It’s incredibly infrequently that I find myself embarrassed, certainly not to the point of being what you might call “mortified,” and approximately never to the extent that all I can do is laugh that fatal laugh, the kind that permits no breathing lest more of the shameful judgement come rushing into my lungs.
Why ? Well, I probably enjoy failing more than the next guy – finding that there are few better ways to explore the boundaries of the universe than by poking, prodding, and even tripping over the edges of it – but last night was different. Failing can be learned from – in fact, it’s a dedicated teacher – but at a small but special dinner yesterday, in the comfort of my own home no less, I didn’t even have the satisfaction, or salvation, of education. There was nothing I could’ve done differently. But there I was in the middle of the forest, minding my own business, not a road for a thousand miles in any direction, and here came the headlights all the same.
Some background : a few weeks ago, I threw a surprise party for the girl’s birthday (yes, that girl, and yes, that birthday), inviting some out-of-town friends as well as the closest members of our local crew for what was supposed to be a very special evening. How special ? In-house catering special. None of us had ever broached this haughty, rarified territory before so I thought, hey, why not break the seal with a splash ? I mean, if you can, you must, right ? Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a top-notch fine dining experience didn’t quite go as planned.
The caterer I’d enlisted, Stefan Cherwoniak of Quickfire Cookery, a second-order acquaintance who’d caterered for a couple of family dining events in the past, was unavailable the evening of our April 2nd event but still agreed to take the event on, sub-contracting it out to a friend of his, Richard Toll of Rage Catering. Unperturbed by not having the Stefan Cherwoniak cater for us, and being a bit wet behind the ears in this whole domain, we made the necessary arrangements and all seemed to be lining up nicely.
Come the day of, however, despite reasonable efforts to plan the event thoughtfully, the execution of the catering unraveled before my very eyes. Here’s the letter I sent Stefan following the event :
Thanks for following up. I’m not sure if Richard mentioned it, but I believe that he accidentally left some dishes or glasses at the penthouse. My dad said that was something left in the elevator, so perhaps you can check your stocks ?
As to the event itself, while having an in-house caterer was a fun idea, it didn’t quite live up to expectations in practice. While the food itself was generally well received, it not only came out very slowly, but was accompanied by rather poor communication and service. When paying $75 per head for appetizers, just as we would have in a fine dining restaurant, it’s not unreasonable to expect a certain degree of service and communication from not only Richard’s assistant (Rachel?) but also Richard himself. This, unfortunately, was not the case. [We] arrived at the penthouse at 7:45pm for the SURPRISE, at which time I took a minute to greet Richard and see how things were coming along. He told me that the food would be ready in “5 minutes” and then he set out to work. A full 20 minutes later and now watching as the guests were getting antsy, I checked in on him and he was still not quite ready. 10 minutes later again, while half the food was sitting on the counter getting cold, I checked in a third time and Richard informed me that the food is finally ready do go, though I had to ask him to find this out. It was somehow beholden upon the host of a small but healthy-sized gathering to manage all the guests and the chef. This, I have to admit, made no sense to me whatsoever. Furthermore, when the food was finally “ready”, it was just sitting there on the kitchen counter like yesterday’s leftovers. There was no sense of occasion whatsoever, no sense that anyone had done anything other than heat up frozen hors d’oeuvres they bought at Superstore the day before ; there were no little placards indicating what people were eating, nor did Richard make any effort to explain to the guests what they were about to enjoy.
So it’s now 8:15pm however, and the guests are famished, so they quickly demolish the food presented. Of course, Richard made a bit more, all that he had on hand, it so turned out, but due to the delay, people were hungrier than they might’ve been otherwise, which ultimately necessitated that Richard had to leave the penthouse to pick up more food. That he wasn’t adequately prepared to meet the demand was not only disconcerting but also created further delays in the evening’s entertainment and likely made necessary the extra appetizers.
To my mind, what should have happened was one of two things: a) Richard’s assistant should have brought trays of appetizers from the kitchen to the dining room and patio where people were congregated as the food became available, during which time she would describe the delectable appetizers in the full fine dining (French? Italian?) tradition, complete with words half the guests have never heard of before (I saw Richard cooking sous-vide! but alas, no mention of this!), or b) Richard should have convened myself and the guests in the kitchen where all the food was laid out before describing what we were about to enjoy, again in the full fine dining tradition. What actually happened was that the first 45 minutes of the party was minorly chaotic, which resulted in less than contented guests, a bewildered host, and room-temp appetizers that would’ve been far more enjoyable had they been piping hot or chilled cold and properly presented.
At the end of all this, I must unfortunately report that I don’t feel that I’ve received good value for money already expended, particularly the $385.35 for “service”, gratuity, and associated tax. This is nothing personal against Richard or Rachel, they’re both very nice people who I’m sure had the best of intentions, but they didn’t “come to play”, so to speak. Not by a long shot. As such, I’m inclined to ask you to subtract the entirety of the service, gratuity, and associated tax from the final bill. I believe this to be a fair and reasonable compromise.
Based on our family’s past experience with your catering staff, we unfortunately had higher hopes than last Saturday’s event. Despite a fine menu, we find ourselves left with bitter tastes in our mouths…
Clearly, I’m not one to beat around the bush, especially when I feel like I’d been ripped off for a service that was intended to add to the sense of occasion on a very special day but instead detracted.
Not that feedback such as the above are in any way, shape, or form customary or even (whisper it) acceptable behaviour in this corner of the world. Far from it. Feedback this pointed and this sharp is essentially unheard of, lest the recipient, so the theory goes, receive it so poorly that they spit in your next meal or something. It’s a very vague and ill-defined social norm around here, but it essentially boils down to the notion that confrontation is bad mkay and that if you’re unhappy with the service provided you keep it to yourself and just don’t go back. As you can tell, these folks are very much raised in the “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” tradition.
