Fouled by a mechanical glitch

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

We were getting ready for a large function and the air-conditioning in the hotel broke down and was deemed beyond repair. We had to fly in a new motor from Germany and this was going to take at least a week. Meanwhile, the lack of air-conditioning was dramatically affecting everyone involved with the running of the hotel, not to mention the customers who had to endure a hot, sweltering environmental.

A tropical climate is not the coolest of places and when you are running around in a hotel that receives little or no breeze from outside, deodorant becomes the order of the day. Without air-conditioning, even the passing by of a person who has been working hard can be very off-putting, especially if you are entering a fine dining restaurant for a five-course dinner. The strong smell of garlic coming from the kitchen is one thing, but it’s another issue when it’s coming from your waiter’s underarms. We had called in all the experts to try to find a stopgap measure until the new motor arrived and they had promised to at lest make it manageable, or should I say, bearable for our customers.

That night, there was to be a dinner for 600 people in our ballroom. It was about noon when I went to check on the table set-up. As I walked into the room, it felt as if I had walked into a brick-walled sauna – the sweltering heat smacked me right across the face and left me gasping for air. “What happened to the air-con?” I shouted. “What air-con, boss? retorted my banquet captain. “Open all the corridor and pre-function doors to get some air flowing through!” I yelled. It was the only thing I could think of to lessen the searing heat in the room. As I turned around to call the air-con contractor on my mobile phone, he walked on shaking what looked like an old-fashioned rattle in swirling motions. “What are you doing with that thing?” I enquired. “I am taking the temperature to see if the air-con is working. This is a high tech piece of equipment that gives an exact reading so you can make en educated calculation of the temperature in the room.” I looked at him dumbfounded, yet throbbing with anticipation of what the reading was going to tell us. “And what does this top-notch piece of NASA ingenuity tell you?” I asked him with a slight air of sarcasm. “The air-con does not seem to be working,” he said as straight-faced as a BBC late news announcer. “You don’t have to be Einstein to deduce that!” I blurted out. “What I need to know is what are you going to do to fix it!” “The air-con is actually working,” he started out. “It’s just not working very well and what makes things worse is that you have left the doors open and the cold air is escaping.” I was stunned to hear what he was saying. I tried to come to grips with his logic but found myself gobsmacked at the thought that all our hopes for the success of this special event rested on “Bob the Builder” here.

As I was mulling over what he was saying, my banquet manager came to complain about the hot and very sweaty working environment. His body odour was overpowering, almost as if he’d been sprayed by an angry skunk. I called the concierge and asked them to issue a key for a room as soon as humanely possible. While I was listening to Stinky go on about the working conditions, I felt my legs buckling from the strain and was about to pass out when the key finally arrived. “Listen George,” I said gingerly. “Why don’t you take this key, go up to the room and have a bit of a ‘tub up’?” “Tub up, sir?” George asked, looking a bit bewildered. “You know, a bath, old chap. You have been working very hard – I can tell and unfortunately, so can everyone else. A cold shower will make you feel better and may even calm you down a tad.” So off he went. By this time, I was starting to get hot and bothered myself as I went back to check on Mr Fix-it. “Now, where were we… The doors are open? Well let’s close them and see what happens. By the way, how are we going to keep the ballroom cool tonight when we have to leave the pre-function doors open to let in 600 people for dinner?”

The contractor was too busy shaking his rattle to hear me. He continued shaking the rattle as though he was trying to make the room cooler by waving a magic wand as quickly as possible to create the effect of a fan.

“You can shake, rattle and roll as much as you want there, big fella – it’s not going to make any difference. The fact is that it’s as hot as a bonfire in here,” I protested. “I shall give you a red hot tip – it is going to be so hot in here that soon we will be able to create ricotta cheese from our underarms and we will all develop a nasty case of prickly heat or nappy rash. It’s been a while since I had nappy rash, but i can feel a very nasty case coming on, coupled with a horrid itch between my toes.” “I shall try and fix it now, sir,” assured Mr Fix-it. “By the way, close the door on the way out, won’t you? We don’t want the cold air to escape, do we?” I responded sarcastically. “Don’t worry,” he started out again. “When the ballroom starts to fill with people, the system is built with such smart technology that it will automatically adjust the temperature and the room will become cooler as it fills up.” I was flabbergasted with his latest effort to demonstrate his inadequacies as an air-con specialist. His last remark was too ridiculous to believe. “Is that so?” I asked, trying not to lose my cool further. “May I enquire how it is going to do that? Is there a temperature laser ray that shoots across the room counting legs? How would the system know that there are more people entering the room and how does it increase the air-conditioning on its own to reduce the soaring temperature?” I barked at the man. “I watched Star Trek for years and Scottie never once mentioned an intelligent air-con device that would kick in by itself!”

