Efficient restaurant service

After a recent trip away to London and more recently to Melbourne, I was bewildered by the huge difference in standards and approach to restaurant customer service in these cities when compared to Hong Kong. Considering the national past-time in HK is eating there are certainly some quirks so unique to HK when it comes to dining experiences.

Hong Kong’s restaurants, from the “cha chang tangs” (local cafe dining) through to michelin star restaurants (and these stars are given out quite liberally!) are if nothing else, efficient. I am sure the KPI for a HK waiter is not the knowledge on the food, nor proper dining service, but on how quickly he/she can turn a table over!

Perhaps due to the expensive real estate your table represents, the need to turn over customers is certainly more important than the customer dining experience. More often than not, especially in these tea shops, you might actually get your food order before you have actually finished ordering! Indeed I was at a noodle establishment the other day and I noticed a patron has just uttered the words “soy milk drink” and the staff across the restaurant has already poured out the drink and served it to the guy before he has finished placing the rest of his order! Talking about efficiency!

Also, how many times have you had your dishes cleared whilst you are taking the last bites? Either the restaurant is running short on dishes and need your plates or they just want to move you along…

Actually us patrons do not help either. We flock to the places in droves just because OpenRice or HK Magazine tells you is great, and would stand in a queue for an hour or more just to sample the supposingly earth shatteringly good prawn wonton – so no wonder the restaurant staff would want to clear you out when you are (almost) done to get the next patron in.

The other very efficient part of a dining experience is the bill paying. Once your bill arrives, the staff would stand next to you and wait for you to cough up.. No time to review the bill, or for you to work out splitting the bill (that’s almost worth another story just on how people do this..!). By having the staff stand there looking impatient, it is by far the most confrontational and efficient method to solicit your money in the quickest way possible.  You might casually bypass the added charge they put on the bill for peanuts or pickled cucumber that you thought were provided for free. Oh, and then comes the change. When the staff comes back with the change, he/she will stand there again with the change, waiting for you (or to embarrass you) to leave a tip for them. By using the universal trick of giving you around $20+ in coin change (when they could have given you notes) you are suckered into leaving the loose change for tips. (watch out newly arrived expats as you are their ideal target!)

So with all the efficiency, it is quite amazing then when you do need the attention of a staff, it is most likely there would be no one around to help. There must be some restaurant “black hole” that waiters go into whenever you do need service! You can be waving your hands like a madman but everyone will have their head down (presumably collecting dishes or waiting for people to pay their bills) and not helping you. Most people resorted to just putting their hand up like back in school days and just wait till someone would acknowledge them.

I presume also for the sake of efficiency, many staff are just not trained on the menu so there is no point asking them what is in a particular dish either. We listened the other day at the pained conversation between a french guy and the waiter as he wanted to know what the soup base was in a dish – it was almost comical if not a tad sad and embarrassing to listen a showcase of the Hong Kong restaurant service.

When in Melbourne or London, one thing that struck me was the level of knowledge and engagement restaurant staff would have on the menu, the restaurant and indeed the whole dining experience. It doesn’t matter if the restaurant is just the local brunch cafe or a high end dining establishment. It is almost as if all the staff are part owners of the place – there is a lot of pride in where they work and in return the patrons are treated to a memorable dining experience. Jason Atherton’s London restaurant is one such highlight (Pollen Street Social) – I hope for his sake that his flagship new restaurant due to open this month in PMQ in HK will live up to his high standards with the local staff.

I will be standing in the queue when it opens…



Lido M’Goi, part 2. (continuing “The art of getting around in HK taxis” series)

Not long after I arrived back in Hong Kong, a friend of mine, normally a mild manner airline pilot, was being extremely vocal about his recent taxi ride, complaining that he had to use all his inner powers (no doubt well trained from many LKF visits!) not to throw up in the backseat. I couldn’t really understand what all the fuss was about – surely this city full of thousands of taxis, all available at any time of the day/night with a single thrust of your hand, is the ultimate efficient transport system, and nothing can be wrong?!

Technically that statement is correct.. Efficient, yes. Available, well, sort of, except around 5pm each time during shift change (you would think some clever taxi driver would have worked out that if you DON’T change shift at 5pm, you can have the pick of customers all around HK that time each day!!) But what you can only experience once you have been inside the backseat of a Hong Kong taxi, is the wild ride that could be a cross between a rollercoaster ride at the Disneyland theme park and a washing machine in full spin cycle.