While this decision tree is the essence of how markets work, where superior service providers come to win more customers over time as the poorer performers chase away their opportunities, I’m of the firm belief that life’s too short for bad food and that no one ever improved by being told either nothing or how wonderful they are. That I have no patience for sub-par ingredients and preparation is why I happily pay top-dollar for quality produce and meats at the grocery store and farmers market, and why, when eating out on the reasonably rare occasion that I do,i I probably send back more food than anyone you’ve ever met.
Ninety-five percent of these are for food that’s served cold, but still. You can tell I’m not shy about this and that I have expectations commensurate with my out-of-pocked expenditure. But whereas I used to cause no small measure of embarrassment for my fellow diners on account of the brusqueness with which I voiced by discontent, I’ve become considerably more refined in my approach over the years, a delicateness necessitated by the generally sensitive and broadly non-confrontational culture I’m typically surrounded by. Still, Stefan didn’t know this about me – that I’m quick with both praise and criticism, and don’t readily hold my tongue – so when he offered to not only reimburse me for the contested “service” part of the earlier invoice but also treat some friends and I to a personalised in-house dining experience as humble compensation, he was acting in the best of faiths and was really being more than generous.
So last night rolled around and we brought Stefan over to cater for ourselves and another couple. As fate would have, the $50 bottle of Lebanese wine that I’d spendthriftily purchasedii to pair with the Mediterranean-themed cuisine just HAD to be corked. Oh ripple effects… Unimpressed and apparently unable to put on a soirée without something going wrong, the subject of my returning the wine to the store I’d purchased it at, something I quickly pledged to do, came up in conversation. Naturally and logically enough, from this jumping off point, one of our dinner guests recounted the time a few years earlier when we’d dined at Character’s, perhaps my favourite restaurant in town, when I’d sent back some chewy excuse for a Belgian waffle at dessert after eating most of it (so the slightly embellished story goes), only to have that “dessert” and the others we’d ordered more than generously comped. Now this story dates back to a time when I’d had far more fine dining experience than my dinner partners at the time, as well as far more experience sending food back than pretty much anyone ever, and I had the confidence to earnestly tell the wait staff that hot and tasty food was enjoyable and that shitty rubber turds were unacceptable at Tim Horton’s for 1/10th the cost and were nothing less than an affront to my palette as much as my wallet at such a fine and reputable establishment. At the time, this was apparently a Big Deal, so the story’s gone down in local folklore, it seems, at least in some of the more theatrical books.
Needless to say, Stefan wasn’t so familiar with this particular bit of my history, nor this particular aspect of my personality, and was suddenly put in the highly undesirable and exceptionally awkward position of feeling like a rube who’d been played like a flute by a conman with a reputation for stringing along suckers in order to squeeze out as many freebies and favours as he could. Not that I am!, ofc, and not that he had!, also ofc – the April 2nd event really was that disappointing (in the food department), as any of the other 20 guests could attest – but it was at that moment that Stefan wondered if he hadn’t been too generous with me, too trusting, and possibly too harsh on Richard who I can only imagine was ripped a new one for his lacklustre and highly unprofitable performance.
It was this moment that embarrassed me to my core, like the young boy who’s outed as an immigrant by his school’s morning announcements when the principal congratulates him on becoming a Canadian.iii So I laughed until I couldn’t breathe because I could do nothing else. And oh, when has a laugh hurt my heart so ?
To Stefan’s credit, a prouder and more easily wounded man might’ve taken this apparent (but not actual!) slight, this apparent (but not actual!) manipulation, and walked straight out the front door, dumping the food then cooking on the stove and in the water bath straight into the garbage and leaving only a trail of echoing French obscenities in his wake. He did none of that. He joked momentarily that he was “done”, affirming that he’d understood the implication that the storytelling guest had not, but Stefan quickly regained his composure and went on to serve one of the most memorable, delectable, and delicious meals we’ve had in recent memory. Seriously, what a pro.iv
I can confidently say that none of us had ever enjoyed such tender lamb before and that the mashed parsnips and Mediterranean spices were superbly complementary to the protein. The garden pea with sour cream and lemon soup, as well as the crème brûlée we had for dessert were also unimpeachable, but it’s really that supple sous-vide lamb that I’ll remember. I don’t think any of us had any idea that lamb could be prepared that way, or that well.
Or that laughs could hurt that way, or that well.
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- I’m cheep, recall. As any half-Jew-half-Ukr could only be. I’m basically cheep²! [↩]
- This is about 2 to 2.5x what I’d normally spend on a bottle of wine. But it was a special occasion! Yes, there’s a lot to celebrate these days!! [↩]
- This actually happened to a friend of mine, T – the same friend who was over for dinner, in fact – the same one who outed me as an unsatisfiable, manipulative monster to Stefan!
When T was in grade 3 or 4 and the principal announced that he was now a Canadian citizen, another kid in the class said to T : “Waitwut ?! What were you before ???!” as if T were the new “all white meat” Chicken McNugget. [↩]
- Further cementing Stefan as a true professional and a consummate gentleman, at the end of the evening as I helped him walk out his equipment to his vehicle (a new Nissan Murano fwiw), he offered me a cheque to reimburse me for the service fee from the April 2nd event. When I said that I couldn’t possibly accept it at that point (being the point after which I’d been so deeply embarrassed, to a degree he may well not have appreciated), he genuinely insisted that I accept it, and he insisted again and again and again, far past the point at which the cracks would’ve shown that he actually cared about the money.
Still, even though a few hundred bucks is a few hundred bucks, I seriously can’t even consider cashing that cheque. And I can scarcely conceive of another circumstance where I’d shun good money so willingly. Weird eh. [↩]