Category Archives: rants

Seven Simple Steps to Service Satisfaction*

Dinner parties can be stressful. You spend a great deal of time prepping and preening and most of the actual event fussing over your friends to make sure they’re having a good time. It can sometimes be difficult to relax. Now imagine you play host/ess everyday – only your friends are total strangers, your house is your business and the party runs for 10 hours or more…

When you enter a dining venue, this is often the scenario you are walking into. The people employed to oversee your experience work as hard as those in many higher paying occupations and – it has been my experience over the past decade or so – genuinely want to make sure their customers are smiling. A great deal of time and energy is spent on training and education within the industry to ensure staff deliver service of the highest attainable standards. What tends to be overlooked however, is that customer service is a bilateral exchange, and when only one side understands the rules, the whole deal can sometimes spectacularly crash and burn.

So, I thought I might host a brief, un-preachy-as-possible masterclass on how to be the perfect customer. I invite readers to comment, leave feedback or make suggestions as they pertain to the following flashpoints. It’s not rocket surgery and I guarantee it will make your next eating outing just that little bit more amazing.

*actually, there are eight steps… but damn if alliteration ain’t a fine thing.

hospo ryan

1. Every venue is different.

How boring would it be if everywhere just did the same ol’ shit? What is this? Soviet Russia? Logan’s Run? Airstrip One? Dumb.

My tip is; when visiting somewhere for the first time, try to be observant. “Is it table-service or bar service?” “Do I wait to be seated or pull-up my own chair?” “What are other customers doing?” Bowling in and reeling-off your demands is not going to kick things off well. Trust that there is a system in place and that the smoothest sailing is to be achieved by going with the flow.

2. “No” is not a dirty word.

In some cases, a business may elect not to offer a particular item or option. Imagine you walk into McDonald’s and order a meat lover’s pizza – the pimply teen’s inability to fulfill your request is not a malicious attack, aimed at ruining your day.

More and more we are seeing food venues specialising in (sometimes very) particular areas of the culinary spectrum. Hours of thought and painstaking consideration are poured into crafting a menu, and the best operations only serve that which they fully endorse. In the case of small businesses this allows proprietors to tender a select range of high-quality offerings, in place of a whole lotta mishmashed crap. It indicates they take pride in what they do and it helps develop a strong identity. Venues may also opt not to serve a dish a particular way in order to preserve its integrity. You’re in their house, so show some respect, and in turn, you will be delivered a true, from-the-heart experience. If you don’t enjoy said experience, that’s totally OK! The best way to communicate this is to take your money elsewhere in future.

Tip: Small tweaks are not always small tweaks. What may seem like a simple alteration may not be achievable, so be open to the possibility that someone might tell you “sorry, no”. Most often there will be an easy alternative or simple workaround solution, or, there’s always the place next door.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask (lots of) questions.

Likewise, please be patient if staff seem to be asking a few of you. The aim is to get your order perfect – first time, every time – and understanding precisely what the customer expects is paramount. If you are bamboozled by the description of a menu item, or unfamiliar with a particular ingredient, someone will be able to explain it for you, offer guidance or make recommendations.

When a staff member rattles-off a list of options, they are being thorough – not patronising – to make certain those they’re attending get just what they want and the experience can progress forward in an uninterrupted fashion.

4. Take a hint.

When someone suggests there may exist a better, more concise or “funner” way of getting what it is you want – listen up! You may place an order once a day (maybe?) whereas it’s likely they listen to (maybe?) hundreds of orders daily.

A “normal size, not-too hot flat white, just regular strength, with a bit of froth, but in a glass” is otherwise called a “latte”.

 hospo emma

5. Popular places are busy / busy places are good / good places are popular.

A queue out the door almost always indicates that good things lay within. Be patient and trust that staff (both on the scene and behind it) are working as best they can for everyone’s benefit. If you’ve got nana’s 90th morning tea to get to, maaaaaaybe try someplace without a 45 minute wait on tables – or come back next week? If your food seems to be taking a while to appear, there’s nothing at all wrong with attracting someone’s attention to find out where you are in the mix. 9/10 times there will be a straightforward explanation.

6. Think about appropriate behaviour for other industries.

You’ve just had your annual dental check-up and are rinsing with that tiny paper cup and minty wash. Do you (A) kick back in the chair and make a few calls while the nurse packs up around you, (B) finish the Who Weekly article about celebrity bikini workouts until someone asks you to get out, or (C) thank the dentist and leave promptly so the next patient can enter – or – so everyone can clock-off and go home?

Quick service and high turnover reduce overheads. Low overheads keep prices down. Everybody wins.

