Can you remember?

Some time ago, while all my family and friends were dressing for the winter trying to keep warm, I was sitting with some colleagues on the patio of a superb restaurant overlooking stunning countryside just outside Cape Town and was about to have lunch. Just to rub it in, the temperature was around 30°C but there was a gentle cooling breeze keeping things comfortable as tends to be the norm at that time of year in South Africa’s fantastic western cape.

Anyway, along came a waitress carrying a cumbersome blackboard and easel which she proceeded to assemble next to our table and we expected her to leave it with us so that we could contemplate the 20 or so starters and main courses chalked on it. But she then started to talk about the dishes and all the ingredients and cooking processes in incredible detail. Not just how the dish was cooked but where they got the food from, how long the meat had been hung, which bit of sea the fish had come from and the various heights and ages of the delivery men. The last bit is a lie but I could almost have believed it because she did the whole exercise without notes and without once looking at the board.

The meal was great, the restaurant fabulous and the setting memorable. But the thing we’ll talk about for far longer than the rest is how this waitress delivered the menu contents. It was a remarkable feat of memory, especially considering I found out that dishes changed daily.

However, when she came to take the order, she wrote it down on a pad just like the majority of waiting staff. Which was a bit of surprise after her initial display but maybe her head was too full of information already.

I know some people are impressed when the waiter takes your order and memorises it rather than writing it down. However, it always gives me an uncomfortable feeling because it seems more often than not that something comes back to your table that wasn’t ordered. And then there’s not even a pad for a waiter to refer to see if he’s written it down wrong or to establish that the customer actually is mistaken so that he can pretend he’s written it down wrong.

When we take orders in the restaurant we have a system for remembering which people order which dish, based on the position people are sitting at the table. Of course it’s not needed if there’s only two of you but it comes into its own when we’re dealing with larger parties and then we can be rather impressive as we confidently place food down in front of people without screaming: “Who’s the pork?”. That is until, as parties often do, guests start to change seats so that they can talk to different people. And as parties are frequently boozy affairs, the guests can have a propensity to loose their collective memories and forget who’s ordered what and, as a result, enthusiastic discussion can ensue. It all adds to the excitement of running a restaurant.

But it’s not only restaurant staff memories that are put to the test. I recently had a discussion with a customer who swore blind she’d had a certain dish last time she was there the week before and she’d love it again. Always eager to please we would have loved to have cooked it for her but didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. However, after a few minutes of thinking that we’d gone a bit batty, a look of “oops!” crossed her face and she had the grace to point out that she was thinking of another restaurant.

Of course, one of the worst things we can do is forget to produce one guest’s dish and only discover it when all the others have been placed on the table. We’ve all been there as customers, coping with the embarrassment that ensues. You want to try it from our side when it’s excruciatingly embarrassing. It’s especially bad if it happens with a large party because we can’t just take all the food away and start again. We, and you, would be there all night.

It’s one of the reasons I take few orders these days at table. My memory’s not what it was. Or at least that’s my excuse, if I remember correctly.

Previously published in the Northern Echo


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