Category Archives: food

Customer Service

I thought it was so simple. I moved out of my central town flat in a pedestrianized area almost 18 months ago (!) and within a few months realized (thanks to fab fellow expat Kat–hi Kat!) that I could now get pizza delivered by my local Domino’s pizza franchise. AND I could order pizza over the internet, thus ensuring that I did not have to talk on the telephone, something which I really do not like doing, especially when ordering things is involved. I was always under the delusion that ordering things over the internet was far superior, because nothing could ever go wrong with the details as they were typed in instead of relayed by voice, with all the trouble this could bring given my foreign accent. How wrong I was.

Now, we must have a slight diversion to discuss the excellence that is the UK post code system. While the US zip codes are 5 digits long and divided between 300 million people, in the UK the post codes are 6 (or more) digits and divided between a mere 60 million people. And they involve letters in addition to numbers, which gives us even more fine division in the UK post code system compared with 5 digit numerical US zip codes. I live on a small street, with two other buildings of flats and less than a dozen semidetached houses. The fact that the post codes are so finely divided is thus quite interesting: the houses on my street have a post code that differs from mine in the last (alphanumeric) digit. This means that my 6-digit post code is only for the 12 flats in my building. Which I happen to know, because I have accidentally received mail/post in recent months for the house at number X, Our Street, whereas my address is X, Building Name, Our Street, with a different post code. So the system is not perfect in execution, but in design, it is quite good.

So when I order pizza online, as I often have in the past, and as with many UK websites, I put in my post code, and a drop-down list appears with the 12 addresses of the flats in my building, in the form X, Building Name, Our Street, and I select my house number and expect the pizza to come to my house. Most of the time, this works. A few weeks before Christmas, however, I encountered a failure of this system. I ordered pizza, and about 40 minutes later, got a mobile phone call from a Domino’s driver who claimed that he could not find my flat. (Even though, if you put my post code into Google Maps you end up in my tiny street because this post code is ONLY FOR MY BUILDING!) I gave him directions. He called back ten minutes later. I gave him directions again. My pizza eventually arrived, and it was cold. I was not happy.

This brings us to tonight. I ordered pizza, with the confirmation from the Domino’s UK website coming through at 7:43 pm. My phone was inadvertently set to vibrate, so I did not notice when someone called at 8:22 pm, and again, and again a few minutes later. At 8:38 pm, I had retrieved my phone and realized I had been getting phone calls from an unknown mobile number, so when a local number rang through I answered it. It was someone at my local Domino’s franchise, wondering why I had not answered my phone. I pointed out that it had only rung nearly 40 minutes after the pizza was ordered, at which point the pizza would have been cold, and that by now the pizza was most certainly cold. The person at Domino’s claimed that my address had not come through the system, and that they did not have my full address details, including my street name. Now this is where I get angry, because, as was pointed out earlier, my post code is for my building only, and if there were any questions about the street name, it could be obtained via Google Maps. Not to mention the fact that I only selected my address from a drop-down box on their website after entering my post code, such that the information was all clearly in their system. And oh, do the drivers not have phones with Google Maps?

This is where it gets a bit ugly, and I get into a yelling argument with my local Domino’s franchise person, who wanted me to give him directions to my house at this point, for delivery of a pizza that had now been ordered an hour ago. The pizza person insisted that the pizza would still be hot if delivered, and I suggested that without touching it, they could not be sure. I asked, in what seemed to me to be a reasonable request, that a new pizza be made for me and delivered. This required quite a lot of discussion and me raising my voice yet again. And in the end, the Domino’s guy agreed to send me a new pizza and then hung up on me. The good news is that the pizza did arrive, at 9:02 pm and thus nearly 80 minutes after being ordered. But I am not such a fan of the Domino’s UK customer service at this point. And I can’t imagine such a scenario playing out in the US, where Domino’s delivers within 30 minutes and has for years, even from before the age of Google Maps. I just cannot figure out how the local franchise made pizza delivery so difficult. If it’s your job to deliver hot food, don’t you look to see where you are going?

I’ll stop whining now. I got my pizza, and it was good. If late. And I got to experience yet another “Wow, customer service in the UK is still not what I expect” moment, which reinforces all of my American prejudices, not that I actually wanted that to happen (now that I am quite happily ensconced here in the UK and mostly adapted).

On a less rant-y note, Happy New Year and here's hoping for a 2012 that is great for us all.

