Friday, July 11, 2024

What to Serve: a Speech by a Seasoned Chinese Waiter

By Julie Lai

A new face comes in and waits to be seated. You walk her to an empty table, seat her, and give her a menu. She opens it, only to encounter the most difficult choices in her life.

On the left page, she sees:

Chicken with Garlic Sauce

Kung Po chicken with cashew nuts

House special Chicken (Just how special is special?)

General Tao's Chicken

And on the next page, comes across:

Chicken with black bean sauce

Curry Chicken

Chicken with broccoli

Chicken with Chinese broccoli

To make life even harder, the poor woman sees a happy Chinese family reading a booklet, which looks like a completely different menu altogether. She asks for that menu, but finds the whole thing more or less in Chinese, which she cannot read. She frowns, curls her lips, and waves you over.

And what will you, the Chinese culinary expert, at least to that poor customer, tell her?

As the headwaiter, I'll teach you what to serve to different customers. Remember, we cook ethnic food, and Chinese style means different dishes for different people. To be a good waiter, we need to understand all types of customers. Discrimination, especially ethnic discrimination, is important to waiters' job -- equal opportunity does not apply to Chinese cuisines. Customers believe you because you speak Chinese. In return, we cater to customers' special needs, especially ethnic needs. If we start serving everyone the same entree, our customers will throw egg-foo-yong at us. Based on my ten years at Fowl Luck Chinese Seafood, our customers are divided into four groups.

Real Chinese usually know their stuff, so catch the bass, the salmon, or the tilapia from the tank and haul it into the kitchen -- our special of the day. How to tell if a Chinese is REAL Chinese? If she reads the Chinese menu, she passes the test. Or see if she speaks Chinese. If she opens her mouth and out comes "may I see the English menu . . . " then put her in the ABC category.

ABC (American-born Chinese): these alphabets are a confused bunch. They never try cow's tongue, pig's tongue, or chicken's liver we Chinese really like. Some prefer the real-looking (student waiter: you mean "authentic-looking"?) dishes without going deep inside the animal -- what can I say, their love of Chinese culture is only "skin-deep". Suggest "shrimp stuffed with tofu", "salt-baked Chicken", or beef with Chinese broccoli. Some may even say the dish's name out loud. Don't be fooled: they do not know what Chinese cuisine really taste like.

For the gweilos, I mean, the "real" foreigners, recommend the usual kung-po, curry, sa-cha, sweet and sour dishes, or Chinese food loses meaning to them. Do not wait for them to ask for forks and plates; leave them on their tables. Add a "gung fai¨, or a sharing fork -- those ghosts like privacy even when they share a table. (Waiter again: what about the M . . .) Ah, yes, if these gweis ask about MSGs, tell them that artificial processing has been the modern way; we use them like they use sweet-and-no (Waiter: it's sweet-and-low. Head waiter: enough!), margarine, and low-fat frying oil. Deep down, they like their food very processed. Many foreigners eat in a refined way -- they don't want their chicken to stare, their fish to swim, and the less the food looks like an animal the better.

Now here comes the hardest category: customers who don't fit the three types. It is like after years of trying Chinese food, some people discover Jet Li and Chow Yun Fat after trying a few Jackie Chans. Now these people want to climb their way up the Chinese food chain. Sadly, they don't have something in the forehead that says "I like to try the authentic (a stare at the college waiter) stuff", so we assume they prefer the "traditional" dishes we serve them. We learn about them only after they put a card in the suggestion box -- poor people, I'm sure they think we are discriminating against them. So if you are not sure, see if they can pick up the soy sauce bottle with chopsticks and fold the wrappers into chopstick stands. Those who pass the test will become seasoned veterans, and we can ask them to choose between different food. If they don't like what they pick, tough luck to them.

I know sometimes people complain we serve poorly. Don't worry, we are picked by the newspaper, for five years in a woe (young waiter under his breath: it's row), as the Best Chinese Seafood in town, so bad service won't hurt us. Bad food may, but the health inspector won't come any time soon; his wife came last week to try some Chinese vegetables, and she is so "delighted" by the flower mushrooms she won't come back for another Veggie Delight. For other whiners, simply point to the photo at the front: even Jackie Chan ate here and didn't complain (he does not even when he falls on his stunts), what should they complain about?

Julie Lai teaches English for Chinese speakers at


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