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Launch of Sabrina's one-to-one private cookery tuition Guest critic on Gordon Ramsay's 'F-Word' series finale Organised Top Chef Charity Banquet for Haiti raising £70,000 for 'Action Against Hunger' Seasonal Food & Recipe Writer for 'Blue Tomato'

Winner of Channel 4's 'Come Dine With Me' (West London) 'Bronze' winner in professionally judged 'AA Home Cooking Competition 2009' Appointed resident cookery columnist for Foodepedia

Japanese Rice Risotto with Miso, Lemongrass and Scallops

Japanese Rice Risotto with Miso, Lemongrass and Scallops

Seasonal Penne Mediterraneo

Seasonal Penne Mediterraneo

Persian Split Pea, Dried Lime and Lamb Stew

Persian Split Pea, Dried Lime and Lamb Stew

Monday, 2 November 2009


Grrrrrrr!!!! Nothing frustrates me more than poor service in restaurants and hotels. Unnecessarily arrogant and condescending mannerisms that should, quite frankly, get thrown out with the trash as far as I’m concerned. Eating out is the social lynchpin of business and private life alike and therefore deemed necessary, at times. So what worse way to spend an evening with a client, friend or date, than to be patronised by some jumped up, wet behind the ears, accent-laden, barely-older-than-myself waiter. One experience I recall, took place at a well known Italian eatery in London's exclusive Mayfair called Cecconi’s was precisely this. Although I must just inform you that I am nobody’s fool, especially when food is concerned and have ‘served my time’ in the industry, so I know exactly how to assert myself in order to instil efficient and courteous service in those who have served me.

“So, Lady… The special of the day is Tagliatelle… You know Tagliatelle? Iz-za flatta’ ficka’ pasta, justa like spaghetti but made with eggs…” His instant assumption that I was completely new to the concept of Italian food annoyed me greatly, but when you are with other people, you learn to bite your tongue. “And then this pasta comes with the sauce of ‘Amatriciana’, which is made with…..” (Interrupted) “Pancetta, chilli & tomato” I said, finishing his sentence and landing a look of severe shock on his face. He backed away with his tail between his legs and unsurprisingly service improved greatly, and the formerly patronising individual, became humble and attentive as he should have been in the first place. Despite my cool exterior, I was ever-so-secretly basking in silent victory. My clients were in absolute hysterics adding “Well he’s not going to forget you in a hurry!” But I mean come on… Tagliatelle? One of the most popular pastas in the world!

I believe everyone deserves a second chance and therefore he got his 15% service charge, which he had to step up the pace and work hard for. But forgiveness should always be a one-off, in every possible scenario in life, it should not become a regular fixture. Repeat offenders need not apply and if you are SO arrogant that you refuse to even acknowledge, let alone accept that you have done something wrong, then you can go ahead and “Kiss my Tagliatelle” – Catch my drift???

Having spent nearly 12 years in the hospitality industry I would like to share some inside knowledge with you and hopefully answer some of the most frequently asked questions as well as dispel some of the many restaurant-related myths that circulate;

1) Service Charge – It doesn’t always get given to staff. Often it is just a greedy restaurateur’s trick to coax the diner into giving them an extra 10%-15% to add to their profits. A way to get around this whilst ensuring your server receives their tip, is to give a cash tip, making sure service charge is struck off. However it should also be said that most respectable restaurants do give 100% of accrued service charge to their staff, which is the proper practice and of course just as it should be.

2) Chefs hate accommodating changes and substitutions to their carefully thought up dishes. This includes catering for vegetarians and those with food allergies and dietary requirement of any kind. Doesn’t matter how nice you are about it, they still see you as a pain in the ass. They will deny it, of course, but having worked with enough of them over the years, I can inform you that you are the single most annoying thing to a Chef when he is cooking for hundreds of people. Allergies & intolerances aside, if you can avoid making changes, then do, because flavours are married together intentionally to create an overall masterpiece. Most Chefs have very precious egos and cannot handle criticism or change of any kind to their skillfully created masterpieces. So if you are an over-cooked meat and potatoes person, then perhaps you should consider your next culinary destination more carefully.

3) Waiters and Chefs do not spit in your food - Just because you have been deemed a 'difficult customer'. This is a ludicrous thing to even think of, as you could be an incognito food critic or journalist and they would be nothing short of foolish to exposing this kind of behaviour, so it is not even worth it doing something as risky as this. HOWEVER this only applies to the high calibre restaurants… so if you are thinking of heading to your local pizzeria to make trouble, I would suggest you be very careful!