Christmas carnage

Tonight was my annual Christmas party for my group/team from work. It was the fourth consecutive year that I’ve managed to do this, to invite all of my crew, and their partners, to my home for food, wine, and general festivities. The affair has grown, since its inception, from a simple wine-and-cheese party, with me providing all of the nosh, to a deluxe pot-luck. Thank goodness I’ve moved into a larger flat, because I had 14 adults, plus a baby, plus me, in my living room tonight. My crew is quite international, and it was a delight to have Thai fish cakes cooked by someone from Thailand, along with Gluhwein made by a Brit with a German girlfriend, loads of British classics like mince pies and biscuits and cheese, and my own contribution–Dutch doughnuts according to my late grandmother’s own recipe. In previous years, when I had an Italian in the group, we discovered the beauty of tiramisu packed as a filling into my Norwegian grandmother’s Krumkake. I always make a hot crab dip (not necessarily adhering to this recipe at all!) and the local Brits love it, as they don’t seem to have this sort of recipe in their standard repertoire. I’m now dealing with the kitchen carnage, which is significant, but this annual party reminds me of why I love my life in England so much.

The Thanksgiving aftermath

I was so excited about Thanksgiving dinner last week. It was the event that was going to kick off a long weekend filled with some fun adventures, not to mention starting off the holiday season proper. I am a true American, and I refuse to break out the Christmas music or decorations until Thanksgiving dinner is done. I spent Tofurkey day at work, as one does when living in a country where this is not a national holiday, and rushed out of the office and off to the dinner, organized by a mixed couple (he’s British, she’s American) who happen to be good friends of mine here. They also happen to have a little one, a bouncing baby boy who is about to turn toddler by hitting a year old this week. This might prove important in this mixed up tale.

Thanksgiving dinner was decent, it was catered by a local outfit and there were twenty-some people there, perhaps ten or so Americans and the people who tolerate them and their funny holiday traditions. The main dishes were better than the attempt at pumpkin pie, which was sweet, creamy, and served with berries and mango puree. And thus completely disgusting. The non-turkey main dish was a nut roast which was dry and uninspiring, but I decided to use my “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and assume that the gravy in boats was only onion gravy and thus would be good on my nut roast and mashed potatoes. Sweet potatoes and green beans were additional accompaniments, and all was well. So we had a Thursday night success.

Friday morning I was off to central London, where I was meeting up with a number of friends for some foodie weekend events and some culture. The plan, which went well on the Friday, was for a pub lunch, shopping on Oxford Street, and dinner at a Michelin-starred Indian restaurant. (There are five Indian restaurants with one Michelin star in London, and I have now been to three, so only two more to go. Delicious every one so far.) So a Friday success as well. Now we take a turn for the worse.

Saturday morning I awoke at about 9 am and ran to the bathroom to evacuate the contents of my stomach. (I know, TMI, apologies for the mental image.) I then spent the next 6 hours unable to swallow even a sip of plain water. Mid-afternoon I managed to get my hands on a bottle of that British cure-all, Lucozade, which I think of as Pedialyte for grown-ups and I managed to get a few sips into my system. By nightfall, I had also eaten four plain biscuits. As an expat, I was musing that evening on the fact that instead of ginger ale and saltine crackers, I was on Lucozade and water crackers, but in the end as it all worked, it was as good as could be. I will never know what caused my illness, whether it was a bug contracted from the baby who functions as a germ incubator given that he spends days at nursery, or some sort of food-borne illness from the Tofurkey day dinner. What I do know is that it was not anything I ate on Friday, as my dining companion ate every single thing I did over the entire day and never showed any signs of illness. Thursday night was the culprit, for certain–three other diners from that evening ended up in the same place as me on the weekend.

Saturday was thus a complete disaster. I had to cancel all planned cultural and dining events, including something I had been looking forward to for several months– a planned expat meet up for dinner. I was, in the end, paying the princely sums associated with a hotel in central London in order to spend the day entirely indoors and miserable. The weather was appropriately grey and gloomy, but it was still extremely disappointing.

Sunday morning dawned, and I was intending to head back to my town earlier rather than later. But I managed to convince one of my friends to help me try and salvage the weekend by doing something cultural, and we headed for the British Museum. I had never managed to visit, and it was amazing. I was a bit weak, having not managed to eat much in over 36 hours, but it was quite enjoyable in the end.

