Saturday, December 4, 2010

Restaurant Horror Story

What (if any) should or should not be recycled from one customer to another?
I used to work at Vietnam Taste in London Ontario, a chain restaurant owned by three Chinese men, run by Chinese employees.  Ironically, the restaurant serves delicious, "authentic", and soul healing Vietnamese food.

I worked there for 9 months for $6.00 per hours, under the table (paid in cash) without benefits.  Why? Because I loved the food, I wanted to learn how they run the restaurant, and most importantly I wanted their recipes - my inner foodie compelled me.  I had learned a lot in my short time there, made friends, and brushed up on my Chinese.  I am thankful for my experience and don't regret working there, but there were a couple problems that left me with a big moral dilemma.

The first thing I learned was the recycling of bean sprouts, basil, pepper, and lime. The leftovers are returned to the vat of water with other bean sprouts, in room temperature.  While that may seen like a perfectly innocent practice of not wasting food, I was instructed to recycle anyway even if the plate may have been sneezed on or have discarded food (such as shrimp shells or other food customers picked up).   However, this was a rather common practice in pho restaurants everywhere. Gold Train Express chain in Vancouver definitely do this. Regardless, I kept my eyes on my goal and worked on.

The second thing I learned was why most Asian restaurants had bad service.  It was not that the servers were lazy, incompetent, or inattentive.  It was not that the servers were overworked (which they were). I was explicitly told not to be attentive (such as offering them water, refilling their water glass, or bring them their bills). This was a conscious decision by the management to keep the quality of service consistent.  If customers did not expect good service, they were less likely to complain about bad service. Anyway, not my business and I wanted the recipes.

What made me quit was the HOW coconut smoothie was made.  The restaurant served fresh coconut juice right out of the coconut.  The coconut was cracked open and served directly with a straw. (This was possibly the cleanest and healthiest thing on the menu) I was instructed to put the empty coconut shell in the fridge.  Being totally clueless, I originally thought the empty coconuts were stored to prevent it going sour and stinking up the restaurant.  One day, a customer, who was visibly sick and congested, spit something nasty and yellow into his empty coconut shell.  Instinctively, I threw it into the garbage after. The manager's father (who worked in the kitchen) picked it up from the trash, split it open, scrap out the spit with his unwashed hand over running cold water, scraped out the coconut meat with a spoon, wrapped it, and placed it in the smoothie fridge.  When I inquired about it, the old man defended that this was the only source of coconut meat for the smoothie, and it was his favourite drink.  He insisted that I made a smoothie for him out of that batch and drank the whole content in front of me.  "See, nothing wrong!" I gave my one week notice the next day.  I spent the week secretly documenting this coconut smoothie making processes so I could submit it to the health authority.

However, I did not end up reporting them.  There was a 69 year old woman who worked in the kitchen 90 hours a week, paid mostly in cash, because they didn't want to pay her overtime. She shared her life story with me before I left. She came from an impoverished village where her children and grandchildren lived.  She saved every penny she earned for them.  The other two men who worked there were working there illegally.  Even my manager was poor and struggle to provide his new born son. Their behaviour was the product of lack of education and cultural ignorance.  The restaurant would be shut down and they would all be out of work and sent back to China if I report them.  I could not decide if I should ruin the livelihood of these people and their loved ones to prevent a potential health crisis in London Ontario. I moved back to Vancouver and misplaced the photos.

Few days ago, after two years, I found the incriminating photos on a hard drive, stirring up the horrendous memories of the coconut smoothie.  I felt consumers, at least, have the right to be informed. You can decide for yourself, if you still want to eat there.  I did, even after I learned about the smoothie; I  skipped on the drinks and never touched the bean sprouts, the fish sauce, fish dishes, sweet sour dishes, etc.  It wasn't much different from McDonalds, otherwise.

I did learned the recipes btw.  Ironically, now that I knew how to make the food, I would never make it for anyone I care about. What made their pho broth so delicious? Chicken powder + MSG + sugar +  salt + broth.  Everything that tasted good had copious amount of sugar, salt, and MSG.  Pad Tai was made with ketchup and MSG.  Also, nothing was fresh: they were frozen, refrigerated for weeks, or recycled.

Vietnam Taste on Urbanspoon

9 comments:

  1. Oh my goodness, that is indeed a horror story. I'm still shuddering here.

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  2. Oh dear...oh dear...
    I have a really bad feeling that one of my favourite restaurants - Pho Lan - would do this...

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  3. That's quite a review. Am wondering to what extend that this is happening in restaurants. Am also wondering if the healthy inspections also looked for tell tale signs of food recycling. Ben

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  4. It seems the relationship between the writer and the owner got sour for some reasons, so I am not sure if these comments are 100% true. There are alway two sides of the story. From the recipes provided for Pho and Pad Thai in this article, I can tell the writer has not learned a thing about Pho and Pad Thai at all.

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  5. All I can say is this article is lopsided and contained many wrong comments and assumptions. It seems that the writer does not like these restaurants for some reasons, and write bad things about them. Also all the information on recipes for Pho and Pad Thai are really wrong. So after 9 months, someone decided to quit because she could not steal any recipes? Make me wonder!

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  6. It seems that March and May didn't read the article in full or did not fully comprehend them. Actually, from the IP and time stamp, they are probably the same person... Maybe I should just remove the comments...

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  7. I think everyone would be horrified if they had to work a month in their favourite chain, regardless of how strict the standards are. I always wonder when I go to an ASK, Zizzi or Prezzo London but I think ignorance is bliss, especially when it comes to the food I'm eating out.

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  9. I can't say I'm surprised. My wife is Chinese and we've eaten in Chinese owned establishments from Scarborough to Kitchener,and everywhere in between (like Chinatown, Toronto), and we've had more bad experiences than good. Now we stick with "Asian Fusion" restaurants like East, which, while not authentic, have cleaner food, cleaner washrooms with hot and cold water, and good service. We've seen first hand the policy of deliberately poor service, especially in the "all you can eat" places, where delayed service means savings for the proprietor. It's a real shame, we love authentic Asian food, and have found some establishments that hold themselves to a higher standard of quality and service, but they are the exception.

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