4) Wine pairing - There is no formal etiquette for selecting wines and if you don’t genuinely have any objections and are open to recommendations, then by all means consult a sommelier or manager for a good recommendation. DO NOT allow them to intimidate you into thinking you know nothing about pairing wine with food. Nobody can understand your palate, except you. Red wine is now acceptable with fish and some reds are greatly improved when served at lower temperatures than normal. White wines can also be paired successfully with red meats, so choose what to drink and don’t let them bully you into anything you aren’t comfortable with.

5) “Fully Booked” – This term is often absolute nonsense most of the time, particularly at the hottest eateries around the world. They do this to create an air of exclusivity and also a lot of restaurants over book by a couple of tables as sometimes people no-show. The best way to get a table is to ensure that you avoid calling during lunch service (12-2:30pm) as this is a peak busy period for most restaurants and you are unlikely to secure their undivided attention at this time. Contrary to what some of us may believe, calling up fancy restaurants and being arrogant will not secure a reservation, but rather a rejection. Friendly and unpretentious is the more appropriate way to coax someone into giving you what you need. I shouldn’t even have to tell you this, I’m sure you know already.

Some of the best restaurants are often the ones you drive past in your local neighbourhood that seem to be busy and teeming with families and locals alike. Spending a lot of time in top restaurants, there is definitely something special about them of course, but sometimes their drive to stay on top can often be what kills them off in the end.

Finding a handful of good, local and friendly restaurants can be a hard task. But I think for those of us who enjoy dining out regularly, it is important to have these handy places dotted around the neighbourhood. Sometimes more chic (and more expensive) restaurants aren’t always better, even with regards to ingredient quality and service standards. Some of the best meals I have had around the world are in total dives that just serve the most amazing and simple food… and when the food is good, “They will come”. A classic example (especially for any Persians who lived in London in the early 90’s) was a restaurant called 'Alounak' or 'The Shack' as I called it. The first of 3 venues opened since, it was a teeny-weeny, kebab-smoke-filled caravan parked in an open air car park in Olympia serving the best god damn kebab you ever had.
You could always spot the shack before you neared it, because there was usually a fleet of Mercedes, BMW’s & the occasional Rolls Royce parked vicariously around the shack. Man…those were the days. The cook, only known as “Mohsen” left to open his own fully fledged restaurant nearby (with proper brick walls, not just caravan walls!) The aptly named ‘Mohsen-Kebab’ is still considered by some as the best kebab in town, but it never really did it for me. As some of my fellow Londoners may also know…the tacky plastic garden furniture and pushy managerial flair of the owner’s wife can sometimes grate on the nerves of even the mostly saintly of saints. So I tend to limit my visits to takeaway only. (Plus I am still unable to forgive her for ruining a first date with a very hot guy I once went out with)

After all that is said and done, I still feel that the best meals aren’t always served in Michelin star restaurants with celebrity chefs. Dishes adorned with ‘Foams’, ‘Jus’ and ‘Gallettes’ of this and ‘Tians’ of that, can often be too fussy and just too much. The real deal is lovingly prepared courtesy of friends or family, wonderfully simple and deliciously uncomplicated. I have said it before and I will say it again, THESE are the kind of meals we should be having more of. Family meals around a table, children and husband in tow or dinner with friends both old and new, engaging in conversation and sharing stories. Memories are made of these. Whatever you enjoy and wherever you go to enjoy it, don’t let anyone take your pleasure away from you. Whether rude waiting staff or stuffy wine waiters, you are the customer and good service is what you are paying for, after all, so you may as well enjoy it!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Sabrina,

    Great post, I love it. Strangely enough, I think I may have had the same waiter at Cecconi's on the only occasion I've been there. He was a bit up himself to start with, but once put in place by by myself and my wife, he slowly became a great waiter, and the good parts of his personality shone through.

    I always try to give cash for tips to the waiters directly, and if I don't have the right cash to hand, I always ask if they actually get the tips if I put extra £ on the machine.

    I have yet to try Moshen in its current format, so suppose I should get myself down there, though maybe for a take-away, as you say :)

    That said, Mrs. LF is quite a mean cook when it comes to Persian cuisine, so we rarely eat out at Iranian restaurants as we always find them a bit of a let-down compared to home cooked meals at our place or at Iranian friends' places.

    Interesting point about food substitutions too...I guess I can understand if a chef believes s/he has created a work of art, to have someone come in and say, "Hey, I can't have that color in the painting, can you change it to [x]?" would be rather annoying.

    Hope all is well,