So I headed back to my town after a really mixed long weekend. There were a few glimmers of greatness and a few moments of pure hell all wrapped into a few short days. On returning home, I set about putting out the fairy lights and Christmas decorations, and put the Christmas music on constant replay. The only way forward is to stop worrying about Thanksgiving and the aftermath, and to focus on the next few weeks of holiday magic. What can I say? You win some, you lose some. This was certainly a mixed weekend.

Customer Service!!!

A common refrain in the expat community here in England is the one that complains about poor British customer service and misses excellent and attentive American customer service. After today, I’m wondering if something about the poor economy of recent years is causing a major change, or if the gradual creep of the dreaded Americanism into British culture is the culprit. No matter the explanation, I experienced back-to-back brilliant customer service today, and I’m much the poorer for it as I tipped extravagantly to try and encourage the excellence.

First off, I had booked a much-needed haircut for today. I have long hair and am remarkably lazy about getting it cut regularly, which is funny because I love the hour of pampering that comes with a good haircut. It had been more than six months since I had managed to go for a trim, and my hair was really getting unruly so I booked an appointment (over the internet, of course) about two weeks ago, for today. Now I have frequented the same (admittedly upmarket) salon since I moved to England almost 5 years ago, but this was the first time I had quite purposefully booked to return to see the same person as I had had for the last haircut. (Normally since the haircut is such a rare event and yet when I finally relent and admit I need one I take what I can get.) His name is Luigi, which is awesomely memorable as he happens to be British (?) and is also perhaps the first heterosexual man to ever have cut my hair. I’ve had a long string of wonderful gay male hairdressers, and also a series of amazing and mostly rather young women, especially at Aveda salons in the US.

Luigi won his extravagant tip in a number of ways. He remembered me, even though I was last in his chair about six months ago. And no, he could not have been faking it. He remembered details. I was amazed. He must make notes. (I guess that’s a great tactic as a person in the service industry in general: if the person does come back you win by remembering them, and if not, you’ve only lost a few minutes jotting down a few thoughts.) Luigi is also clearly a professional flirt; he’s got that fantastic ability to chat you up without intent, as he drops stories about his girlfriend into the discussion. And even better from my perspective, he was willing to chat about his job. I find it fascinating to try and understand jobs that are different from my own. So from hearing about how he got into the hair business and how he stays “fresh,” I got some insight into something I find fascinating. And heard about how boring it is when there are hair trends, as when 80% of the people coming in during a given day want Victoria Beckham’s new bob. The other thing I learned about Luigi is just how seriously he takes his job–stories of going to watch live hair trends demonstrations in London, and how he watches videos of haircutting techniques when new ideas filter through the community. From my perspective, all of this makes Luigi a consummate professional and I was delighted to part with a significant number of pounds when I left. Oh and did I mention he gave me a voucher for £5 off my next haircut, delivered with a joke about how perhaps this will entice me to come back a little bit more often? Don’t worry, Luigi, I will.

It happened to be late shopping night in town (a phenomenon that must mystify Americans used to evening shopping on a regular basis) and I took advantage of being free as a bird a few hours before I normally leave the office to run some errands. I decided I was hungry, and that in the spirit of haircut-related pampering, I deserved a nice dinner. I popped over to the local branch of “Jamie’s Italian,” the Italian restaurant chain that has exploded across Britain in the last year thanks to the owner, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. I was skeptical when I heard this chain was coming to my town, but I’m now a real convert. And this is not the first time that I have dined there alone, with a flirtatious and thus extravagant tip-gaining waiter. The interesting thing about this restaurant, and I admit I’m a fan now, is that the food is surprisingly interesting but the prices are reasonable. For a while they had a pasta dish with truffles in a cream sauce, and eating the slices of truffles on the top was the first time I had really had the option to taste this delicacy. Every time I’ve been there, and it’s probably about a half-dozen times now, I’ve tried something that I had never had before. The truffles. Burrata cheese. Courgette blossoms. Always something. Tonight I had ordered a half-sized pasta portion as my main course (the half-sized portions are another reason I love this place, you can get a starter and pasta without being too full) and a plate of flash-fried greens with chili and garlic as my side dish. When the waiter came to take away my empty pasta plate, he noticed that I had only picked at the greens and asked if there was anything wrong. I admitted that they were a bit tough. He went away, and came back a few minutes later with the dessert menu and the following statement: he had tasted the greens (!) and agreed that they were both tough and had too much chili (which was true but I had not mentioned it) and so he had passed the information on to his manager and taken them off my bill.

