Waiter, waiter, there’s a fly in my soup

Posted on December 16, 2007 by Aun

Today’s Straits Times carried a really interesting and pretty lengthy story on hygiene in Singapore’s restaurants (and other food establishments). Given this large feature in the nation’s official paper of record, you’d think that the country’s restaurateurs would be more vigilant than ever before.

Now, before I continue, let me say that I try as much as possible to refrain from writing negatively about any restaurant, chef or restaurateur on this blog. I’ve said publically that I’ve always felt that a blog like mine should provide a service and “dissing” an establishment doesn’t help anyone. However, there are some occasions when a little public “discussion” may actually be useful and sometimes even necessary.

Today, four close friends, my wife S and I had lunch at Cherry Garden, the chic Chinese Restaurant in The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Singapore. Since the restaurant’s revamp sometime last year, we’ve been a few times, and have always enjoyed the food. Through some other friends, we had learned that the restaurant offers an a la carte buffet Sunday brunch. We had barely begun our meal (we were in fact on our very first course) when I noticed something moving on the wall behind one of our friends (an expectant mother I might add). Upon closer inspection, the unwanted guest was a shockingly large cockroach. We very quickly called over a waitress, pointing out the cockroach. Her immediate reaction was to turn away and try to find a bus boy to help her, which I have to say, took her a tad longer than we would have liked given that the roach wasn’t exactly going to stop in its tracks and wait to be caught. By the time she returned with her male colleague in tow, our little friend had traversed a good portion of the wall.

The busboy’s first attempt to capture the offending bug failed. And soon it was scurrying away from the wall, our table, and towards the middle of the restaurant. A second attempt was successful. The bug was captured, killed (I presume), and whisked away in a large paper napkin. The waitress and the busboy both mumbled apologies. But that was all. For the rest of our meal, we expected the restaurant’s manager to come over and acknowledge the problem and also apologize. After all, discovering a large cockroach crawling right by your table in a rather expensive restaurant in the middle of a 5-star hotel is, to me (and hopefully to the hotel’s management), a pretty big thing. One of our friends was very turned off and kept muttering about calling the Ministry of Environment. When our bill came, we were still expecting some sort of apology. It was not offered. Not wanting to make a fuss, we paid our bill without saying a word, but as we were leaving, one of my friends decided that he wanted to speak with the manager. I didn’t catch most of their conversation, but from what my friend reported, the manager first said that he had not been informed about the cockroach sighting (which since my wife had screamed, “cockroach!” quite loudly, I find hard to believe) and offered only the weakest of apologies.

Now, there are two issues here. The first and obvious problem is hygiene. The second problem is service. To me, it’s excusable for an F&B establishment to have the occasional and unpredictable problems with bugs. But when these problems are in fact detected and the management plainly does nothing to try and either correct them or apologize to its patrons, well, that to me is even more unforgivable. Are we to take that finding roaches in a dining establishment is perfectly acceptable? The staff at Cherry Garden certainly behaved like it was a rather ordinary or common occurrence that did not warrant any sense of urgency.

One of my colleagues had a drink just this past Friday evening at one of the trendier new bars in the Dempsey Road area. When she was served her lychee martini, to her horror, she found both an eyelash and a fly in her drink. Of course, she returned the drink, asking for a new one, which was promptly delivered. Her friend, however, had been at the bar when the drink had been sent back. Instead of actually making a new drink, the bartender simply flicked out the fly and eyelash and sent the drink back out. When my colleague complained to the manager, she eventually got a new drink – mind you, it was a martini, but not a lychee one as ordered, and the bar still made her pay for it.

I guess the main issue is what we expect from restaurateurs. What level of hygiene and service should we expect? And when we catch mistakes or discover problems, what kind of response should we expect from a restaurateur? Furthermore, what are our rights as consumers?

I guess I have high expectations. But there’s nothing wrong with that, is there?

