Sunday, November 24, 2013

Who Among us wants to be Labeled a Cheapskate or Worse?

Some Thoughts on Tipping

As we approach the holiday season this is a good time of year to talk about common practices in the restaurant industry. First of all, I will identify myself as a thoughtful tipper. This is not something that I feel the need to broadcast, but it does ensure a convivial relationship with service staff who may not otherwise be particularly enamored with my interviewing and interrogation skills and not everyone expects or appreciates a culinary inquisition.
Tipping remains a controversial and peculiar phenomenon of the hospitality sector and other service-oriented businesses. Most people who argue for the abolishment of tipping do not realize that the majority of servers in Ontario earn an hourly rate just below the standard minimum wage.
Tipping is the the accepted practice to subsidize incomes in the labour-intensive hospitality industry. It is also an opportunity for patrons to show their appreciation for good service. It would be ideal if everyone were compensated so well they did not need to rely on tips. However, this is not the case, and many professionals depend on the extra remuneration. Most people of my acquaintance agree that the unspoken implication today is that only good service merits a tip.

A number of studies suggest that tipping may not be as much of an incentive for providing good service as is commonly assumed. Several years ago, Cornell University’s school of hotel administration released a study that showed, “there is rather a weak relationship between the size of the tip and the level and quality of service one receives The amount left as a tip by diners is influenced more by bill size and the fear of disappointing the server than by good service.”
Other reports indicate that the carriage of the server and even his or her greeting has a significant impact on tipping. Research indicates men are likely to tip more than women and individuals seem to tip better than people in groups. Amusing, entertaining and eccentric behavior, when it is appropriate, can increase a gratuity.

Studies indicate that patrons also tip more in restaurants when their bill is presented on a tip tray with a credit card insignia. The standard for excellent service still remains 20 percent of the total bill, minus the taxes. In exceptional circumstances, a larger gratuity is not uncommon. Poor, rude or grossly inattentive service should not be rewarded at all.
It is common practice for servers to  “tip out the house” at the end of each shift. “The house” usually refers to tipping the cooks in the kitchen, the bar- tender and sometimes the host and busboy; sometimes it’s  just the management or the dishwasher. In some cases, if the gratuity is not large enough, the server actually ends up paying out of his pocket to serve the table. Another pet peeve of servers is the patron who uses a gift certificate and only tips on the remaining balance of the check in excess of the gift certificate amount.

The most annoying and unprofessional tendency I encounter comes from the server who inquires; “Do you need change?” It is clearly the server’s obligation to return your change. He or she should never assume that the change is meant as a gratuity unless the patron has specifically said so.
Who among us wants to be labeled a cheapskate or worse? And for those of you who don’t follow the rules of polite societyyou can bet that your disgruntled server has a very long memory and is likely plotting revenge for your next visit.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Foodie’s Place in the Culinary Pecking Order

The Foodie’s Place in the Culinary Pecking Order

Pecking order is the colloquial term for a hierarchal system of social organization. For the record, the original usage referred to the expression of dominance in chickens. With the keen interest in all things culinary, it should not surprise anyone to learn that there is a gastronomic pecking order. At the bottom of the gastronomic hierarchy is goinfre (greedy guts), then goulu (glutton), gourmand, (one who enjoys eating), friand (epicure; one who with discriminating taste takes pleasure in fine food and drink), gourmet (a connoisseur of food and drink), and finally the gastronome (one with a serious interest in gastronomy).  

Let’s not overlook “foodie”, a contemporary term that is frequently and incorrectly used as a synonym for gourmet or epicure. Most people are blind to the fact that there is a distinct difference in their meanings. The foodie is an amateur or hobbyist and a gourmet has the educated palate and refined taste of a professional.