You’re at the second fitting for a new suit when Sam calls to discuss dinner plans for Friday. Do you (A) answer the phone and ignore the tailor as he stands around waiting for you, (B) take the call and unleash an indecipherable succession of hand signals and winks to indicate what changes you’d like made to the jacket lining or (C) tell Sam you will call him/her back in a few minutes?

Courtesy is called “common” because it should be just that. Giving someone your full attention actually feels great for everyone.

Tip: Saying “please” and “thank you” is among the first things we teach to new humans. At what point / age / salary does it  become acceptable to omit these from one’s vocabulary?

7. It’s spelled “C-A-F-E” not “C-R-E-C-H-E”.

If you are traveling with children, they are your responsibility and no one else’s. Think of them as something precious – like your purse or phone. Would you let those out of your sight? Would you trust another customer or a member of staff to keep an eye on them while you chat? Would you silence your mobile if it was screeching constantly and causing a disruption for others?

I love languishing in specialty cafes and dining in good restaurants, but I get that it’s not top of a four-year-old’s bucket list. They’d probably rather be colouring-in or watching SpongeBob on an iPad or reading about wizards – all of which are totally, 100% acceptable pursuits to be undertaken in public. So pack ahead and be the entertainment you would want them to have.

hospo jen

8. Regulars earn perks, not entitlements.

I see my regulars more often than I see my mum and dad, and as such we have developed odd little micro-friendships – with benefits. “You’re running late? OK I’ll sneakily bump your takeaway to the front of the queue.” “Look, we don’t take bookings but I can probably set aside a table for you tomorrow, since it’s a special occasion.” “Short on change? This one’s on me.”

You are much more likely to receive exceptional service if you are offered it. Patrons who overstep the line and begin making demands / nuisances of themselves may quickly find the warm embrace of “being a regular” somewhat cooled.

Postscript.

As long as the world is turning and spinning, we’re all gonna be dizzy and we’re gonna make mistakes” – Mel Brooks.

Forgetting to hit ‘attach’ on an email, mailing the wrong spare part, publishing an embarrosying typo or forgetting to mark a dish as ‘gluten free’; annoying blips? Yes. End of the freaking world? Nope. When a mistake is made, the ideal solution (for everyone) is to rectify the error as quickly and with as little fuss as possible – so let’s work together on this. An apology and a sharp turnaround is to be expected, and we will do everything we can to get things back on track as promptly as possible. If you are genuinely dissatisfied with the service provided to you by waitstaff, I would recommend expressing this to the manager or owner in the same manner that you would like to receive constructive feedback.

No-one’s day was ever ruined by an under-poached egg or the wrong wine” – Me.

Thanks for stopping by. Be well, TV. #hospo4lyf

Disclaimer.

The images used here are not owned by me, rather they were lifted from possibly the best place in the internet – http://celebsandcoffee.tumblr.com/

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Espresso and the illusion of supremacy

It seems, en masse, Australians have suddenly adopted the mindset that at some point in their life, they simply MUST own a “coffee machine” – or, what they really mean is an “espresso machine”. The forest-loads of department store propaganda choking-up our mailboxes have us convinced that this is a worthy aspiration; an emblem of sophistication and status, when in fact, most households already own a coffee machine. It may not be big and shiny and handmade by an Italian company you can’t pronounce – it may not even plug in – but that doesn’t mean it’s incapable or producing a fine cup of joe.

Ok, let’s back up. So, what is “espresso” and why do we crave it so? There’s a real fine technical explanation here, but I’m going to summarize and just call it “the product of the espresso machine”. Ground coffee goes in, pressurised water is forced through it and this generates “espresso” coffee, otherwise known as a “short black”. You can add milk to it, build it into any manner of familiar concoctions, or drink it neat, but that, essentially, is espresso coffee. (Yes, I am aware that sentence had, essentially, too many commas.)

Don’t get me wrong – espresso is delicious; it’s viscous and intense and complex and good; it cosies up perfectly with warm milk and, when you get a good one, it can make your toes curl like ten tiny foetuses. However, that is not to say that espresso is the only way to consume coffee – or even that it is the best. In fact, of the many forms available, espresso is most akin to playing Russian Roulette – unpredictable and fraught with danger. It takes a great deal of technical skill and understanding to truly master the art – and it’s done poorly WAY too often. It also necessitates a considerable investment in equipment, compared to many other brewing options (I’m not talking about some hundred-buck Kmart pod machine – I’m talking about something that makes coffee).

Clearly espresso constitutes the dominant brewing method in Australia, with every café, restaurant, service station and sandwich bar decked out with a hulking machine and someone protectively boasting they know how to use it. This goes a ways to explaining why we might want one in our homes – just as people devote huge slabs of their floorplan to creating home theatres. Elsewhere in the world however, other brewing techniques rule; the USA love their bottomless, diner-style dripolator (“another top-up there daarrlin’?”), the Japanese favour the gentler and more tea-like siphon (or syphon) brew, the ibrik is still a popular gadget in the Middle East, and many Italians adamantly swear nothing beats the smell of a machinetta gurgling away of a morning.

