What do you do when a favourite restaurant lets you down?
Ottawa chefs share their thoughts, experiences with complaints about food
Last week I went out for dinner with a reporter friend and we went to one of my favourite restaurants in the city. It's rad. I'd never had a bad experience. The food, the service, the ambience, always stellar.
Until Wednesday last week.
My friend ordered duck and after taking a few bites, she said it was overcooked. I was surprised, and I'm a big fan of crispy textures, so I tried a bite. This duck was crispy the whole way through.
It was a technical error, not a matter of taste, and it was very out of character for the restaurant. My dish was lovely as always, but I felt bad for my friend. We'd gone because I suggested it and she'd never been there for dinner before. I told her it was going to be awesome. It wasn't.
I don't do food reviews and so I'm not going to name names. After all, the dozen or so dishes I'd had there before were all wonderful. And on top of that, we didn't say anything. We didn't give the restaurant the opportunity to make it right, so why complain now, in public? That wouldn't be fair.
Do complaints always work out?
So. What should one do in a situation like that? The waiter came over several times during the meal, like a good waiter should, to top up our drinks and ask if everything was all right. My friend and I, even after discussing the bad dish, looked up with smiles and said, "Fine! Thanks!" We didn't want to be rude, I suppose, or to cause a scene.
Sidebar: The Number 1 impolite way to imagine complaining about a dish, not to be executed in real life.
1. "Excuse me, sir? Would you serve your mother this [insert food here]? Oh you would? Well, then you are both fools."
An advice columnist would say we should have politely told the waiter about the bad duck. Something like: "I'm a big fan of this restaurant and its food, but I don't think this dish meets your high standards."
Does that actually work in real life, though? I mean real life, in the kitchen and among the staff. I've heard a horror story from a cook in Ottawa about very, very, very bad things done to a dish sent back by someone who complained. (The cook wouldn't tell me which restaurant, and the cook said it was a long time ago.) And even if that cook was lying or exaggerating, what about the other implications of complaining?
I'll go to that restaurant again because I still love it. Would the waiter give us a little attitude in the future? Would he point us out to the chef? Would they make fun of us? Would we feel less welcome there?
So, I called around and asked some chefs while they were busy preparing for the day. (Sorry, chefs!) Here's what they said. I'll write out some snippets, but for the whole conversation you can click on the soundclouds, which is fun.
Let's start with the two Steves.
Steve Wall, chef/owner at Supply and Demand
"I think, speaking quite generally, it's going to be different for people depending on where they are in their careers, and maturity-wise. I can tell you for sure that 23-year-old version of me would have reacted very differently from the way I do now. For sure there have been times when I was younger I [got] totally offended and sort of frustrated. ... But now, if something comes back, we just take it back and our main focus is getting something that they'll enjoy better. You don't really dwell on why, why it was wrong, too much. Sort of the main focus is getting them to the place where they're happy and satisfied."
Steve Mitton, chef/owner at Murray Street
"If something goes wrong — which, occasionally it does — then I'd really rather know about it then have them blog about it or put it on Yelp or something. I think that's extremely insulting when they do that, and they don't even let us know, and they're just outraged by something, and they just said everything was fine. ... To have the opportunity to do something about it makes a huge difference."
Marc Doiron, chef/owner at Town
"Say it, say it. Let us try and turn the situation around before you leave. That is, I think, the most important part. ... A lot of times it's hurtful because you may have pissed somebody off, you don't know, and then they go online and they write this horrible review, and you had no idea. ... And it's like, man, yeah maybe we did screw up, but we're not perfect, and I wish I could have talked to that person and said, I'm really sorry, and what can I do to make this right? Even if it's not even our fault. As an owner, if I don't have people coming back, then I don't have a restaurant."