Foodie, like the expression eatery, is a relatively new term in our modern culinary lexicon. Both of those terms have given me a lot of flak. The word eatery I am only now shamefully surrendering to after initially finding the term not only loathsome but unappetizing. My complaint is that “eatery” is being used inaccurately; it is an interloper on the culinary landscape, evoking images of cheap, usually inferior restaurants with undiscriminating all-you-can-eat offerings and other unspeakable horrors. Recently, I have begun to hear the term eatery to describe fine dining establishments. I am seeing the expression bandied about in venerated pages of prestigious publications.

With the simultaneous escalation of the food media, food apps and camera phones I try to keep my mind open to change. Expressions that seemed to have no root in our culinary lexicon are suddenly ubiquitous.

Some people self-identify as foodies to avoid being characterized as the type of food snob they associate with old-school gourmets. When people say to me, “You’re such a foodie” it makes my skin crawl. I don’t want to be categorized or lumped in with foodies despite their clich├ęd glory. The term sounds too much like groupie, and groupie, to my way of thinking, has the implication of being obsessively indiscriminate. For some reason the word “foodie” has always seemed too gung ho, too disingenuous and more about status than anything else. Several people have told me that I am mistaken, that I am a food snob. 

Writing in the Guardian, Paul Levy, who claims paternity of the term foodie with colleague Ann Barr, admits that American restaurant critic, food writer and novelist Gael Greene may have coined the term foodie at about the same time in 1982. “What started as a term of mockery shifted ground, as writers found that "foodie" had a certain utility, describing people who, because of age, sex, income and social class, simply did not fit into the category ‘gourmet’, which we insisted had become ‘a rude word’.”

We can see how far we have come by a legendary satirical sketch on the IFC series Portlandia (you can watch it on YouTube) caricaturing foodies and called, "Is the chicken local?" The episode goes like this:  A waitress approaches a man and woman seated at a table and asks if they’re ready to order. The woman says she’d like to know more about the chicken. “The chicken is a heritage breed, woodland-raised chicken that’s been fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnuts,” the waitress states. “This is local?” the man asks, leaning attentively on his hand. “Yes,” the waitress replies. “Oregon organic, or Portland organic?” the woman asks. “It’s just all-across-the-board organic,” the waitress answers. The waitress leaves for a moment, and then returns with a file. “His name was Colin,” she says. “Here are his papers.” The questions get more intense and exhaustive, to the point that the waitress says, “I can’t speak to that level of intimate knowledge”. The diners then excuse themselves, promising to return but first they need to see where he was raised and lived, before they eat “Colin”. Although this satirical sketch mocks foodies, as consumers we should be aware of where our food is being sourced.

In my experience, those characterized by the French term goinfre (greedy guts) suffer a ravenous disposition. They are hard to stomach due to their selfish, insatiable appetites. Gluttony is often an emotional escape, a sign that something is eating you. Gluttons indulge their voracious appetites indiscriminately and over-consume to the point of waste.

Gourmand is an all-encompassing term for acolytes who take great pleasure in good food but who are routinely unacquainted with etiquette. They lack the skills of proper refinement while being over-fond of eating.

At the next level, we find the epicure. This term has had a renaissance but is still sometimes used to lampoon those devoted to the pleasures of the table. The Oxford Companion of Food says the term “derived from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who declared happiness to be the highest good, which came to mean, in a food and wine contest, a person of refined tastes.”

Gourmet denotes even more respectability and gravity in culinary matters. This French term originally meant “cultivated wine-taster.” Gourmets tend to be discriminating in their eating habits and sophisticated, with a cultivated and professional interest in culinary matters.

The gastronome has reached the highest level, taking great strides to comprehend the most subtle nuances of taste. It is a pleasing word, gastronome: unfortunately it has become archaic. The gastronome’s discerning palate and quest for illumination have been confused with pretension and snobbery. The fact is that gastronomy is the study of the art and science of food and the relationship between food and culture.

I have noticed that gastronomes and foodies have at least one thing in common: they both seem to have a strong desire to impart their observations to others.