A few of these “alternative” brewing methods are beginning to crop-up in Australian cafes, but many consumers still dismissively ignore them as mere second-rate novelties. I feel this stems predominately from a lack of understanding about what they actually do and are supposed to taste like, but is just as much about how we have allowed a few big players pumping out bland, milky, bucket-sized expersso [sic] to restrict our appreciation of coffee to such a one-dimensional level.*

Without jabbering on about precisely how to brew every non-espresso method out there, I’m just going to jott down a few notes on some of my favourites, and the experience offered by each. I guess the main thing is to understand the style you’re working with (or ordering) – what to expect, and what variables are at play. (If you’re looking for them, there are a bunch of in-depth brewing guides published online by a host of companies – by far the prettiest is this one from Intelligensia – and Market Lane also offers this).

Key points for understanding immersion brewing: The crucial difference between espresso coffee and brewed coffee is in the coffee-to-water ratio – something pros call a TDS (total dissolved solids) rating. For example, an espresso is made up of approximately 12g of coffee / 30mls of water, whereas a filter brew uses around 17g of coffee / 250mls of water. While the espresso is an intense, slap-you-round-the-face experience, an immersion brew will be lighter, sweeter and more spacious, allowing you to identify more of the coffee’s subtle characteristics**.

Immersion brews become sweeter as they cool, and should always be made using water that is slightly below boiling to avoid scolding or over-extracting  the coffee.

Lighter roast coffees are well-suited to immersion brewing as they retain more natural sugar than dark / espresso roasts. If brewed well, you should not have to introduce sweeteners.

The average espresso brewing time is around 60-90seconds – from grinding to serving. Preparing other methods takes a little longer, so be patient.

Most non-espresso brews are served black and adding milk in generally frowned upon. (Plungers and mokkas are the most notable exceptions.)

When you read descriptors like “grapefruit”, “strawberry”, “jammy” or “melony” on a menu / board, these are most often referring to the particular bean’s cupping notes. Cupping is the standardised process of grading and scoring coffees, and involves a very basic (yet meticulous) brewing method designed to highlight certain characteristics and / or defects. Some coffees are better suited to particular methods of extraction than others, hence the gamut of options available.

If you’re unsure what the heck a “clover press”, “trifercta” or “Hario V60” does, just ask your barista – most will happily geek out and talk you through the process. WARNING: You could be in for quite a chat (the length of a barista’s beard or sleeve tattoo is generally a reliable indication of their knowledge depth).

Pour-over or Filter Coffee is by far the easiest and most time-efficient method of brewing coffee – and it requires the least clean-up. The process involves little more than pouring water over ground coffee and having it filter through fine paper into a cup or other vessel. The body or “mouth-feel” of the brew, as well as the depth of flavour (which will likely be bright with dominant fruit sweetness) are all dictated by the speed at which water travels through the coffee bed and the water-to-coffee ratio.

The Clever Dripper is a mod on this idea. It has a plug that holds in the water, allowing the coffee to remain immersed in water for a longer period without agitation caused by gravity. It tends to provide a heavier flavour profile than a traditional filter apparatus, such a a V60, Koava, or similar.

Woodnecks use reusable cloth filters in place of paper ones, but are otherwise pretty much just another type filter coffee brewers. The vessel and the filter cone come in one piece. Good for the Eco-concious and caffeine-addcited.

Everyone has probably made plunger coffee before – or at least, everyone’s mum has. Coffee goes in, hot water goes on top, count to whatever, plunge and pour. Easy as. One of the inheritance issues with plungers is that the brew continues to extract while the coffee remains in contact with the water – meaning the first cup is always milder than the last. The simplest way to avoid this variation is to decant the whole brew into another vessel (preferably preheated) once plunged, and then divvy it up from there.

Plungers allow control over the steep time, and therefore how much flavour you extract. Filters are usually made from metal, meaning some of the grinds make it into your cup and form a sludgy residue that, while not hugely pleasant to drink, contributes a certain intensity and weightiness to the brew.

If you want to sound fancy or worldly, you can call it a “French Press”.

Siphons and Vaccum Pots – No dad, it’s not a bong. Or did you mean that thing…? Siphons (or syphons) are great conversation starters and add an element of splendid theatricality to dinner parties. There are modern ones, ornate ones, antiquey ones, sciency ones, balancing ones… They look like complicated mini chemistry labs, but are a common sight in Asia (particularly Japan) as they produce a very tea-like experience.