About Aun Koh

Aun has always loved food and travel, passions passed down to him from his parents. This foundation, plus a background in media, pushed him to start Chubby Hubby in 2005. He loves that this site allows him to write about the things he adores--food, style, travel, his wife and his bouncing baby boy!

What Others Are Saying

  1. Joyz December 16, 2007 at 6:30 pm

    I have had my fair share of bad hygiene experiences at restaurants. My most recent case was when I was at Turf City’s Ah Yat Seafood restaurant. There was not one, but two baby roaches scurrying around the table!! The 2nd one appeared after its “friend” was killed. Nevertheless, I was really freaked out and was just wondering what kind of hygiene standards do the restaurant practises. The waitresses were around helping us to get rid of those disgusting creatures but that was all it was to it. No further apologies or explanations thereafter.

    It is inevitable that places with food attracts these unwanted pests but I think it is how the establishment actually trains its staff to practice good cleanliness habits and put themselves in the customers’ “tummies” (whom the food will eventually end up in). Many of them just ignore this basic requirement especially when the crowd is in the house. I heard of horror stories of worms crawling out of vegetables (not washed properly) and staff who handle cash and food at the same time with their bare hands.

    I believe when a complaint is made, most of them just take it with a pinch of salt. Some might apologise with a free dessert thrown in. Most just apologise and forget about it. Consumers should actually take photos of the “scene” and send to MOH for them to conduct checks since worse things might happen in the kitchen. This is basically for the safety of all consumers (especially after the Prima Deli incident). Also, cases like these should be broacasted and publicised. Its definitely not to cause trouble but rather to alert the public and make restuarants sit up and clean up their acts. Maybe only then, they will feel the need to ensure that the most basic requirement – practising good hygiene standards are fufilled.

    PS: CH, we count on you to highlight more of these cases if you ever encounter them again!

  2. Daddychef December 16, 2007 at 11:43 pm

    I have been fortunate enough to have worked in the orient for many years. As a chef I found you and your friends expereince to be horrifying. But as a chef it tells me that the staff is so used to seeing this un-sanitary condition that they stopped being upset by it. Sorry for your experience.

  3. Cakespy December 17, 2007 at 12:55 am

    I don’t think you’re wrong to have high standards! It sounds like you’re tolerant in general, so good for you for being so honest here!

  4. christophe December 17, 2007 at 1:02 am

    Our experience are eerily similar. The difference being the hideous sighting was at mezza9, and the perpetuator was on the table!!!

    We managed to extract a modicum of apology (from the absence of any) only after we complained to the manager. Suffice it is to say, we haven’t been back.

    Did I mention IT was on the table!!!

  5. Angelina Lee December 17, 2007 at 10:08 am

    Here’s a useful tip – If you find something unsavoury in your food/drink (eg, hair, dirt etc), insist on leaving the offending item on your table until the waiter comes back with a fresh replacement. In this way, you can be sure that the staff did not merely remove the offending particle from the original dish and send back the same thing to you.

  6. alexandra December 17, 2007 at 10:56 am

    just the other day I was at a Thai restaurant in KL known as Lanna…where 1 baby cockroach ran up onto the table and in my direction…I killed and disposed of it but when I returned to the table there was another one….I asked to move to another table…and lo and behold there were 2 more on that table….I am NEVER eating there again…1 is acceptable since places like these inevitably attract pests…but 4? Thats just unsanitary!

  7. lotsofcravings December 17, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    i still remember when i went to an established chinese restaurant in KL and spotted a baby cockroach in my rice, i was given a stare by the waitress and totally no apologies..!

  8. Pete December 17, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    I really liked the Cherry Garden & have been patronising it for the last 18 years. The food’s great. But after your awful experience, I’m having serious reservations about ever going back! Thanks for the warning!

