Flotsam, jetsam, lagan, and derelict

The E Files #3

Yes indeed, time for another round of facepalming fun. You know, I used to write and perform stand-up comedy. I couldn’t have written some of this stuff and have anyone buy it.


“We are interested in dinner at your restaurant one of the nights while we’re here. According to your website you’re not open on Sundays, Mondays or Tuesdays. Please put us on your waitlist for one of those three nights next week.”

“I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking. We’re only open Wednesday through Saturday, so we don’t have a waitlist for Sunday, Monday or Tuesday, as we’re closed.”

“Yes, we know, it said you weren’t open those nights on your website, but are you refusing to put us on your waitlist?”

“Umm… okay, you know what, I’d be happy to put you on the waitlist for one of those nights.”

“Just let us know which night to come.”

“Again, we’re closed those nights. I’m happy to put you on a waitlist, but we’re not going to be open.”


“Our niece and her husband ate with you last year and raved about the experience. We’d like to attend, but given what we think about their tastes, it remains to be seen whether we’ll enjoy anything you have to offer.”

Seriously, do I even want these people here? Is this just a generally grumpy or misanthropic person, or was that a sort of throwing down of the kitchen mitt in challenge? … We took a chance and accepted, they came, they enjoyed.

“We have no food allergies or dietary restrictions. My girlfriend isn’t overly fond of mussels, but it’s no big deal as long as they’re not a whole course.”

[We have a seafood sauce on a pasta that evening that includes calamari, shrimp, prawns, cockles, clams, and yes, mussels. She eats all of it but the three or four mussels, which she pushes to the side.]

“It would have been nice if you’d have bothered to read our email in the first place. We made it clear that my girlfriend is deathly allergic to mussels, and yet you served her a plate of them. You could have sent her to the hospital and should have offered an alternative.”

“My apologies for the misunderstanding, I was under the impression that she just didn’t like them very much and since they were just a small part of a mixed shellfish sauce, and you’d said it wasn’t a big deal, I didn’t think it would be a problem. She did eat the entire dish but the few mussels on the plate, no? This is why we ask about allergies, but not dislikes, as we couldn’t possibly plan menus that fit everyone’s preferences each evening.”

“What’s the difference? Allergy or dislike, we made it clear that she couldn’t eat them, no matter what.”

Umm, no you didn’t. These are the kind of people who cause problems for people who have actual allergies, when restaurant teams get tired of bowing to every whim of a customer. All it leads to is either restaurants that end up saying basically ‘no substitutions, no special requests’, something that’s becoming more and more common, or, and far more dangerous, chefs who simply decide to ignore requests that think are bogus.

This whole thing about people wanting to come when we’re not open mystifies me. Not that it happens that they want to come on a day or week when we’re not open, but the level of insistence on some people’s part (as above in the first email exchange). With a schedule where we’re not open all the time (what restaurant that isn’t something like a diner is?), and that it may not coincide with theirs, but…

“We’d like a reservation for two for tomorrow.”

“Unfortunately for your timing, as noted on our schedule, we’re on vacation this week and next. Perhaps some time in the future on another visit?”

“We probably won’t be back, we want to come tomorrow. Make it happen.”

“Sorry, but we’re away, I’d be happy to recommend some alternatives.”

“If you had a fucking clue about hospitality, you’d make this work instead of giving me shit. We’re not interested anymore.”

…didn’t bother to respond. I’m sure a nasty TripAdvisor or Yelp review is in the offing.

Have to give points for honesty to this one – a newspaper travel writer contacts me for an interview about Casa S…. this is a paraphrased and much shortened conversation:

“Let’s do the interview on Monday, around noon if that works.”

“Sure, that’s great.”

“And you’ll be preparing a five course meal for myself and two friends who I’ve invited to join me, free of course.”

“No. Sorry, first, we’re not open for lunch, and second, that’s not part of the deal for an interview. You can make a reservation for dinner one night when we’re open if you want to try our food and experience a dinner here.”

“Fine, for the following night. Again, free for all three of us.”

“No, sorry, first off we don’t offer free meals for reviews, and second, we certainly wouldn’t also offer them to friends you happen to invite. Don’t you have a budget from your newspaper to pay for meals?”

“Of course I do, and I’ll need a receipt for the full amount for three of us, but I’m keeping the money – if you want a review, you give me the meals for free.”

“Sorry, but we that’s not an option. Do you still want to do the interview? If not, I fully understand.”

