this because Marco Pierre White has banned his staff from asking customers if their meal is OK. That’s fine by me. I take it MPW never did a tour of the tables (he’s retired from cooking if not from owning restaurants) when he was in charge of the kitchen. Being asked the same question by the chef is a darned sight scarier for a reviewer.

When it happened and I had enjoyed the meal it was no problem. If I hadn’t made up my mind and needed to ‘think on’ it was more problematical. “Interesting,” was a word I often used, because it swings both ways, in a good and bad sense. If I hated it, I’d have to change the subject. Or hide.

I was once ‘clocked’ in a rather poor restaurant by the chef who did a ‘casual’ tour of the tables before getting to me. I could see over my wife’s shoulder that he was coming closer so went to the loo and stayed there rather a long time until I guessed chef had given up. The missus was cross, though.

I had got my own back for a time in our early days when we had had a very poor meal (in Barnsley) and paid with a cheque. The owner spotted the name on the cheque was not the same as the one I used to book and thought I was a conman. I had to own up as a restaurant reviewer (some would say they are the same thing) and when asked my verdict on the meal said I liked to digest matters.

So he turned to my wife, who had earlier sent her meal back to the kitchen. “That was the worst steak I have had in my life,” she said. No chance of asking him to pose for a picture after that! Have you seen those cartoons where a character shrinks to the size of a pea on a chequered floor? That was me. It felt like a very long walk out to the car where my wife and I had a sharp exchange of views. We subsequently drew up ground rules.

Some chefs have been so keen to get my opinion I have had them sit down at our table during dessert and quiz me over each mouthful. Give me a break!

British diners are notoriously anxious not to cause offence and no kitchen should take feedback via the waiters as seriously reliable. People say ‘lovely’ and never come again. Instead, look at the evidence on the plates. So ‘Is everything OK?’ becomes a social ritual. When you say it isn’t they are often so surprised they don’t know what to do.

Or they get very cross and Things Can Happen. When I objected to an island table in a quiet restaurant the staff decided to teach me a lesson and put me next to the kitchen door, kicking it open extra loudly every time they passed. It was wonderful to see their faces when I introduced myself later. It wasn’t a bad meal either.

Then there was that Bakewell restaurant playing extra loud pop music to a roomful of diners all over 50. When my wife asked politely if the volume could be turned down the manager spent the rest of the night making sarcastic comments.

So perhaps MPW is right. You’re not going to get an honest answer so why ask?

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