Young and Hungry

When the Customer Is Never Right

1245274367_m_DG_Generalstore-1In high school, I worked at a Chinese carry-out restaurant. It was my first real job and my only experience in the food-service industry. On my first day on the job, the hard-working Taiwanese owner/chef, who also was a Christian minister, told me: "The customer is never right!"

Those words have stuck with me ever since. Granted, Mr. Lin was joking in part, but he knew some customers could be nasty and very unreasonable. And he wanted me to be prepared for when the worst ones would come through. Mr. Lin would not hesitate to tell unreasonable customers—like the ones who were shocked by his usually dark brown fried rice and demanded he make a more traditional slightly brown fried rice for them—that they could leave. He had a loyal following and could afford to lose customers who just weren't worth bending over backwards for. (That being said, he would be happy make substitutions and honor most special requests in entreés. You just had to be civil about it and not make a fuss.)

So, when I watch chef Gillian Clark's YouTube videos where her General Store crew did some re-enactments of the stupid, impolite, and otherwise inane things customers can do, I'm not all that fazed. Some folks are, obviously.

First, the videos are clearly trying to be funny (even if they fall flat). Second, it's somewhat refreshing to see restaurant staff blow off some steam when they regularly have to deal with their more dense customers. So when I read the commenter from Todd Kliman's food chat earlier this week who said "this public mocking of the people who want to give her money seems to be beyond the pale," I have to laugh a bit.

Think about all the pent-up frustration that exists in the food-service industry. It's better to channel that energy on a stupid YouTube video than have a pissed-off waiter spit in your food, right?

At least Gillian Clark is no Bon Qui Qui. "Security!" Clark and business partner Robyn Smith are focused on their cooking. As Tim Carman wrote last year:

Maybe the pair is trying to redefine the hospitality business. I don’t know. I don’t care all that much, either. Clark and Smith appear to channel all their energies toward the kitchen, not their customers. If that imbalance leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you’re likely not General Store material. I’ve learned after multiple visits just to accept that Clark’s warmth is hidden inside her dishes, whether her lightly dressed tarragon chicken salad sandwich or her chef-driven take on a Philly cheesesteak. Hell, her buttermilk fried chicken, all crunch and salty savor, is proof that a big, generous heart beats behind Gillian Clark’s moody public persona.

But I really hope that the gaggle of geese from Russia House last week pays the General Store a visit very soon. And I hope Clark records what would sure to be a spectacle.

Photo of Gillian Clark by Darrow Montgomery

  • yeah…

    This is ironically funny, I've gone to the general store 4 times and every time chef Gillian has been there,there has been no nice talk as she does in the video behind the camera her and Ms Smith give you a WTF do you want attitude every time from the moment you walk in. They should just seal off the front counter where it is open to the kitchen and have a window where they put an order taker if they don't want to deal with society.

    Also count on always getting a seat because its always empty.

    Working in the food biz the videos are funny though....

  • Joshua

    I've always felt like the debate over Gillian Clark was rooted in DC's general culinary inferiority complex. It's a lot easier to get away with acting that way when there aren't any alternatives, and that's only true if you are serious top dog hot shit. When Colorado Kitchen opened up, she really was the only option up in that part of town, and DC had far fewer options than it does now. I've always felt like Clark's defenders were to some degree defending her, and not her behavior, and that there was an element of protecting a local institution involved - basically, they were defending her right to be a d-bag because she had earned that right.

    But her food just isn't good enough anymore. I haven't eaten at General Store, and I'm sure it's fine - she's undeniably talented. But why should I go there? I never felt welcome at Colorado Kitchen, and with all of the options that there are now, even in Silver Spring, there's no reason for me to spend my time and money at an establishment that considers me an inconvenience. Maybe ten years ago I would put up with it because there weren't as many options available, but DC's bigger and better now.

  • slim

    This is not good PR for a place that does not serve very good food. I think she thinks she is a better cook than she actually is.

  • SG

    I don't get the hostility towards Gillian Clark. It seems that her main crime is using open kitchens, which apparently creates the expectation amongst some diners that she should should be chatty and engaging with them as opposed to concentrating on cooking their food. She should just be like the other well known chefs in DC who never have any contact with customers unless they are VIPs.

  • Ben

    Lord knows there are several times I would have liked to show a reenactment of some strange thing that happened in a restaurant. I don't know if it's so much mockery as it is a change of perspective.

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  • Laurie

    Is this what people are so upset about? What morons. I think this video is funny and I can completely see why they thought it was funny, too. Give me a break. If people want to be served by folks without personalities, there are plenty of other places to go. Grow up, America.