“Yes, I’ll still come for the interview.

Didn’t show up, never responded to followup email.

Nothing like folk who are confident in their own worth!

“We’d like to reserve for two for Saturday evening. We’re both highly intelligent, perceptive, and witty people who will bring a level of conversation to the table that it’s unlikely your other guests are capable of. The format of your dinners, the whole concept, and the ambiance will be a quaint choice for us over the sorts of high-quality restaurants that we normally frequent. However, we do prefer that sort of food, so we’d like your permission to bring in food from a top restaurant for ourselves rather than pay you for your efforts. We’ll of course pay you a corkage charge for the wine we’ll bring and tip the waiter. We await your reply with much anticipation.”

“No, sorry, we don’t have spaces available for you.”

“Your website says you still have spaces available that night.”

“Yes, we do, I’ll leave it to your highly intelligent and perceptive abilities to re-read my first response.”

“The three of us are highly allergic to mayo and there can’t be any in any of our food.”

“Which part of the mayo is it that you’re allergic to, in case we have to avoid one of the ingredients – the egg yolk, the mustard, the lemon juice, or the oil?”

“We’re not allergic to any of those things, just to mayo. Why would you bring those things up?”

“Because that’s what mayo is made out of… other than salt and pepper, there’s nothing else in it.”

“No, mayo is something else than what you’re thinking of, maybe you don’t have a word for it in Spanish.”

“It’s not, and we do, but I’m guessing that one or more of you simply doesn’t like the texture of mayo and you’re not actually allergic to it?”

“Well yeah, it’s disgusting, but that’s like an allergy.”

No, no it’s not at all like an allergy…. “Okay, got it.”


The Random Algorithms of Life

crystal ballThese days everyone has an algorithm. It’s all about predicting our behavior, our impulses, our purchases, our viewing habits, surfing (web) habits, and anything else that some potential advertiser, obscure government agency, or fad non-profit organization might pay for in order to target us with some pitch, product or panacea that 99% of the time we’re going to say no to. They’re gaming for the 1%-ers. The problem is, none of these algorithms seem to work.

Not that they don’t do something predictive. They do. A recent conversation over the dinner table involved one-upping stories of the sudden onslaught of targeted advertising after clearly precipitating events, that simply weren’t substantive. One person related having responded to an email with a hearty congratulations to a friend who had just bought a condo on a beach in Spain. Within 24 hours he was receiving both email and sidebar ads as he surfed, offering up connections to real estate agents on the Spanish coast. Another had clicked “Like” on a picture of a friend’s dog doing some sort of trick and found Facebook suggesting pages of pet training services on a daily basis. And more.

Like everyone else, I’m subjected to algorithms from the moment I wake up in the morning….

I make my coffee and then sit down to peruse my email. According to Google, the gmail application learns over time to predict what sorts of mail should be shown as priority, what shouldn’t, what should go to spam, and what not. I can count on that at best, maybe half of my mail will be sorted correctly. I have a filter for mail coming from the Casa SaltShaker website reservation system to automatically put those into priority mail. Maybe 2/3 of them will be, despite a very clearly worded filter. I’m on several mailing lists for which I get a daily email. Roughly half the time, those emails are marked as spam – despite the fact that they arrived from the same address and with the same subject line, daily, and every time, for years now, they go to spam, I mark them as “Not Spam”.

On the flipside, I get junk mail that I regularly mark as spam which continue to arrive from the same addresses and with the same subject lines, daily. Well over half the time they end up in either my regular or even priority email boxes. I have whitelists and blacklists, neither of which seem to have any effect on where mail ends up. One algorithm down.

My favorite has to be the Netflix “Top Picks for Dan” queue. Yours probably says “Top Picks for Joe” or “Top Picks for Shannon”, or maybe even “Top Picks for Elspeth”, a charming personalization touch meant to make sure we feel loved and cared for. By Netflix. Mine currently has 40 “top picks”, I guess that hearkens back to the days of “Top 40 Hits” or something. Now, if you use Netflix, you know it has a rating system, of 1 to 5 stars. After you watch something, you’re invited to rate it, and that goes into an algorithm, along with the genre and style of film or show, to help create a predictive algorithm. Now, I’ve rated a lot of films over my time on Netflix, so it ought to be narrowed down pretty well, right?

