Moonshine on a moonless night

This musing was first published in Flavours magazine and is not in Chef’s Tales the book:

Did I ever tell you about the time when I was working in Kuala Lumpur and went for my very first visit to Sabah to introduce myself to my in-laws? On announcing the master plan to visit the wife’s family’s village, Beatrice jumped out of her chair. “We can organise a Christmas party for all the people in my village.” “Hang on a minute – How many people are there in your village?” I was almost scared to hear the answer. I mean to say, feeding two or three thousand people had to cost a bundle and on my salary at that time, I will tell you, it was a most daunting thought. “Oh, there are lots” – was not the answer that I was looking for, believe me. “How many is ‘lots’?” I whispered out to her. “About 52,” she replied enthusiastically. “How many?!?” I asked in a shocked manner, expecting 5,200. “52,” repeated Beatrice. Well, I thought this was going to be the cheapest Christmas party I could ever have hoped for. “Although we are short of money at this moment in time, I do believe that we can we can offer to hold a party for the entire population of your village. I will even throw in a couple of cases of Carlsberg for good measure,” I announced, trying to conceal my relief.

Beatrice booked and organised the trip as she always does and off we went. Arriving in Papar, we were greeted with the biggest and heaviest tropical downpour that you could ever imagine, which stirred all the toads back to life and unfortunately, all the mosquitoes too. Being eaten alive is not the most pleasant of experiences and not being able to sleep due to the loud croaking coming from the paddy fields did not help either.

The day of the party was a monumental affair to say the least. People came from miles around carrying potluck food items to place on the table for everyone to enjoy. We worked all day to get everything ready and the time had come to enjoy ourselves. On discovering we had no ice, I offered to get it, so off we drove. The first thought I had was how dark it was getting.

It was a moonless night, there was no lights to illuminate the road and the only way to go was to drive slowly down the narrow path so we did not end up in the hitch. Suddenly, we saw something in the middle of the road and slowed down. I thought it was a water buffalo having a nap before continuing on its journey.

As we approached, we found that it was not a buffalo. Instead, it was one of the villagers lying down motionless. He was not moving an inch and I was worried for the poor guy. “Is he dead?” I asked, petrified. “No,” was her monosyllabic reply. “Then what’s wrong with him?” “Tuak,” Beatrice answered. “Tuak? What is that – a tropical disease or something?” I wondered out loud. “No. It’s tropical liquor made from palm or coconut and he has had too much of it.” “Too much of it? He looks like he has had all of it. It’s a wonder that there is any coconut left, by the looks of him!”

I later nicknamed tuak “Gut Rot” once I had tasted this delicate beverage. I will give you another red-hot tip. You do not want to drink this stuff while smoking – you may end up being blown up to kingdom come! As I stared at the drunken villager, out of the blue came the cavalry in the form of two of his mates. They picked him up and carried him off, having a good laugh as they went. “How strong is that stuff?” I asked Beatrice. “It’s quite strong, but alright if you are used to it. Old man Bob is used to it – he’s been drinking it all his life.” If old man Bob was used to it, what would happen if someone was not used to it and drank it for the first time? We would be rushing him to the intensive care unit to have his stomach pumped… Or maybe even replaced! “What is this stuff made from?” I asked Beatrice. “Tuak can be made from the sap of palm trees or coconut trees but it’s usually made from coconut tree sap. There are others as well, you know.” “Oh yes, well, why don’t you give me a heads up so that I can make sure I avoid the stuff at all costs?” “Well,”

Beatrice started out, there is bahar which is also made from the sap of the palm tree, but is made with a different recipe. And then there is tapai which is made from rice.” Different recipe? Maybe there is a recipe book I could buy and place it on the drinks list in the Farquhar Bar menu in our hotel lobby. I could not help but to ask her the golden question: “Do you like a tipple of this refined alcoholic beverage once in a while?” Beatrice pulled her glasses down to the end of her nose and stared at me over the top of them.

Her impression simply implied the articulate response she was expressing. “Idiot” – would have been the best way to explain her thoughts, but as usual, her manners were way too polite to voice it. When we got back from the shop, it was time to get the party started. I decided to take a quick shower before going down to the dinner table.

I emerged about fifteen minutes later and everyone was sitting around chit chatting and looking at me with looks of anticipation on their faces. “What is going on?” I asked Beatrice. “They are waiting for you to eat first before they start.” I could not believe how polite they were and announced that they should all eat and enjoy themselves.

I dipped my hand into a large bucket of ice and grabbed a bottle of beer. As I turned around to speak to Beatrice, I could not believe the sight before me. There in front of me, was old man Bob! Instead of being hung over for four days like I would have been after having my stomach pumped, he looked as if he had never touched a drop. “Here in Sabah,” he started out, “we like to consume this local beverage called tuak. Have you ever tried it?” “Before I answer that question, let me ask you one – do you have an identical twin?” Beatrice came from nowhere and retorted: “Don’t listen to him Bob – he’s a twit!” I tried to defend myself while looking around for help. “To answer your question Bob, not lately, no,” I mustered. “Well, let’s have a shot together. Come, let’s share a glass.” He poured two glasses, walked towards me and handed me the one that was the most full.