Mr Fix-it looked at me with such disdain when he turned the air-con valve manually that I thought if he had the chance, he would want to “fix” me with the wrench. As there was no reply from him, I finished off the conversation by announcing: “I suggest that you stay on so that when the manure hits the fan tonight, I shall announce that you are responsible for this current situation and you can explain to the guests what is to be done about it.” “I shall look into it immediately” said Mr Fix-it and then went running off.

I stood on a banquet chair and reached for the air-con vent on the side of the wall. Nothing was coming out of the vent. The little hair I had left wasn’t even stirred. Since working at this particular establishment, I had noticed that more hairs were showing up every morning in the shower floor trap. I stood there feeling demoralized as I sensed a bad case of galloping foot rot developing. Stinky had disappeared to freshen up, leaving me to hold the collapsing fort. My hopeless air-con technician was not giving me any hope of pulling off a decent dinner. Suddenly, my wife, Beatrice, breezed into the room. “It’s all going well then,” she proclaimed. “The only thing that you can do is buy some stand fans and place them all round the room. It’s actually quite pleasant with the oscillating heads. With all the open door, it may even create a pleasant breeze, like at the seaside.”

As she started to walk away, she stopped for a moment and turned around. “By the way, tonight’s dinner is for doctors, isn’t it? I read in a medical magazine that air-conditioning is actually bad for you so they may even appreciate the natural air.”

We were reduced to using fans to cool off our guests that night. So much for the technological breakthroughs in room temperature control achieved over the centuries. Sometimes, it would seem that we have become so technologically dependent that we sometimes overlook simple solutions to cope with seemingly insurmountable situations.

Once Upon a Durian Date

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 had my first encounter with “The King of Fruits”? It was one I shall never forget as it was my very first romantic date with my dear wife Beatrice. I had only been in Malaysia for a short while and had not yet tasted any of the local fruit, as they were not yet in season.

After negotiating a date over a period of months, the big day finally came where I hoped to steal my first kiss. I closed my eyes and tried to think how great it was going to be; the many times I had dreamt of it had built up the expectation to dizzying heights. We walked along a beach in Penang, had a drink in a small restaurant along the way and then decided to go and have some fresh “fruit”. The journey around the winding hills in Teluk Bahang, looking for the elusive fruit while sitting in the back seat of a taxi was to say the least, harrowing. The driver – let’s call him Schumacher for the sake of an argument – was a very friendly chap who just had to have what he considered a most interesting conversation with his customers, while driving at speeds any of his fellow Formula One drivers would have been proud of.

“You know”, he started out, “the last time I came up here, I turned the car turtle,” he proudly boasted. Turning around to face us and at the same time pushing his foot down with lead shoes to reach breakneck speed while maneuvering 100 feet drop corners, he calmly announced, “with a little bit of luck, we can avoid the same occurrence this time around”.

With little confidence, I broke a meek smile to try and cover up the feeling that I was going to die or at least vomit at any time, totally humiliating myself in front of my dream date, who was looking a little peeked herself. “Why don’t you try to slow down a little there, big guy, the apples and pears won’t go rotten, you know.”

“What apples and pears? What are you talking about?” he announced, puzzled by my comment about the upcoming fruit expedition. “This ain’t London you know ..,”he finished off with a strange word I had not yet heard, which sounded something like “boh dough”.

“What does that mean?” I asked Beatrice. “I did not hear what he said as the air-conditioning is too loud,” she said in a politically correct manner. As I was sweating like an overweight Sumo wrestler sitting in a hotter-than-hell sauna, I enquired, “What air-conditioning?” and slowly received the message as she rolled her eyes at me. What with going around in circles combined with the feeling of sheer fright, I was almost going to loose my breakfast when I heard those golden words, “We are here.” As we stopped and pulled over at the roadside, I was totally oblivious to where “here” actually was. There was a small wooden hut constructed at the side of the road and a chap was sleeping on a wooden rickety table made from tree branches and surrounded by four chairs. “Wow, business must be great here, and the fruit so superb and fresh, everybody is lining up to grab some of it,” I quipped with a smile. “Shush,” said Beatrice giving me a nudge, “Don’t be so rude.”

The proud owner of the orchard woke up as Schumi gave him a shock by blowing his horn. “Hey, Datuk, I have a couple of customers for you,” he proudly announced. “That will be 20 ringgit,” my friendly chauffeur said calmly. “Twenty ringgit?” I said in a high-pitched voice. “You must be nuts!” I said in a shocked manner. “Anyway, where do you think you are going?” I asked rather sheepishly, “Do you see any taxi stands around here, how the heck are we going to get back?” Mr Schumacher happily negotiated to wait without extra charge, which I thought, was very polite and kind of him, until he announced that he was hungry and the sharing of our fruit might just clinch the deal.

