About eight years ago my father and I were in Calcutta* visiting my grandmother. My aunt, who has lived in Paris for the last 40 years, and her son happened to be visiting at the same time. We all went out for lunch one day at Peshawri, one of the restaurants at the 5-star ITC Sonar hotel.
My French aunt (as I will refer to her henceforth) is a really amazing cook, and is actually a published cookbook author and has appeared on French culinary TV programs. She has always, for as long as I can remember, scrutinized and evaluated the food at any restaurant she dines in. That day at Peshawri, she ordered a chicken kebab dish. When it arrived and she began eating, she she bit down on a whole cardamom pod. A raw one.
Raw cardamom pods aren’t toxic or fatal or anything like that, but they are pungent and, as far as I am concerned, kind of nasty. (I don’t much like them cooked, either.) Ideally, in a kebab, the spices should be slightly toasted ahead of time in a skillet before being mixed with the meat, because even if the kebabs are grilled to be very well done, the temperature inside the kebab as it cooks is not high enough to also cook the spices. Cardamom pods have a very tough skin, so cooking them tends to soften them and mellow out the intensity of the flavor. If they haven’t been toasted ahead of time before being added to the meat, you essentially are serving up kebabs that contain tiny, taste-bud obliterating rocks. Not too appetizing.
At the end of the meal, when the check came, they also included a comment card. My French aunt proceeded to write out, in detail, exactly what was wrong with the kebabs and how they should prepare the kebab meat and toast the spices ahead of time. When I say in detail, I mean she wrote a short essay. With cooking instructions. I want to say that she even went through a couple of drafts before she was satisfied with it, but that might just be the way I want to remember it because that makes it more funny.
For months – nay, years – after that my dad and I would joke with each other about her excessively thorough comment card and how long it took for her to write it. Why waste so much time on something like that? we thought. It’s just silly. It’s just a restaurant. Every time we ate out together and a comment card arrived with the check we would laugh and laugh remembering how she kept us all at the table for an extra 15 minutes while she filled out the card.
Years later, when I was working at the resort upstate, I would periodically check the shared drive where every month the guest comment cards would be transcribed and published for all employees to access. As a back-of-house employee I basically never had any guest interaction and so was always curious to see what exactly the experience of staying there was like. (Also, it was a good way to kill a few hours on slow days.)
Some of the comments were insightful – for instance, suggestions on how to improve the car parking process upon check-in (there was valet parking, but guests could self park if they wanted; unfortunately the signage along the road to the main entrance and near the parking lots wasn’t terribly clear so it frequently caused confusion), or noting specific things about the service that were helpful or unhelpful (“Jim in housekeeping helped direct me to the spa and was really nice about it!”, or, “We ordered our food and then had to wait a half hour for it to arrive, so not cool!”).
Other times, the comments were staggeringly unhelpful. Here’s my personal favorite:
“The breakfast potatoes could have been better.”
That is literally all it said.
What does that even mean? The potatoes could have been better. Better how? Were they undercooked? Overcooked? Not cooked at all? Burned? Were they bland? Were they over seasoned? Were they seasoned just fine but you didn’t care for the spices? Were they too salty? Did it seem like they’d been sitting out for a while and so had gotten cold? Did you not like their color? Or the shapes they’d been cut? Would you prefer hash browns instead of home fries? WHAT EXACTLY WAS THE PROBLEM?
I remember feeling so indignant about this that I went off on a mini-rant about it to my office-mate (thankfully she found it funny as well). I mean, why even bother to fill out the comment card if you aren’t going to actually provide any actual information? How completely not useful, not specific, not anything we could actually use to improve what we are doing…
…and this is when I had my Aha! Moment™ regarding my French aunt and her detailed advice on how to prevent other diners from having their kebab-eating experience ruined by raw cardamom pods.
What I know now that I didn’t know that afternoon at Peshawri is that detailed comment cards from guests are extremely helpful when you work in a business that is centered around making said guests feel comfortable and satisfied. A guest like my French aunt – someone who really knows her stuff when it comes to cooking and cares enough about it that she feels the need to give feedback – is a dream guest in that regard. Whereas eight years ago I thought it was more than a bit silly, now I totally understand and respect how awesome it was that she took the time to write out that comment card. And even if not all guests necessarily have the level of expertise she brings to the table (as it were), it still is always valuable to get guest feedback in order to improve service.
But, in my opinion, this isn’t really a case where any feedback is better than no feedback. I think if you’re going to take the time to fill out a comment card, you might as well do it well, and be specific. Otherwise don’t bother. General commentary lacking in details is not likely to be taken seriously by anyone in the hotel or restaurant. It’s a waste of everyone’s time.
The best part of my realization about the helpfulness of guest feedback is that now, whenever I am asked to fill out a comment card at the end of a restaurant meal or a hotel stay, instead of poking fun at my French aunt for writing an essay about kebab preparation, I poke fun at whatever guest it was that thought “The breakfast potatoes could have been better” was a worthwhile comment to submit. (And, if I’m leaving feedback, I always try to walk the walk the way I talk the talk and be as specific as I can.)
So, thanks unhelpful guest! I will be gleefully laughing about this for years to come. Because I am mean.
*Okay, okay, technically it’s Kolkata now, and has been so since 2001, but I can never seem to remember that, probably because I am secretly colonized. Also, in my family we tend to refer to it as “Cal” in conversation, because those extra two syllables are pretty onerous, really, and calling it “Kol” just doesn’t sound as good. See, we’re all colonized. But this is neither here nor there.