It’s not that customers rarely have genuine complaints in restaurants, it’s just that too many people don’t know how to complain. And even fewer restaurateurs know how to respond. We, in Ireland, are a polite people by and large. By the time we actually decide to complain we tend to have built up a head of steam and the first salvo in the ensuing exchange ends up looking like a blast from a flame-thrower.
Many readers of The Irish Times seem to decide that discretion is the better part of valour; they register a mild complaint and then email the restaurant in the cold light of dawn. Good policy, I would say. And good restaurants respond in a similarly measured fashion. In the end, both sides are happy. Occasionally, of course, the restaurant goes silent and the displeased customer tells all their friends what happened and customers, actual and potential, are lost. And they often copy me their complaint, for which I am most grateful.
I have a huge file of emails containing correspondence between angry eaters and restaurateurs and I have developed what I think is a bit of a nose for people who go out looking for trouble and who are never happier than when they are complaining. They are a very small minority but they are pretty painful.
I see that Neil Perry, one of Australia’s most celebrated chefs, has had his email correspondence with a disgruntled customer, placed in the public domain. This could be quite embarassing but, given that great chefs tend to be a touch temperamental and are not known for their PR skills, I think Perry acquitted himself pretty well. He’s a busy man and unlike a lot of celebrity chefs, e.g. Gordon Ramsay, he actually cooks.
I can’t judge the rights and wrongs of this dispute, of course. But the secret of effective complaining is brevity and the avoidance of any suggestion that you might, just possibly, be considered a bit of a pain. On this occasion – and this is just my opinion – Perry’s email adversary seems to have erred in this respect.
I’ve eaten Perry’s food on several occasions and it has varied between the near sublime and the overpriced and ordinary. But there’s no doubt that when he’s on song he’s brilliant. Mind you – and it’s been a couple of years since I’ve eaten in Sydney – I prefer to head out to Jared Ingersoll’s Dank Street Depot. Very different stuff, right enough, but more my bag. Food is fashion in Sydney, to a greater extent than in many cities, and you sometimes get a side order of “attitude”. Much of what Neil Perry has to say in his email correspondence is measured, witty and polite – especially when you consider that Australians are inclined to say what they think. Without a whole lot of subtlety.