When they show you their recommendations for top picks, they also show you what the algorithm predicts you’ll rate the film or show. So one might, reasonably, predict that almost all of the top picks would have either five or four stars, no? No. Of those forty, currently, seven of them have five star predictions, fifteen are guestimated to receive a four star review from me, three for three, a whopping nine for two, and even five for one star. Oh, and one television series which I’ve already watched and rated. Four stars. So, why recommend anything that they predict I’ll only give one or two stars? Given the vast catalog, why even three stars?

They are good at picking out some four and five star recommendations that I might not otherwise have picked. It recently led me to binge watching through two different TV series. Nowhere Boys, which I only clicked on because it looked like mindless entertainment with cute boys, I figured I’d watch an episode or two of one evening when I just didn’t want to think. It turned out to be an Australian series, in the all-popular genre of teen witches, but with some dark twists, and it’s well written and well acted, and, well, the boys are cute.

It also led me, inexplicably, to a one-season Korean medical telenovela (soap opera), titled Good Doctor, that likewise looked like there were some cuties in it (maybe that was the predictive element?), which turned out to be the travails of a young surgical resident who has more or less overcome being autistic, enough to just barely function in day to day life, but he’s a savant in the world of medicine. It was, at times, sweet, at others painful, and not only was it well written (the English subtitles probably missed a lot of nuances, but even so), but it didn’t stint on the medical stuff – getting right in, close-up to the blood and guts in the operating theater (I was, at one time in my life, a paramedic, considered going to medical school to become an ER doctor, and am still fascinated by that whole world). But, those were also predicted to, respectively, receive four and five stars from me. Not one or two.

Until recently I was using a Samsung Galaxy S4 phone. When I would start to type a message, it would automatically detect whether I was starting off in English or Spanish, and switch dictionaries for predictive entry accordingly. I recently “upgraded” to a Galaxy S6. It doesn’t do that. Apparently (despite the fact that the S4 did it really well, it rarely made a mistake in which language I was working in after the first couple of words), too many people complained that it either a) didn’t pick up the correct language within one or two keystrokes (seriously?) or b) switched to the incorrect language.

So Samsung scrapped it because it wasn’t a good enough predictor, and now has a button to select your language (but every time you start typing a new message, it switches to your main language, which means if you’re having a back and forth conversation, you have to re-select, in my case, Spanish, if you want to use predictive entry, over and over again. It also, annoyingly, sometimes tries to switch me to Chinese (apparently the “international version” phone I bought was pre-programmed with Chinese language bloatware that while I can disable, I can’t remove, and now and again, some of it resurfaces). Thankfully, there are apps you can download to overwrite the Samsung keyboard and give it back automatic switching (thank you SwiftKey).

Foursquare is another one. There’s a bit of rating involved – Liked, Neutral, Didn’t Like – that goes into it. But more, they have a service of recommending restaurant alternatives – “If you like that place, you’ll like this place.” It’s a mystifying selection process. If I look at the listing for my restaurant, a reasonably upscale, albeit casual, experience, with a five course tasting menu, paired wines, at a communal table, FS recommends on the basis of having liked us (we have an 8.6 rating out of 10), one will like: a Mediterranean café and bistro on the opposite side of the city (rated 7.4 out of 10); a Mediterranean restaurant in Palermo (7.0 out of 10); and a bar in Palermo (5.3 out of 10). They’re not in the same neighborhood, they’re not, well, in the same class, nor even the same style of food, or even cuisine. Go figure.

LinkedIn – I’m not sure if this is the same as a predictive analysis, but I get a weekly email from them with “job openings you might be interested in”. The only predictive part of that seems to be that they’re located somewhere in South America, not even always in Argentina. Not once, over more than a decade, has any of the jobs related to either gastronomy or journalism. Generally they’re things like “Chief Operating Officer of a Petroleum company”, or “Executive Director of an Animal Rights Foundation”, or “Receptionist and Whipping Boy in the Fashion industry”.

Coursera seems to think the courses that I would like best are things involving teaching English as a foreign language. I’ve never taken a course from them remotely tied to that theme, they’ve all been either food or history related. Pocket keeps recommending articles for me, on a wide variety of topics. I don’t use Pocket.

I could probably keep going, finding other examples from daily life, but enough. We all know it’s happening around us, we can’t really do anything about it except make annoying blog posts. So be it.


The E Files #2

Time for another round of this month’s favorite emails.


This one seems innocuous at first….

I don’t eat seafood, can you make a substitution for me?

“Not a problem, there’s one seafood course, it’s a ceviche, I can do a vegetarian version for you, I’m doing that for another guest as well.”

