‘Restaurant Babylon’: are SA restaurants snorting, spitting, and swearing too?!


Restaurant Babylon 2The ‘Babylon’ book series by Imogen Edwards-Jones, written on the basis of interviews with staff from the relevant industries, has become highly popular for its depth of behind the scenes insights told in a 24 hour operating day.   Her latest book is ‘Restaurant Babylon’, which was published last year, sharing the ‘saucy secrets of the world’s finest kitchens’.

The fictional Le Restaurant,  brasserie Le Table, and Le Bar are located within close proximity of each other in London, Le Restaurant being Michelin-starred.  The narrator is the restaurant owner.  For her book the writer interviewed sommeliers, chefs, maître d’s, owners, and ‘insiders’ working in the restaurant industry in the UK.

As Valentine’s Day is around the corner, it is apt to start with this event, being one of the most lucrative for the restaurant industry, with mark-ups and heavy drinking generating good profits for restaurants.  Christmas Day lunches and New Year’s Eve events are equally profitable.

Some of the key insights into restaurants are the following:

*   restaurant staff survive on extremely little sleep, as they enjoy a drink or more after they finish service, being hungover the next day.  Alcoholism is rife.

*   chefs burn out, due to the long hours, the stress, and lack of light in closed kitchens.  This leads to absenteeism, temper tantrums, and inconsistent cooking.

*   drug-taking is rife, to cope with the pressure and to stay awake, to cope with the hangover, or to be ‘sharp’ for service!  ‘Cocaine is everywhere‘ said the author in an interview.

*   claiming ‘organic’ ingredients ‘just makes the place look amateur‘.   The origin of one’s fish, meat, and vegetables is far more important to patrons.

*   some chefs over-order, and sell on their surplus, pocketing the income.

*   theft by staff is common, especially in the bar, selling bottles out of the back door and pocketing the income,  or pocketing cash income.

*   mark-ups are better on pizzas than they are on 7-course tasting menus!   Side dishes of chips, vegetables, and salads are lucrative profit generators, as is bottled water.

*   A guest appearance on MasterChef is good for a chef’s ego!

*   TripAdvisor reviews are devastating when they are poor, and are sworn at by the restaurant team!  They can affect business.  Negative reviews are however quickly sorted out by a number of fake 5 star reviews, to push the negative one onto the next page, and to improve the average score!

*   guests photographing restaurant food irritates chefs, feeling that their permission should be requested, and they have a ‘hatred of food bloggers‘!   Being reviewed by a newspaper or blog reviewer in the first week of opening is regarded as ‘unfair‘!   Reviews are extremely powerful, and can make or break a new establishment.   Very negative reviews can lead the writer to be banned, even from Nobu, from Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants, and those of other leading chefs.  Michelin inspectors are unknown, and patrons are constantly evaluated for being one of these feared evaluators.

*   ‘Twitter is insane. You need the skin of a rhino to put #yourplace into the Twittersphere, because what comes back at you will make you want to weep’. 

*   staff food is cheap and nasty, and nothing like what patrons eat.

*   only 20% of chefs are female.  Staff is less likely to be British, and most often are Australian, Italian, from eastern Europe, and from Mediterranean countries.  Many do not have the required immigration papers to work.

*   walkouts do happen, made easier by the outdoor smoking, with patrons just leaving without paying!

*   to help take the strain off the kitchen when the restaurant is full at lunch time, waiters are slower in getting to tables, take longer to explain the menu, or chat more to patrons.

*   VIPs are checked via Google Images after arrival, to give their table the appropriate special service!  A top maître’d will make you feel that he remembers your last visit without using your name or the date you were there last.

*   ‘specials’ either are specially sourced ingredients received on that day, or those that the restaurant is desperate to get rid of on that day!

*   the more fried the food is, the safer it is to eat it, with chefs sneezing and doing other unthinkables (such as spitting, as is often rumoured) while handling the dishes.  ‘Gob‘ is used to keep the decorative flowers on the plate!  Chefs use the same tasting spoon to test the dishes!

*   rum is taking over from vodka as the preferred spirit.

*   staff poaching between restaurants is rife, even though a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ in the industry dictates that one should call to inform the restaurant that the staff member is leaving.

*   ‘food voucher’ customers (e.g. Groupon, or those receiving special discounts via magazine or newspaper promotions) are disliked, as they clog up tables, with little chance of selling them any additional drinks or food than is included in the package.

*   the highest mark-up is on the second cheapest bottle of wine on the winelist, as patrons do not want to be seen as cheap in ordering the cheapest bottle of wine!  Cheaper wines are marked up far more than the expensive ones.

*   the menu layout will guide patrons what the restaurant wants them to order, with boxes to make some items look more prominent, and offering a spread of highlighted dishes to spread the kitchen load more evenly.

*   booked tables are turned over twice, walk-in tables three times.

*   patrons do not check their bills properly, and therefore some additional items may be added!

*  drains get blocked due to cooking fat and oils, with disastrous consequences to the interior, and need to be cleaned proactively regularly to prevent the content spilling into the restaurant!

Having heard many restaurant stories locally, many of the above is equally applicable to local restaurants. While our chefs do not know the pressure of a Michelin inspector, Eat Out judge Abigail Donnelly and her merry band of judges must be equally intimidating, and in good collegiality, restaurants share who has eaten recently that does not regularly visit the restaurant, a predictor of being a judge or even a pre-evaluator.  Asking to take home a menu, using a false name for the booking, or eating an above average number of dishes are also predictors.   False TripAdvisor reviews are rife locally, and therefore have no credibility, both the negative and positive ones!  Bloggers are probably equally unpopular locally.  Staff turnover is far more extreme a problem here, crippling many of our local restaurants in Cape Town, than appears to be the case in London.

Restaurant Babylon, Bantam Press.  Exclusive Books and Wordsworth.  R 250.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com  Twitter: @WhaleCottage

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