Very polite people, I thought… too polite. “Why don’t you have the full glass and I will have the short glass?” We swapped the glasses and I took my first sip. Now I have to tell you something that I shouldn’t but I can’t help it. I have never tasted anything so vile in my entire life. As it passed down my throat and into my stomach, it dissolved every body part in its path like an ice cube in a microwave. “That’s not so bad,” I declared, while wincing badly. As Bob turned around to smile at Beatrice, I quickly poured the balanced of the tuak into the paddy field next to me and pretended as if I had finished it.

I could have sworn that I saw the paddy wilt the instant the tuak touched the water surrounding it. I probably contaminated the whole eco-system of Sabah with that one thoughtless and selfish act. “Wow, look at you,” said Bob. “You have finished it all, but don’t worry, there is plenty more where that came from, I will go and get you a top-up”, “he better not or I will throw up,” I whispered to Beatrice. “Just another drop to make them happy and then you can return to your beer,” she pleaded. “After another drop, I am going to return to my bed. Hopefully, not to a hospital bed!” “Don’t be such a baby!” Beatrice snapped.

This was going to be a long night, I thought to myself. And a much longer day tomorrow, if I kept on drinking this drain cleaner. “Maybe we can place a few bottles in the boot of our car, just in case,” I suggested. “Whatever for?” asked Beatrice. “Just in case we run out of petrol, we can pour it in the tank and keep the car running for a few kilometres until we reach another gas station. “Of course, we would have to keep it in a non-corrosive metal container. You know – the one that does not corrode if it comes in contact with metal-eating acid.” I pointed out that the foul-tasting stuff had indeed been delivered to the village in a screw-top petrol can, which I thought was only appropriate since tuak was also a highly-flammable liquid.

Beatrice rolled her eyes at my latest observation. Bob returned with another couple of glasses and I gingerly sipped on the cloudy substance until it was all but finished, trying to cause as little damage to my insides as possible along the way.

 As I was talking to old man Bob, his eyes glazed over and he started to fall backwards. I had downed two glasses of this rocket fuel myself which resulted in me not being as alert as I should have been and thus, was not able to catch him. Bob just fell backwards right into the paddy field thereby squashing the toads. That was the end of my first, and hopefully my last encounter, with East Malaysia’s version of toddy. Although I am sure that these home-grown Malaysian beverages create an enjoyable pastime, I have to say that they are little bit out of my league in strength and I will stick to the conventional beer or red wine.

Curmudgeonly Customers

Please enjoy my latest musing which was first published in Flavours Magazine and is not in Chef’s Tales the book:

All hoteliers have to deal with difficult, demanding guests, but can the whole stressful ordeal have a happy ending?

One of the most difficult components of our wonderful industry is the challenging guest, otherwise known as “difficult”, “fussy” – or if you would like to be politically correct, the guest who has “high expectations”. Let’s face it, we can call them whatever we like (at the back of the house) but some of them are simply put, a pain in the neck.

One day, I was strolling through the lobby and spotted one of those aforementioned guests with “high expectations”. This one seemed to have a problem, evident from the fact that he had opened his suitcase in the middle of the lobby and stripped down to his boxers, all the while making enough noise to gain as much attention as possible.

I quickened my steps so that he wouldn’t notice me, breathing a sigh of relief when I reached the back door to my kingdom and stepped into the white-tiled domain of the kitchen – a welcome comfort zone.

I couldn’t help giggling to myself as I thought of the poor duty manager having to deal with this guy, mentally congratulating myself on never having to deal with clowns like that. Then I made myself a nice cup of hot coffee and sat down in my office.

Word of the difficult customer spread around the hotel in no time, as did stories of his check-in – the hotel was running at 100% occupancy, and he had shown up at 10am wanting his room now, as he was tired and had just arrived after a long-haul flight. The front office had explained to him that the hotel was full and that check-in time was in fact 2pm, but he had protested that the travel agent had assured him that checking in at 10am would not be a problem. The front office reassured him that they had not been notified of that, and would give him the first available room, but this didn’t prove satisfactory, thus prompting the Chippendale show of protest in the lobby. After explaining to him that they couldn’t just kick any guest out of their room (and that stripping off was not going to get him a room earlier), they offered him a nice complimentary lunch with a couple of glasses of wine. Of course, he was already dressed and drinking before the offer was even fully enunciated.

Later that evening, I was going up to the hotel’s sky lounge to meet a friend and have a couple of drinks before turning in for the night; I stepped into the elevator for the short vertical ride to the top floor. As the door was closing, I heard a voice outside shouting for me to wait, so I pressed the “open door” button – only to find that nutcase guest squeezing into the lift with me!