I was gobsmacked. I dine out frequently when travelling, and I can’t actually remember the last time a waiter had noted my not finishing a dish and asked if there was a reason. I certainly can’t remember the last time something was taken off my bill when I did not vigorously complain about it. So again, I was in the position of adding a significant tip for the actions of a really good waiter who just happened to have picked out my displeasure at a restaurant, and in the environment in which I would not have normally said something as bad as to warrant action. I’ve changed, because I would normally have complained in the US, but the UK has changed, because they would not normally have noticed.

Oh the times, they are a’changing.

MasterChef, or the interesting thing that happened before everyone went gaga over the wedding

When I arrived back from the US early last week, I was arriving just in time to settle in with my iPad and watch the 3-night MasterChef finals while I tried (and failed) to get myself back on UK time. (I’m still not. 8 days in and my typical bedtime is still 3 am. This is not good.) I had seen every episode up until the point at which I left for the US, and I watched the results from afar each week that I was gone, scouring Twitter archives with the MasterChef hash tag to try and see who had been booted out. Why had I become so obsessed? Well, aside from the fact that I’m a big-time foodie on the side, who loves cooking and eating, one of the contestants was American. And not just American, but midwestern, from Wisconsin. Right next door. I don’t share most of my family’s hatred of all things Wisconsin (I still find that one odd) and as an expat I feel like it’s extra super important to be all midwest supportive, given that most locals here in Europe don’t know about the midwest at all. I’ve commented about this before.

In the early weeks of MasterChef, the voiceover constantly mentioned Tim’s American-ness. It was annoying. But as the competition went on, and it became clear that he was really talented, and they showed bits of his life with his British wife, they turned it down a notch. And the unthinkable eventually happened. He won. I cried. I know. Utterly ridiculous. Blame the jetlag.

The press went nuts. My favorite article attributed him as being both from Wisconsin and also Canadian. (Clearly the person who wrote that had not been watching the show…) I was riding up the lift one afternoon last week after the big finale, and mentioned how excited I was about the entire thing. Now it’s important to the story that my two team-members in the lift with me happened to be one Brit, quite local to where I am, and one very proud South African. So I asked if they had been watching it, and expressed my excitement, and made a joke about how I was sure that no one would ever allow the American to win MasterChef.

Now this was a flippant comment, obviously, but it was rooted in nearly five years of experience. “Britishness” is very popular right now. I’ve written about it quite a lot before, because as much as the Brits will claim they are not like Americans in being publicly effusive about anything, “The Great British _____” (fill in the blank with any number of things) is a phrase I hear everywhere. And nowhere is proud Britishness more evident in my daily life than in the food culture. Stickers with Union flags on items all over my local grocery store. “Best of British” written on everything (a phrase whose grammar I still can’t parse). And nowhere is this more obvious than in the cooking shows on the BBC. I thought of developing a drinking game in which you drink every time a food programme goes on and on about British produce and British meat and British everything, but I realized I’d end up terribly soused and probably without a job.

One of the other three MasterChef finalists was a classic “modern British” guy with all of the nose-to-tail specialties that make me (vegetarian-turned-grudgingly-pescetarian) wince. Root vegetables all the time, fresh green vegetables almost never. Now I’m not criticizing that bit per se, I’ve come to love root veg purees and things (especially now that I’m barred from eating my beloved mashed potatoes). But for all of these reasons, and because the third finalist was also foreign (Italian), I was absolutely sure I knew who was going to win and I was not very happy about it. I didn’t just like the American because he was American, I liked him because he was talented. He made me think about food. He renewed my recent interest in learning more about Japanese cooking. He probably played a part in my visit to Nobu in Las Vegas last month. (But that’s a story for another day…)

So I was genuinely surprised and excited that the American won MasterChef, and I was really mostly innocent in expressing this to my two team members. But what interested me the most was the reactions. My South African colleague got it immediately, and agreed enthusiastically with my assessment of how unlikely this result was. My British colleague did not seem to share my amusement at the story, as far as I can tell. (And this was not the first time I’d worried that I’d pissed him off either; the whole story of how affirmative action has played out in the UK always has me worried when dealing with British males.)

So it was an interesting day, and I’m still excited that the American managed a win in this difficult contest, and more than ever I’ve realized how cautious I need to be when I talk about these things in public, especially when I’m in danger of offending my local colleagues.

