As you probably already know, I try to return to Northern Ireland as often as I can. It’s the ideal opportunity to mix business with pleasure. The former most often involves cookery demos at the AGA Shop, Belfast, where the staff strike the right balance between discreet professionalism and good craic, as we say back home. I know that I will be in good hands when I receive a call to present there, that the staff will without fail supply the correct ingredients and utensils, so I don’t end up attempting to make a peach clafoutis with some baking soda and a packet of dried raisins. Find yourself in that situation at home and you can laugh it off; do so in a room crowded with potential customers and it is rather embarrassing.
Speaking of the customers in Belfast, they are without exception down to earth, friendly and game for a giggle. I always feel at ease when presenting there, and therefore I find that I provide a more light-hearted, relaxed demo. And if I feel relaxed, the audience will feel relaxed. This does not mean that the patrons do not get the hard sell – if anything, AGA products are so renowned for their quality that they sell themselves. Rather, in Northern Ireland they appreciate a smattering of self-deprecating jokes. If there is one thing I am good at, it’s poking fun at myself.
I was home in Northern Ireland quite a few times this summer, partly to do some demos, and partly for reasons which I can’t divulge as yet (it wouldn’t be a blog without a little intrigue, would it?). When I was there I met up with a friend from university who makes a living from teaching English to largely disinterested pupils who would rather be on Facebook or listening to Girls Aloud or whatever it is that young people do these days.
A by-product of his profession is that he has a tendency to be staunchly pedantic when it comes to spelling and punctuation. He is always pointing out grammatical errors on signs and menus and the like. For example, when we visited a cafe which I will not name – not for legal reasons, I just can’t remember what it was called – he said, “Spot the mistake” on the lettering in the window. Sure enough, it read, “Coffee’s to go”, in big, bold font.
It’s like being with that woman who wrote the book about pandas and leaves a few years ago – except that you can’t put the book down.
Seriously though, I am impressed at his dedication to his job and his determination not to allow standards, even with something as trivial as a restaurant menu being incorrectly worded. The funny thing is that I found myself behaving in a similar way. We went out for some lunch in another place which I will not name, just in case we should ever eat there again. This is doubtful, as the food was nothing to write home – or even on a blog – about. When you’re promised “garnish” you would like more than a handful of tired, withered salad.
Whilst standing at the counter, I noticed that a dish of freshly cooked lasagne had been left uncovered. After years of living in London I have learnt to be quite forthright – or bolshie, to use the vernacular – so I asked the waitress why it was not wrapped in Clingfilm. I would say that at this point my friend shifted awkwardly and rolled his eyes, but he is well used to me by now. The waitress gave me one of those looks which said “Hey, I just work here” but was gracious enough to respond: apparently, they are told to leave food uncovered as otherwise it tends to sweat and turn soggy.
I was undeterred, and would have broken into a lecture on cooling speeds and germs had my friend not wisely pulled me over to our table.
I know that I was perhaps more awkward than I should have been, but my excuse is that I did so with the best of intentions. Food safety is always a priority for me, especially given what I do to earn money. The idea that a customer could potentially fall sick if I serve something which is incorrectly cooked fills me with dread, and should explain why I expend so much time checking and double checking recipes and timings when I am writing cookbooks.
And it got me thinking about the way we approach food and service in the United Kingdom. During the past year I have spent a great deal of time in Canada and the States, where customer satisfaction is always the ultimate goal for any thriving business. If a diner in a restaurant is unhappy, they will not sit and quietly seethe; they will tell the waiting staff or manager immediately. This isn’t being rude or, well, bolshie; it’s something that is expected. It’s not a complaining culture; it is getting exactly what you pay for.
To put it another way, if you ordered a pound of bananas in a grocer, and were instead given a bag of pebbles, then you would obviously object. Why then, do we politely accept substandard food because we are embarrassed about complaining?
The same principle applies to myself, my colleagues at the AGA store, Belfast, and my friend in the classroom. I respect the fact that my friend is only being pedantic because he holds high standards, and sincerely believes that grammar and spelling are important in an increasingly media-saturated world. Likewise, it reminds me that in everything I do, even when I am being light-hearted and relaxed, I should always aim for the best. Otherwise, I might as well be selling my customers a bag of pebbles.