What were the chances of the only nutter in the hotel deciding to get into the very same lift as me?! Quite good, apparently.

As soon as he got into the lift, he started ranting.

“Well at least there is one gentleman in this hotel! Can you believe what a rotten place this is?” he frothed.

I was very relieved that I had changed into my street clothes prior to getting into the lift.

“Oh it’s not that bad – it actually grows on you if you give it a chance,” I replied.

“I checked in today at 10am and there was no room for me to sleep after flying for 14 hours! I had to strip down to my knickers to get some attention … well, at least I got a free lunch,” he moaned.

Made confident by his (now) more mellow tone, I made a monumental mistake and took a gamble.

“How was lunch then?” I asked. Before I could even properly finish the question, he spat out the answer.

“Terrible! Shocking actually. I had scrambled eggs – thanks to the jet lag I felt like it was breakfast time. The most basic meal of all, and they screwed up! I think the chef here must be an idiot – have you met him?” he said.

I swallowed deeply and answered with a trace of brave defiance in my voice: “Never met the chap, no. Have you?”

“No – but I would like to!” was his response.

Just as he said that, the elevator came to a screeching stop with a jerk and a sound of grinding metal.

“Of course! Why not?! They just keep heaping it on – this has got to be the most Mickey Mouse hotel that I have ever seen,” he groaned.

I was just wondering how it could possibly get any worse when there was a popping sound, and the lights went out. At least now I did not have to look at his face, I thought, but I wished that I could escape his voice as well.

“I must say, I’m quite nervous – I do hope the lift does not fall,” I ventured.

I could hear the guest from hell suck in his breath; then he came up with his master plan.

“All we have to do is use the emergency phone to call the chef, ask him to make some more of his special recipe scrambles eggs and throw them in the bottom of the shaft. Then, when the lift falls it will hit the rubber-like eggs and bounce a bit, and the lift will settle very nicely at the bottom of the shaft”.

Not wanting to aggravate the situation further, I intended to keep my opinions to myself and let sleeping dogs lie; however, this guy was starting to rattle my cage a little, so I snapped: “Come on, give the poor guy a chance – I am sure he is trying his hardest to make everyone happy”.

“Trying his hardest?! Trying his hardest?! He is indeed very trying, I will give him that! Anyway, what are you – his boyfriend?”

I was starting to think about climbing out of the small square hole in the roof by this time – anything to escape from the idle banter with this twit. Instead, I decided to use my mobile phone to light up the lift a bit so I could search for the emergency speaker button. My “roommate” then decided to push the alarm button incessantly, obviously thinking that if he kept it up every few seconds, it might somehow make the elevator move again.

I took over, pushed the speaker button – and disguised my voice so that the security officer would not realize it was me, and blow my desperately-needed cover.

“Is there anyone there?” I asked, in a strange, foreign-sounding voice.

“Yes, this is the security department here. Please stay calm and we will get you out as soon as possible. The fire department is also on the way,” a voice replied.

Right then, I thought I was going to get away with it … right up to the moment that the speaker suddenly came back on and the voice added “By the way, is that you, chef?”

I hesitated for a second and heard some fool shouting in the background, “Hey! Can someone tell the general manager that the executive chef is stuck in the lift!”

The atmosphere in the lift was suddenly thick with tension, and I miserably wondered what the heck I had done to deserve such a lousy experience.

“You miserable toad! Here I am, blowing off steam to some guy who I thought was a long-distance traveler, somebody who would understand my frustrations – and it turns out that you’re a snake in the grass!” he ranted.

“Now I have to eat outside the hotel to avoid the chefs from stomping on my steak before cooking it, or worse!” he added.

I slid down the wall of the lift and sat on the floor.

“Hey, I saw you today giving the staff hell in the lobby. Do you think that they wake up in the morning with the intention of upsetting you foremost on their minds?” I retorted.

“If there is one thing that you learn in this business, it is the most people – however hard on the outside – are in fact, fragile. Behaving as you did today was wrong; those people work very hard for a living, just like everyone else, so who are you to treat them like dirt and destroy their confidence?” I added.

The elevator was very quiet all of a sudden and I half expected a kick in the guts, but none came. While I was hoping that I had given him a little food for thought, I regretted being so harsh at such a stressful time. It was to the great relief of both of us that the lights came back on 30 minutes later, and the lift started moving again.

As soon as the lift doors opened, he walked straight out of the lift, without a backward glance.

He checked out the next day. Apparently, after checking out, he returned to the front desk and told the staff: “Tell the chef – what he said about people being fragile – I think he is right.” Then he left.

Since that day, that fellow refuses to stay in any hotel other than the one I am working in, whenever he is in town. For me, turning an unruly, demanding guest into a loyal customer is one of the best challenges of all.