What is the definition of good service? What makes one leave a restaurant with a sense of having been nutritionally fulfilled and emotionally engaged by the waiting staff? Service for me was never a consideration growing up in the UK, it was a rare event that we would ever eat out and when we did it was such a treat to be eating something that wasn’t one of the 3 main meats (chicken, Pork, Beef) and assorted dead boiled vegetables, that I couldn’t give a damn if they were throwing the food at me, let alone serving it to me on a silver platter with a side order of over polite obsequiousness.
Was it something that came to obsess me later in life, when I could afford to eat out a little more often with friends and family? Thinking back now, I cannot be 100% sure but I don’t think this is the case, I think the service was always there at a level that was acceptable; acceptable being the food arriving in a timely manner being served by a person who at the very least pretended to care about what he or she was doing. It was not until I went to the States where I experienced a level of service that was on another level. Waiters and waitresses who introduced themselves? Who asked how I was doing today? Who talked about the food and seemed to genuinely care about the service they were providing. Of course, now I realise that they were mostly driven to work as hard as this because of the pitiful and disgraceful salaries they are paid, working that hard to earn a tip simply to make ends meet. By asking me if my steak was cooked to my liking or explaining the specials board in intricate and precise details from memory, they were in fact performing a well-rehearsed, pitch perfect soliloquy designed to extricate every last damn dollar they could.
In other countries, in mainland Europe for example, service can vary widely. Try speaking in English to a French Waiter and you’re in for a rough ride over dinner, but try and engage with them in their native tongue and your dining experience (by and large) will be lifted to another level. I’ve experienced great service in Germany, Italy, Spain and many other countries but not so much in Singapore.
Before readers from this island start to get upset about this being a hatchet job on Singapore culture and customs, it’s really not. What this is, is a mini exploration into why service does not seem to be so important here in Singapore when compared with the West, as well as a few amusing anecdotes and incidents that I have experienced or witnessed during my time here. On arrival, here in Singapore, many expats would bemoan the lack of service to me, or share examples of what they had experienced.
The dining experience in Singapore is primarily about the food, perhaps an overly simplistic generalisation I acknowledge, but one I really believe in. The food dictates whether an F&B establishment survives and I would argue that the service comes a distant second, maybe even a third as you could slot location into the silver medal position. And what pray tell are these ghastly examples of service you may ask? Well, here are a few of the more amusing ones I have witnessed or experienced.
Example number 1: A full on shouting match between 2 members of staff in Ban Leong, a packed zhi char restaurant (see blog post Pasta for the People for more details.)
Example number 2: My friend asking quite politely for some black pepper in Sprmrkt (one of those hipster joints that frowns on the use of vowels) was met with a sullen shrug of the shoulders from the waiter and told ‘inside lor’ before he wandered off to attend to more important matters.
Example number 3: Overheard at a Hawker centre:
Customer: ‘The noodles very good lor but the chilli not spicy one’
Hawker Uncle: ‘Then next time don’t eat here leh!’
Example number 4: Me being served at every Hawker stall, Zhi char establishment and even some restaurants: ‘What you want ah?’ Followed by the ubiquitous ‘Ah?!’ when I have evidently not made it clear what it is I wish to eat.
All of the above examples would cause major conflict, possibly even the odd fight, where they to happen in the West, yet here it is perfectly normal and no one seems to mind. At first I found this amusing, then baffling, then I moved to the anger stage (which lasted about 2 years) and now I am at acceptance, my delicate Western sensibilities and hyper sensitive nature is no longer troubled by a grizzled aunty angrily demanding what I would like to eat for my lunch. I now enjoy the challenge of trying to maintain a ridiculously over polite manner with a big village idiot grin on my face in order to elicit even the tiniest hint of a smile from the waiting staff.
My other favourite past time, and one that is particularly challenging, is where I attempt to pay for my food without myself or the Aunty or Uncle uttering a single word. It’s an immediate fail if even so much as a grunt emanates from either party, further bonus points can be awarded if you are able to complete the aforementioned task without smiling; if you do, you have also failed miserably.
Does any of this matter as long as you get your food, it tastes good and it doesn’t give you food poisoning? I would argue now that it doesn’t. Of course, the more you pay the more you expect and demand of the service, but what I think I and other Ang Mohs object to, or take issue with is the perception that we are being dealt with rudely. By and large, I think this is our problem and it’s time for us to put our arrogance to one side and accept the fact that being asked brusquely what you want to eat, served quickly and efficiently and without fuss is actually something to marvel at.
On a recent trip to the UK, my girlfriend and I started to notice that everywhere we went we were being asked the same question: “Is everything ok?” BEFORE we had even put fork to mouth! This kind of insincere, vapid service is a perfect illustration of establishments not understanding the meaning of the term and simply ticking a box; staff doing something that they were told they must, but executing it in completely the wrong way and at the wrong time so it loses all meaning. N.B. readers take note, being English there is only one way to reply to this question: smile through gritted teeth and nod approvingly and say “Oh yes it’s lovely, thank you.” With this said, you can enjoy your meal and the waiter will bugger off and leave you alone.
So, what does all this mean? Well I believe Singaporeans are by nature a culturally reserved people, not prone to outwardly gregarious acts or sporadic outbursts of emotion. Add to this, language barrier, and I can well understand why many Ang Mohs feel let down when it comes to service. Having said that, when you do find a place where the food rocks you to your core, I urge you to go back there again and again, and I guarantee, in most cases, you will feel the atmosphere change, the warmth of the reception alter ever so subtly and experience an Aunty or an Uncle greet you with a wide beaming smile and ask you: “What you want ah?”