Great! See you soon.

…at the dinner…

“How come you’re not serving me the same ceviche as everyone else?

“You said you didn’t eat seafood, we agreed on a vegetarian option.” (the ceviche is fish and shrimp)

I didn’t mean things like fish and shrimp, I meant seafood. Everyone knows what seafood is.

Everyone is studiously observing their plates, including her husband. I’m still wondering what seafood means to her. Luckily, an easy fix, just a new plate of, apparently, non-seafood fish and shrimp ceviche.


In the same vein, but sort of the reverse….

We eat everything, no allergies, no worries.

…at the dinner… thankfully off to the side before the dinner started…

The menu doesn’t look vegetarian. We’re vegetarians.

“It’s not vegetarian, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were vegetarians, you told me you eat everything.”

Obviously we’re vegetarians, otherwise why would we have reserved at your table instead of a regular restaurant. We eat all kinds of vegetables.

“Umm, but we’re not a vegetarian restaurant, and we did post the menu in advance. But let me see what I can come up with in the kitchen.”

You advertise as a vegetarian restaurant, and you always were one. Isn’t that what puertas cerradas restaurants are all about?

“No, not really, and no, we’re not, and never have been. But give me a few minutes and I’ll put something together.”

…read the f*ing website people…


From someone who has referred numerous people to Casa S over the years…

“I just referred a couple of people I know from work to you and I understand they’ve already booked their spots. I just wanted to give you a heads up – they’re probably the two most boring human beings on the planet that I’ve ever had to sit with. Nice people, but add absolutely nothing to a social conversation.”

“Umm, you’re kidding me, right? They’re going to turn out to be the life of the dinner party…?”

“No really, they’re excruciating to be around, but they wanted something different to do, so I thought of you.”

“Did I do something to offend you?”

“No, why?”

…sigh… “I was just wondering why you’d send me people that you can’t stand to be around, to my home, for dinner?”

“Oh, but you just say hello to them and then you’ll hardly talk to them, you’ll be cooking, and they don’t speak Spanish, so it won’t bother Henry.”

“But what about the other guests at the table?”

“They won’t even notice that the other people are bored to tears, and they’ll have a good time, so it’ll be good for my business, since they’re clients.”

…there are no words…

[Followup: The people came, they were charming, great conversationalists, they had a great time, so did everyone else. And it turns out one of them has never even met the person who sent me the original email and had no idea who he was. Not that I told them what he said, of course.]


Group of 8 requesting a reservation for a private dinner. They’re students from an MBA exchange program, one of the most expensive ones in the U.S., and one which we’ve had numerous students attend from over the years while they’re here in town, so these aren’t kids with no money. All is well with the request, and response… then:

As you know, you have a very good reputation with students at XXXX, and I’m sure you’d like to keep it. We’re just students and your prices are very expensive for us, and I’m sure we could eat for less somewhere else. We could maintain that good reputation you have at our school in exchange for a 50% discount on the price.

“Thanks for your interest in joining us. We feel our price is fair, and reflects the quality of what we do, and past students from your program haven’t had any problem meeting it. We have a list of recommended restaurants on our website, I’m sure you can find somewhere else to dine for that evening, but at this point we’ll be cancelling your reservation.” [That’s the politest version of “Go fuck yourself” that I’m able to muster.]


The E Files #1

donotsendOh the vagaries of email, the trials and tribulations of dealing with folk in other parts of the world who just aren’t quite on the same page as we are. The names have been removed to protect the guilty. None of this is a complaint, it’s just… amusing. I’ve been sharing lots of these over time with a couple of friends online, and it’s been proposed that some of these are worthy of writing a book around. I’ll stick with blog posts. For the moment.


I can only eat things that are prepared in a home or restaurant kitchen. If it’s prepared in an industrial kitchen of any sort, I’m allergic to it – and I can tell.

Umm no, no you aren’t, and no you can’t. Seriously. You wouldn’t have a clue. “Not to worry, it’s all home cooking here.” (And, it actually is in terms of things like sauces, and condiments and such, but if you think I’m going to brine my own olives….)


I see that tonight’s dessert has lemon. I don’t eat any kind of fruit, don’t want to see it, don’t want to smell it, don’t want it near me. Change the dessert.

“No. I asked you a month ago about dietary restrictions, you said you had none, and honestly, I don’t cater to likes and dislikes, just allergies, especially at last minute. I can offer you a cheese plate if you like.”

You’re my fucking private chef for the evening, you’ll do as I say.