Why do taxi drivers in Hong Kong have to accelerate and then brake suddenly every 10 metres they travel?! Do they take some sadistic joy in jerking the car (and passengers) for a whole journey to the point of you feeling sick, simply to drop you off, and pick up the next victim?! I sometimes feel that in Hong Kong traffic, I move as far forward as I am being thrown sideways in the taxi! Is there a special taxi driving school one has to go to in order to perfect this skill?

Considering the drivers are so frugal about their fuel usage (they put the car in neutral to cruise down a hill, presumably to save fuel), yet they would slam on the accelerator to burn off from the lights, then slam on the brakes because you can’t actually go anywhere with the traffic except move forward about a metre, which surely is going to waste more fuel? Many a time I am trying to go through my emails and messages whilst enroute on such a ride, but end up having to give up because a) I cannot read the message on my phone as I am being flung around the backseat, and b) everytime I tried to type a message the kangaroo-hopping motion of the taxi invariably means I am typing some incoherent message to my contacts…

In addition to this unique HK driving style, the driver is typically also trying to set a speed record between locations, based on the frenetic pace the driver wants to get to your destination. In doing so, he is going through most yellow (and red) lights, discovering the most minute of gaps in traffic to change lanes randomly or to gain 1 car space, daring the Porsche to not let him in and all these whilst talking to 5 mobile phones at the same time! I am only guessing there has to be some “Today’s Top 10 fastest trips” challenge that most taxi drivers are in and probably a nice bounty is there to be won if you make the list!

Speaking of mobile phones, I have to say I was fascinated the first time I was in a taxi when the driver was placing jobs for half dozen other fellow drivers over the multiple mobile phones on his dashboard (normally minimum 5), whilst trying to do his primary role of actually driving me to my destination! Talking about an entrepreneur society we live in – this guy is running a business within a business!

I have to say I have come across a couple of very good drivers. Smooth acceleration, not cutting in and out of lanes, pleasant conversation (that’s for another time to discuss) and actually getting me to the destination in the same amount of time as the typical reject F1 driver.  Next time I must take down their contact number and share with you!

You are probably saying – why don’t you catch a bus instead if you dislike the taxi ride so much – well try getting down the stairs of a double decker bus whilst it is speeding round the corner towards the bus stop… but that’s another story…

* About the title – “Lido M’Goi”, for the un-initiated, is a cantonese phrase for “here, please”, words you utter with joy and relief knowing that your taxi journey has reached its destination, and you have survived!

Red packets and turnip cakes…

Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you will know that it is Chinese New Year – welcoming in the Year of the Horse. It’s the time of the year where the printers for new year decorations (basically anything red with the “fook” character on it) make their annual budget in 1 month.. It’s also when the store that is normally a nail salon in Tin Hau for 50 weeks of the year suddenly becomes a full-on retail outlet selling flowers, laisee packets and anything CNY for 2 weeks! (congrats to the enterprising shop-owner there!)

It is a time that I am giddy with excitement of the new year and all that it brings, but also filled with fear and trepidation – in case I mess up some of the traditions (or superstitions) that is linked to the 15 days of the new year, and those preceding it, and I am stuck with bad luck for 12 months…

For newcomers to this fair city, you must be wondering why suddenly the hair salons are empty around the new year (its bad luck to cut your hair during the first few days of the new year), or indeed why very well dressed people in new clothes on new year’s day seem to all have greasy dirty hair (its the fear of washing away all the luck for the year)!

You might think these are just superstitions, but most local Hongkonger won’t take a chance in not filling up their rice container before CNY, and putting inside with it a lai-see packet and a tangerine in case they are not fill with abundance in the coming year; or the need to consume copious amount of turnip cake (年糕) – which I still haven’t quite worked out what this is all about!

The New Year’s Eve dinner (團年飯) is a fantastic tradition to bring the family together, meaning “completing the year” dinner – its the one time of the year in Hong Kong where literally everyone is at home or at a restaurant having dinner. It’s the only time you can go across the harbour tunnel without having the queue up!

A sumptuous banquet is normally on the cards, with special meaning to certain dishes (I am still working these out, so maybe I can elaborate more next year, haha!). It only makes sense then on the 2nd day of the new year, you have another banquet, this time its the “start the new year” dinner (開年飯), to welcome (or literally to “open”) the new year. Then when you return to work, there is also a need to have a 開年飯 banquet with your colleagues. Sometimes I wonder if this is some secret campaign by restaurateurs to get us to eat out even more (as if we need more excuses…)

Of course the most well known tradition is the giving of “red packets” or lai-see (利是) – and one not to mess around with! I think HKU has a degree you can do to working out who you need to give lai-see to and how much. Yes there is a hierarchy to the amount inside a lai-see, from $20 (please don’t be so cheap to put coins in!) for those you are “obliged” to give to, up to whatever you want for the loved ones, staff or customers (oops, I think that is actually called bribery, haha!)