On neighborhoods and the Local

I walked home from work tonight via a route I’ve been meaning to try since I moved into my new digs… it takes me through a very multi-cultural neighborhood and via some foot-paths that are not on the map such that my total trip home is not much changed from the usual 2.3 miles. And I can stop at the M&S food hall on the way and get nice things for dinner.

Good thing one from my perspective, in this adventure, is that I found a great Asian grocery store. And here we meet US/UK language barriers. I say Asian, as an American, and mean China-Japan-Korea. In the UK the term “Oriental” is still PC (not in the US) and “Asian” means Indian or related sub-continental. So let’s re-phrase and be more specific. I found a store that stocks Chinese, Japanese and Korean food items and this (especially the latter) is good. What I still need to find is an ethnic grocer that stocks Indian ingredients, which at the moment I have been getting from Tesco, such as Chapati flour and Besan.

Whew, this expat thing is extremely complicated when you add in the differences in other expat cultures….
But the most interesting part of my journey was the walk down a long street of identical (identikit?) Victorian houses, where each was two floors, had a window and door on the main floor and one window above, was made of brick, and literally numbered in the hundreds down a single street. In the midst of this, I found a pub.

A pub, which is known as a “local,” is not something I’d normally associate with a typically suburban neighborhood full of houses and not what I normally see on my way home. My “local” is not that close to me, but I live in a strange suburban neighborhood on the edge of a shopping complex. Seeing this tiny tucked-away pub in the midst of rows of identical houses was a real eye-opener in the campaign to save the British local pub. I have some thinking to do on this. I suspect, that when I hear about the “Campaign to save the British Pub” that it is this that people are trying to save, not the gastro-pub in the city centre. I suspect, although I cannot know, that the pubs I passed tonight are actually the “locals” of a number of people in the neighborhood. I was interested, and fascinated.

These “locals” are really LOCAL and do not mean the same thing as the “locals” in the city centre. I hope that I can find my more local “Locals” and keep these alive as opposed to the big pubs in my local area….

My new local

One thing that changed when I moved from the centre of town to the periphery is that I no longer had a local pub within a few blocks of home. Today I had the chance to visit the pub that is my new local.

My friend Chris was in town today. Chris is the ultimate example of what I have found to be true of my British friends: every single one of my British friends have either lived abroad, are married to a foreigner, or both. Chris has lived abroad in both Europe and Asia, and thus in places where the language is foreign in addition to the culture. Chris has lived in my town (although that is not the case at the moment) and so has local knowledge that has been very useful to me. So in many ways I have felt as though Chris has taken me as a charity case to try and introduce me to local culture while understanding deeply how difficult it is to be a stranger in a strange land.

So Chris and I went for dinner today to what is, by geographical definitions, my new local–the pub closest to my current flat and thus a place that I should be frequenting according to British culture. I had not, in the seven months living here, managed to get there even though I knew I should. Aside from it being my local, it’s relatively well-known and well-regarded in these parts for having very good food. Interestingly enough, the food is all Thai and thus not what is normally associated with a British pub, although a quick search on Google indicates that this is not all that unusual in these parts. The place was, on entering, a classic British pub–you ordered at the bar and there was a wide range of cask ales and the like available. The (Thai) food was amazing and the place was hopping, a sure sign of a thriving pub. I’ll be back again.

I’m left to reflect on so many aspects of expat life after the experience. We traded off buying rounds of pints and so I had to belly up to the bar and do my part. I’ve taken my work team to pub nights close to work quite regularly, but have tended to front the money and expect someone else to handle the barkeep. I need to step up on this one and start behaving like the residents of this country in which I have been living for (gasp!) four and a half years. I’ve read plenty on the rituals of British pub etiquette, especially in the wonderful book “Watching the English” by Kate Fox, a text that has become like a textbook in my time here. I’ve been here long enough to no longer have an excuse of not understanding the local traditions.

I also need to spend more time in my local. The food is excellent, and I’ve been depriving myself of it by not having had the guts to venture into it over the last half a year. This is particularly galling now that I know that the pub does Thai take-out as well as table service, since I so often complain of the lack of good fresh, vegetable-filled and interesting quick food in my local town. (My usual cry is for the addition of (a) a bagel place, like Bruegger’s or Einstein’s and (b) a quick-fresh food place like Noodles in the US.) This pub is on my way home from work and thus should become a regular stop-off on busy nights when I am too tired to cook healthy food after a long day in the office. Lessons learned. And most important of all, I should spend more time with the locals and in my local.