Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Trouble with Nice

When I ask a food service person, "How is it?” I expect us to be speaking the same language. The question is an abbreviated way of saying, “Describe to me all the things about this dish that aren’t specified on the menu.” How is the thing prepared, or how is it cooked, or what cut of meat is used, or what else is in the dish, or which of the ingredients listed are dominant?

For example, “fried” anything could mean pan-fried or deep-fried. Are the “fresh vegetables” raw, or are they simply not from a can or dried, or are they seasonal? Is the base of the soup clear broth, tomato, cream? Does the “bean salad” have leafy greens or not? Was the pork grilled before or after it was cubed, and was the grill flame or charcoal?

Lesser-experienced wait staff, or those who don’t care, or those working at a low-grade place, will usually answer the question, “How is it?” with, “It’s good,” or “I like it,” which, despite the fact that they’re trying to give an opinion, is completely and utterly useless. They’re not answering what I’m really asking.

But the very worst response is, “It’s nice.”

I’ve heard this response mainly in restaurants in England, where the word “nice” is still used widely to refer to a thing’s mediocrity. So, in saying, “It’s nice,” not only does the server not answer my question, but he’s also signaled, “This establishment is second-rate.”

Please, if you own a restaurant or work in one, tell the people who interact with the customers what “How is it?” really means. Teach them by example, too. The next time someone asks, give a detailed description of the food.

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