“Datuk” had already gone walking through the jungle with his hands behind his back, looking down in the long grass while kicking, trying to find something. Surely the apples or pears or whatever would be rotten if they were lying on the moist ground, I thought. Not wanting to offend, I kept quiet and amused myself by looking at Beatrice and her lovely full lips and wondered what it was going to be like when I kissed them. “Got one,” shouted the orchard owner. He sounded so happy with himself and with his big find of goodness-knows-how-long-ago-rotten fruit. As he emerged from the jungle and was making the short trek up to the hut, I saw in his hands the strangest looking – what I supposed was fruit – that I have ever seen. What the heck was that? A large green funky-looking thing with spikes! My first reaction was to ask how we were going to peel this sucker. “What do u have there Datuk?” I asked, bemused. “The last time I saw something like that was in the Alien movie.” I hesitated for a second, “no, sorry, I think it was Predator.” Schumi gave me a look that said “Don’t be funny, you might find yourself walking home.” Well, that would be safer…and cheaper, I muttered to myself.

The fruit was placed on the table with a thud. This was the first time I witness a fruit that, if dropped, would damage the table before it received even a single blemish. I crossed my arms and looked at this thing with a puzzled look on my face that alarmed Beatrice. “Have you never tried this before?” she asked. “Tried it? I have never even seen anything like it before, never mind tried it. What the heck is it?” My new sweetheart explained to me that this strange looking fruit was in fact a durian and it was a delicacy of Malaysia and somewhat of an acquired taste.

Datuk bent down, reached under the table emerged with a large, menacing knife. “I’m sorry,” I announced quickly. “I did not mean anything if I offended you.” “Bodoh!” Schumi muttered under his breadth, as they started to pry open the skin with the tip of the blade.

All of a sudden, there was an offensive odour surrounding the table. I smelt under my armpits to see if the smell was coming from me and then looked underneath my shoes to see if I had stepped in something. After deducing that the wonderful smell of fresh picked roses was in fact not my fault at all, I realized that the offending odour was in fact coming from the fruit. A thin, blue-like haze was rising from the split skin. “It’s rotten!” I shouted, “We will have to find another one, maybe one that is still on the tree and in better condition.” Beatrice went to explain that, in fact, that was how the fruit was supposed to smell and that the best ones would be those that had fallen from the tree by themselves, ensuring that they were totally ripe. “You mean durian actually smells like that”? I asked in shock. “Yes,” was the one word answer Beatrice offered me. “And it’s not rotten?” “No,” she countered. “And we are going to pay good money for it and then eat it?” “Yes, that’s right. Will you please be quiet?” She pleaded.

As the durian was laid on the table, everyone was unfortunately polite to offer the guest, yours truly, the first piece. So I took the smallest piece available and placed it in my mouth. My stomach, which by now was in a state of shock, dropped a subtle hint that is was less than impressed with the nourishment that I was offering, by churning and tying in a solid gut-wrenching knot. I had never in my entire life tasted anything that smelt so bad and tasted so terrible with an unimaginable sickly and slimy texture. As it slithered down my throat leaving a horrendous after-taste, I managed to bear a thin-tooth smile, and throw out a single word: “Yummy.”

In a matter of minutes, the durian was finished, and I was offered another. “Oh, no thank you, I could not eat a single delectable piece more,” I announced. “I am totally full; stuffed, actually,” and then I held my breath and prayed that they would not purchase a second nightmare. “Fruit”. I will give them both fruit,” I complained to myself.

As we settled back in the car, I was dreading contending with Schumi, the winding road and the added disadvantage of having this lump of smelly, heavy and burp-promoting substance that was simmering around in my tummy like a volcano. “Schumi,” I declared, “take us to a chemist as soon as you can. By the way,” I pleaded, “do you have a plastic bag by any chance?” On reaching town, I bought some Listerine to gargle with, which made me feel much more comfortable. With the smell and the bad taste in my mouth diminished, I diverted my attention back to concentrating on getting my first sneaky kiss.

As we sat on the now moon-lit beach where the date had first started, I edged closed and put my arm around her shoulders. I looked into her eyes and they had “kiss me” written all over them, so I did. As our lips locked together, she still had the durian smell on her breath that was rather off putting. As I was about to drop a hint by offering her my new bottle of Listerine, I burped, sending my own version of deep-down-in-the-stomach, after-dinner aroma into my date’s face.

Well, there you have it, my first kiss had been and gone, not very memorable, I am afraid, and that was that. Luckily, Beatrice forgave me, we are still living happily ever after and have both become durian connoisseurs. I have fallen in love with durian over the years and constantly get looks of amazement as people see a Mat Salleh sitting down and digging into a good durian where and whenever I can. There are many species of durian and they are supposed to be an aphrodisiac. The only problem is after eating it and getting the necessary effect, nobody wants to come near you anyway, so the whole idea is rather redundant. Bombaceae Durio Zibethinus, commonly known as durian, has unfortunately, quite a few calories. However, it has lots of protein, minerals, beta-carotene, vitamins B1, B2 & C, calcium and iron and better still, has no cholesterol. Thai durians have larger flesh, but with little taste and the Malaysian version has less flesh, but a much better taste. Congratulations, Malaysia, on producing a great version of thus funky looking thorny and stinky fruit!

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.