Most come fitted with fine cloth filters that should remove most of the sludge, creating a clean cup with a juicy, full body. Most siphons give you the ability to manipulate the steep time (control over your extraction), but others – like the balancing style – are more automated and will take care of themselves. One of the key factors in siphon-brewing is agitation. The water is pressurised and constantly in motion, creating a “full”-tasting brew. If you’ve never seen one in action, here’s a great video, again from Intellegentsia.

The Macchinetta or Mokka is a beautifully quaint, old-school and quintessentially Italian method of brewing coffee. It uses essentially the same science as any cafe-style espresso machine (forcing pressurised water through finely-ground coffee) and, unlike immersion brewing methods, produces “crema” (that caramel-coloured, moussey layer on top of your coffee), caused by emulsifying the coffee’s oils into a colloid. Like machine-made espresso, the presence is more intense than brewed coffee (hence the flavour is able to cut through a large volume of milk) and the served volume much less.

Some variations on the traditional Mokka contraption (such as the Atomic or the more recent Otto) allow the user to harness excess pressure in the form of steam, to heat and texture milk.

While not a common site in coffee shops or cafes, this is a personal favourite of mine. My little 2-cupper is now a camping staple and comes along whenever I head out for a few days, with friends, to a music festival, etc. Coupled with a butane stove (around ten bucks from any camping store) and a hand grinder (this Hario one is a ripper) this is not only a great way of brewing tasty coffee away from home, but also for making new friends. When everyone around you is waking-up to the Black Death (aka instant) as you’re grinding beans and relishing a fresh brew, you suddenly become very popular.

On one side of the brew spectrum you have “filter coffee” (light, long and deliciously sippable) and, on the opposite end, what is commonly referred to as “Turkish coffee” or “Greek coffee” (depending on who’s making it). The Ibrik or Cezve brewing style is very different from all the others discussed here. It produces a dense, granular coffee paste, often infused with spices and sweetened with sugar, served and drunk black. ALWAYS. The TDS is off the charts and would send your Extract Mojo into meltdown. The coffee and water are combined (usually using a ratio of around 1-to-1) and boiled several times in a small pot, reducing into an intense sludge. It’s a great “second wind” coffee – perfect for kicking the metabolism into gear after a big meal.

You’ll need to grind your coffee into a talc-like powder to achieve a good slurry and this requires a special (often beautiful) grinder, which you should be able to buy a from your local Middle Eastern grocer (or, if there’s not other option, have your coffee preground by your roaster).

There are – of course – a bunch of other methods in addition those mentioned here, but these are some of the most common / familiar. Keep an eye out for them at the more progressive coffee spots, or try one at home.

So, lastly, why immersion brewing might be a good fit for you: If you like to taste coffee, not just drink it, then filter coffee allows you to identify the subtle characteristics of different coffees, leading to a greater appreciation of the bean. Also importantly, there’s no need to drop thousands of dollars on a fancy espresso machine, grinder, water filtration, tamper, knock box, milk pitcher, thermometer (etc etc) to enjoy great coffee at home. Save that for buying the best beans you can get your mitts on.

If your love coffee, but are not into ingesting large volumes of milk, then an immersion brew might be just what you’ve been searching for.

Making cappuccinos for 18 friends at a dinner party is a total drag and means spending long stints in the kitchen, away from tasty gossip. An 8 cup Chemex or Mokka is much faster and easier.

There’s less that can go wrong. Making espresso is a complicated and ridiculously technical exercise, with a vast number of variables at play (and like I said way back there, it’s amazing when brewed masterfully / horrendous when not) but a pour-over say, or plunger, requires a much more straightforward technique.

Here are a few items you may want to look into if you’re going to attempt brewing at home (not featured in this week’s Harvey Norman catalog)…

A burr grinder like this handheld unit from HARIO Japan is much cheaper than your entry-level electric variety and does a great job of grinding on-demand (while also working out your guns). It’s adjustable, easy to use, and even comes with a lid for storing excess ground beans. Steer clear of spinning blade / spice-style grinders; they’re rubbish and produce an inconsistent particle size which will mess with your extraction.

A pouring kettle (or goose-neck kettle) is also a good idea as it allows you to introduce water at a controlled flow-rate.

If you want to take your brewing to the next level a timer and scales are handy as they help you monitor and control all your variables (like dose and brew time).

Thanks for stopping by. Be well, TV.

*It is important to also consider our heritage and post-war migration that saw thousands of Europeans settle in our major cities. They brought with them not only the infrastructure for producing espresso coffee, but also a culture based around it – one that quickly cemented itself as a cornerstone of our own dining experience.

** If you’re into experimentation and want to work your way through a bunch of coffees side-by-side, allow me to recommend one of these more diluted methods to avoid uncomfortable palpitations and long stints in the latrine. [EDIT: I read recently that brewed coffees often contain a higher percentage of caffeine than espresso, due to the depth of the extraction and extended steep time. Either way – drink safe.]

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