  9. Geert December 17, 2007 at 8:36 pm

    A couple of months ago I had dinner with friends in a very trendy and extremely expensive chinese restaurant in Hong Kong. (op top of some building with wonderful views of Hong Kong island) We were the only customers on this Sunday lunch… the only choice we had was dim sum. After ordering and waiting for 30min, a few small dishes appeared. And to my horror my dim sum had a LONG hair sticking out of it. (at least 20cm!!!!) I called the waiter over and he simply said they would replace that particular piece. Mind you not the whole dish! I was completely pis*&^ off and asked to see the manager. They just told me they had no idea where he was and anyway he wouldn’t do anything. After speaking and yelling at several people we were able to locate the manager at the bar a floor up. He was completely a waste of time and I just asked hum in the end for the name of the owners. He wasn’t realy ready to provide the details but when we told him we would contact health services everything was possible all the sudden. Back in Singapore the day after I did send the owner an email and within the hour I got an apology email from them. With even a free dinner thrown in! No way… not a single hair on head thinks about going back to that place! I don’t care how many stars or recommendations that place gets!

  10. Amy K December 17, 2007 at 11:03 pm

    I like to check postings about cleanliness of NYC restaurants before I go…it can be awful here.

  11. Howard December 17, 2007 at 11:36 pm

    You have the privilege, not the right, of being able to have high (very high) expectations. I do enjoy your blog because it allows me, and the majority of readers, to have a glimpse into your fortunate world of globe trekking and gastronomic tourism. Curt service and the occasional uninvited guest to your table are, I believe, very minor inconveniences that should not be given a second thought.

  12. Tim December 18, 2007 at 1:22 am

    recently dined with a chef friend from oz at the mandarin meritius. 2 out of 3 wine glasses he got had lipstick stains or fingerprints on them. no doubt it was a just a lowly buffet function, but i felt so embarrassed cos the look of his face showed his amazement that a 5 star hotel in SGP doesnt wash their stemware. the part time wait staff didnt think that it was wrong at all, they changed the glass, but served the dirty glass to another guest. I heard NEA has been more vigilent since Prima, maybe the restaurant is due for an appt w NEA, it is a basic right to demand for hygienic premises at an F&B outlet.
    I have utmost respect for the chefs at cherry garden and their kitchen is pretty clean, do feedback to Jhingon.

  13. ninart December 18, 2007 at 10:27 am

    I had a similar experience times many-fold quite a few years back in one of the trendier cafes in Serangoon Gardens. I spotted a cockroach on the floor, and then another, and then another….there were a few of those critters running around in a pack. I called the waitress over and she apologised, explaining that the reason was because their neighbouring outlet was just undergoing fumigation at the moment, so all pests are “fleeing” in their direction. Imagine my shock and horror when her fellow waiter grabbed a broom and began to sweep the great scuttling swarm of cockroaches halfway across the restaurant towards the main entrance, with the diners watching in horrified silence, and most of the ladies (me included) having their feet up on the chairs. Scary experience, and again no manager apology or reassurance or whatever. Having worked in the f&b industry before, I must say this really took the cake.

  14. sylvy December 18, 2007 at 11:20 am

    Hi CH,

    first time I’m commenting! I believe we should have high expectations and zero tolerance when it comes to hygiene and cleanliness standards. But there aren’t too many consumers who are willing to take the trouble to be vocal about their unpleasant experiences and observations, and there you have it – the vicious cycle continues. Of course, consumers need to have realistic expectations – for example, one cannot expect to dine in a sterile, insect-free setting when eating at a hawker stall or coffeeshop that is located next to a traffic polluted road, but the least the F&B establishment can do is to make sure its eating utensils are clean. I guess its time for the health & environmental inspectors to step up their game and revise hygiene ratings if necessary!

  15. Peech December 18, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    I can’t believe the people at MO! The nerve! Or maybe it’s Singapore?

    As for Geert’s experience, no doubt he is referring to Hutong and Aqua – you pay for the view and not the food/service there. I have not yet decided to patronize them since I can get the same food for cheaper elsewhere.