Chinese New Year is certainly the time when the building security guards take time out from their normal slumber behind their desks watching the latest TVB serials, and will be greeting you with a big smile and remarkably remembering your name! They seem to be everywhere, pressing the button for you for the lift (where were you that time when I was carrying my groceries and dry cleaning and trying to beat the quick closing lift doors?!), standing behind the carpark boom gate to wave you off (why?) or just blatantly standing in a row by the front door waiting for you to give them their lai-see… My nightmare is trying to remember who I have given a lai-see to so not to double up, or worse forget, and get the wrath of the  guard for the next 12 months – like not letting you in if you have forgotten the key, or interrogating every visitor you have in case they are some terrorists!

So enjoy the 15 days of Chinese New Year (yes, there is a meaning to every day and certain ritual you should do too). Kung Hey Fat Choy to you all – wishing you a healthy, happy and prosperous Year of the Horse! I am off to finish packing my lai-see and wash my hair, or wait on, should that be change the sheets and eat some turnip cake??!!

Coffee.. Tea.. or both?!

I have always enjoyed a freshly brewed cup of coffee when I lived in Melbourne. I was fortunate to have my own manual machine – a nice indulgence I used to enjoy each day, starting from grounding the coffee beans, to the fresh aroma of a new cup of coffee filling my apartment each morning.. ahhh…

Now in Hong Kong, with the premium for kitchen bench space in my small apartment means the luxury of having a coffee machine will have to wait for now – I have to fallback to buying my coffee. With a Starbucks or Pacific Coffee shop at every other corner being the benchmark for a standard coffee here, I soon realised that the quest to find “the perfect cup” (sorry Pacific Coffee – your  tagline just does not quite live up to what you serve up!) is going to be a difficult task!

I have no idea why these chain stores need to serve their hot coffees at temperatures that will guarantee to burn your mouth. Maybe its part of some sadistic pact that Hong Kong baristas (I use this term very loosely) have come up with to terrorise their poor customers. Or maybe the caffeine fix is not strong enough for typical sleepy (and overworked) HK-er and the scalding hot beverage is require to shock you into action to face another day?!

Another thing here is if you drink latte, well, you are lucky if your coffee is not a cup of watery milk with a bit of coffee thrown in. Having discussed this in detail with fellow coffee lovers, we have come to the conclusion that it’s due to the quality of milk being used. Hong Kong milk just simply does not froth properly. A favourite cafe for a while was Fuel Espresso, who used to use Australian milk – sadly they recently changed the milk and the watery taste is sneaking into their daily brews.. Aiyah! For those of you who live in HK – do share with me where your favourite hidden gem is for your coffee!

Now Hong Kong people are definitely one for efficiency – doing something with the least effort for maximum results is the holy grail when it comes to daily chores – and I have to say the “3 in 1”  coffee sachet is an amazing invention, not for its quality but for its time and space efficiency. Why just have a sachet for instant coffee, and then have to put in milk and maybe sugar, but instead you can buy sachets combining all three in one simple pack! Open a sachet, add hot water, and instant white coffee with 2 sugars.. Too bad that’s if not the way you take your coffee.. haha…

The ultimate (and local) thing I have come across though is the coffee and tea mix – or “yin yeung” (鴛鴦). This is a mix of half milk tea, half coffee, and surprisingly tastes pretty good! I have no idea why someone would come up with this concoction – perhaps ran out of one so why not mix the two to serve up unsuspecting customers?! Couldn’t decide between the two and in the name of efficiency have both?!

It is normally a house specialty to have this at a cha chaan tang (茶餐廳 or local fast food cafes, with the emphasis on fast – whatever you order from the typically massive menu of 100+ items seems to always take just 1 minute to make.. but that’s another story…), and I discovered this drink (can be hot or cold) at my first cha chaang tang experience. There are even places in HK where their yin yeung drink has reached legendary status – with their special technique including how the tea is poured etc defining the connoisseur quality of their brew.