    In terms of my own (sort of) cucaracha experience, years ago I was having Japanese ramen at a noodle shop in HK’s Exchange Square when the guy at the next table discovered a big one in the bowl he was eating out of…I stopped eating, left immediately and never returned. Amazingly the shop is still there today…

  16. Corrina December 18, 2007 at 9:34 pm

    CH, you don’t have high expectations – a clean environment free of bugs and pests is a MINIMUM. I don’t have bugs in my home and I certainly wouldn’t go out and pay to eat in a place that is not clean enough to deter bugs.
    Even the occassional fly I find unacceptable. What does it say about the food hygiene?

    I’ve actually stopped eating in the local/mass/cheap eats in Hong Kong as everytime I did, I found hair in my food or a cockroach on the wall (even found one in my red bean soup dessert!). EVERYTIME. The irony, however, is in finer dining restaurants, the lighting is dimmer so you can’t see much!

    My husband’s solution is not to “look”. So what? Eat with your eyes closed? =) Seriously though, I’ve become a lot more choiceful at where I choose to dine.

  17. Rasa Malaysia December 20, 2007 at 8:11 am

    They should do it like LA, have the label up if their cleanliness is A B or C. ;)

    I hardly see any Chinese restaurants with A though. :P

  18. juji December 20, 2007 at 10:57 am

    as someone who works in customer service, my personal rule of thumb is to treat customers as you wish to be treated (in their position).

    it seems so obvious, but incidents like these highlight the managements lack of consideration for their customers – paying customers.

    bad form, i say.

    i am by and large, a reasonable person, and would never “demand” freebies from an establishment, however when vermin and personal hygiene affect my food, i would certainly hope the restaurant in question would notice!

  19. eve December 20, 2007 at 9:26 pm

    I was at Cherry Garden that very weekend (gulp)! I am incredulous that the restaurant as a profit-making establishment failed to do the necessary. Most paying customers will vote with their feet after such an experience.

    It’s disappointing that paying customers like us have to “resort” to channels like the Forum Page to hope to elicit a proper apology and explanation.

  20. TONYROMAgross December 21, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    had a meal at tony romas with my friend 1 yr back. ordered a salad and saw aphid like insects crawling on the plate and on our glasses. manager did not apologize and just took our plate away. grossed out… and unhappy with the service. will not go back there again!!!

  21. elarael December 22, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    Cleanliness is not a priviledge, Howard, it IS a RIGHT. It requires nothing that the least-abled among us cannot provide: attention, service, diligence, care, self-respect. One requires no priviledges to share, and initiate, these standards. It’s a shame that anyone would believe otherwise.

  22. Emy December 26, 2007 at 11:38 am

    Honestly, I see furry critters at some estabs but I always wondered if NEA would do anything about it since those critters tend to appear after dark.

    The one time my dad found a rusty nail in his packet of glutinous rice (from a famous pao shop), they reluctantly came over to our place to see the *evidence* (they were making it sound like we planted it…until we threatened to call NEA) , gave some lame excuse and totally forgot abt it.

    Honestly, I am cutting back my amount of eating out these days.

  23. Howard December 31, 2007 at 11:10 pm

    elarael Says:
    Cleanliness is not a priviledge, Howard, it IS a RIGHT.

    Please….give me a break. This is a case of overreaction (by commentators in general). Imagine…an insect on a restaurant wall in tropical Singapore. I didn’t say that we shouldn’t expect proper hygiene in restaurants, but call off the mob and put away the lynches. It is a shame that you don’t seem to realize what reality the rest of the world lives with.

  24. W at Morsels of Memory January 2, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    Ironically, seeing this critter in a 5-star food blog is almost as unexpected as sighting it in a 5-star restaurant. Captured so vividly with your digital Nikon, this fearsome creature appeared alive on my 20-inch screen, causing me to recoil in sheer horror…

    For your sake and that of your faithful readers, I hope you never have another encounter of such an unpleasant sort. Your point is well made and unfortunately, this problem is likely more wide-spread than people dare to acknowledge…

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