Over the last year or so, it’s great to see the coffee quality improving dramatically and so many new cool cafes opening up around Hong Kong, and local baristas being well educated and taking pride in their new found art and showcasing their skills. For me, I enjoy my regular latte at Barista Jam from Sheung Wan. The rich creamy taste of the milk with a nice shot of espresso infused into it gives me the warm feeling every time that I can still enjoy a quality cup of coffee in Hong Kong like those I used to enjoy in Australia. Oh, did I mention Barista Jam is an Australian own cafe?! haha..

“Li Doh M’Goi” – The art of getting around in taxis in Hong Kong. Part 1.

After years in Australia paying extortionist rates for taxi fares, Hong Kong is like taxi heaven. They seem to be around everywhere, and a mere HK$30 would get you around the traps. I quickly discovered there is a fine art though to go with hailing a taxi, and also getting to your destination in one piece…! I now have a chuckle when I see a newbie getting into the wrong cab for Kowloon, or frustrated why the seemingly available cab (with the For Hire light on) just swan past the waving hand at 4.55pm on a weekday.

I have a million stories to share so will post a few under the title “Li Doh M’Goi” in future. For the un-initiated, the phrase stands for “here please!”, a phrase you utter with joy as you know your life and death tussle with that particular taxi trip has reached your destination safely once more!

Let’s talk about Kowloon vs Hong Kong taxis. At first glance, there is no difference between them – they are all red (unlike the green taxis and blue taxis but that’s another story), but get in the wrong one and you could be getting a mouthful of new cantonese words that you don’t really want to learn…

Considering how inventive and innovative HongKongers are, I am constantly baffled why the “sign” for a cab going back to the other side of the harbour, is to put the “Not For Hire” sign over the For Hire sign – which means, “yes, I am available to take you over to the other side of the harbour!”. So what’s the sign then for “Not For Hire”?! (exactly the same, in case you are wondering).

So the trick is, if you are looking for a cross-harbour taxi, look for the one that is “Not For Hire” but with the driver scanning the sidewalks for a fare, making the “do the limbo” sign with his hand…! For the advanced user, you can also make the “do the limbo” sign with your hand to a taxi displaying a “Not For Hire” sign, and if the taxi is indeed one for hire(!) then magic! You have a ride..

I like to challenge one of the thousands of clever taxi drivers in Hong Kong that they must be able to come up with a more innovative way to signal that they are available to go back to the other side of the harbour…!

Then there is also the unofficial, official cross harbour taxi queues, especially in Central. What might look like a normal taxi queue outside LV on Pedder Street, it is more than OK to jump to queue to grab the first cab in front of the queue, because they are cross harbour taxis!

Or you just got to know that outside HSBC bank on Bonham Strand East in Sheung Wan, the taxis parked there are not because they are all lazy but its because they only go to Kowloon!

So beware new taxi users in Hong Kong – that gleaming red taxi coming towards you – don’t feel too bad or confused if you get rejected!

Its all about the “jetso”.

Hong Kong people loves a bargain. That’s nothing new, you might say. But one thing I have noticed since coming back here is the degree of effort a person would go to in order to get a discount or bargain! Could “Jetso” (著數) be the hidden economy that is driving Hong Kong?!

Jetso relates to a discount or privilege you can get. It is almost standard procedure when you go and buy something like a laptop or camera, you ask if there is any “jetso” with the purchase – be it a discount, extra gifts that you will never use or a combination of the above.

Everyone knows someone or somewhere you can get a deal or privilege. Want a table at a hard to get into restaurant? You’ll have friend who knows the manager there. Need a pair of glasses? your brother’s wife’s cousin might know of a wholesale warehouse on the 5th floor of a commercial building in Lai Chi Kok where you can try on all the top brands at a fraction of the cost! (true story).

I heard a story about a colleague of a friend, who swears she would never eat McDonalds. One day, she was seen in the office munching into a Big Mac… Shocked, my friend asked what she is doing – she replied without breaking any strides in demolishing the burger that she cut out a HK$2 (around US$0.25) discount voucher from the newspaper so she couldn’t pass up on the bargain!

What about the lunchtime queues half way up the escalators by Hollywood Road, where people queue up for up to 30 minutes, giving up valuable time during their lunch hour, to click their Octopus card to get their daily $2 discount! Of course the more innovative employees simply give their Octopus cards to their office tealady or security guard who stands in the queue with 50-60 cards to zap the discount every day.

There are numerous websites dedicated to helping Hong Kong citizens find the best jetso – and no wonder group buying sites enjoyed such a great ride in Hong Kong too.

So, you want a jetso for something?! I know someone who knows someone…