“No I’m not, and no I won’t. I’m sending you a refund, please don’t bother to show up, at this point I’d prefer not to have you in my home.” [She actually did show up, paid in cash at the door, and rather than making a scene, I let her stay. She turned out to be charming, a great conversationalist. She ate the lemon tart. She sent me a very nice thank you note. Also, what is it about fruit, she’s maybe the fourth or fifth person in the last month who’s told me they don’t eat any kind of fruit. Is there a new fad diet?]


We have to cancel for dinner. Return our deposit immediately.

“I’m sorry to hear you won’t be joining us, however, we were quite clear upfront, your deposit is non-refundable this close to the dinner.”

Yes, I understand that, but what does that have to do with you not giving me back my money?

As the meme goes, “Sometimes I use big words I don’t fully understand in order to sound more photosynthesis.”


I’ve been trying to reach you for some time to make a reservation. I’ve sent emails to various email addresses requesting one. I’m new to email and still figuring it out. Just today, I found what you list as your official email address for the restaurant, which was very difficult to find. So I’m following up here. I’d like to request a reservation for 4 people on _____. I do feel I have to say something about the other emails. I spent a lot of time sending them out to various addresses and I do think it’s a bit rude of you to not respond to any of them, even to tell me what your correct email address is. I hope we can proceed on better terms.

Ummm… “What addresses did you send to? This is our only one, though I do have personal email. However I’ve not gotten any emails from you. I’m sorry you found it hard to find our email address, it’s posted on our website in several places, but I’ll take a look and see if we can make it more obvious.”

[Responds with a list of four emails addresses, none of which have anything to do with me, or Casa SaltShaker.]

“I’m afraid none of those are ours, so we simply never received the emails. I’m sorry that none of the people at those addresses responded to you to tell you you had the wrong address.”

I don’t understand why YOU couldn’t have done that so that I wouldn’t have wasted my time.


Welcome to my life.


Kowloon Walled City

Found this photo and caption on a random website. Stopping to think about it, it’s just astonishing.

Before it was demolished in 1993, this area of Hong Kong was the densest urban slum in the world. Nearly 50,000 people lived on 6.5 acres. More than 7,000 people per acre.The buildings grew so tall that sunlight couldn’t reach the bottom levels and most residents never saw daylight. It was a place where brothels, casinos, opium dens, cocaine parlors, food courts serving dog meat and secret factories ran unmolested by authorities.


Whinging About Lateness

Amongst the many whinges of local expats (is that an oxymoron?) that has come to the fore recently is the subject of simply showing up. While not unique to Argentina, or perhaps specific to Porteños, showing up, at least on time, is not habitual. It is not uncommon to find yourself waiting at a restaurant table, or even holding dinner at home, hoping nothing cooks to a crisp or dries to shoe leather, while awaiting the arrival of one local or another. To show up at all is practically a benediction on your existence, to show up within an hour of planned time, a blessing, within two, an extension of courtesy. To not show up at all, merely standard practice. After all, perhaps something more interesting popped up at last moment – and to advise you of that would, of course, be insulting, so better to simply not make the effort, nor answer your phone, and then avoid contact for a week or two hoping that all will be forgotten, or at least forgiven.

As I noted, this is not unique to Argentina. In Rome, while showing up is considered appropriate, arriving at least an hour, perhaps two, late, is de rigeur. It’s also common practice to show up with extra people in tow – after all, if you run into friends on the street, how could you not invite them to join you at your dining destination – be it restaurant or private home. I’m convinced that this is the impetus behind Roman food all being served “family style” – i.e., platters and large bowls of food – the host simply never knows how many people will actually be joining them for a meal, and better to have large quantities and self-serve.

New Yorkers, likewise, have their foibles. Twenty plus years in the restaurant business in that town, and it still amazes me that it is considered, by many, a perfectly acceptable practice to make reservations at multiple restaurants for a given evening, make the decision as to which to dine in at the ultimate moment, and not bother to advise the others of a change in your intentions. Most restaurants deal with large numbers of “no-shows”, and just accept it as part of doing business – the benefit for those “in the know” is that it’s often easier to score a table at a hard to book restaurant by simply showing up rather than trying to reserve in advance. While less common, I’ve encountered the same in private social plans, with people who accept invitations to more than one engagement, on the same day, and decide which one is most interesting when the moment arrives. It’s rare that they bother to notify the hosts of the other parties or dinners – or, if they do, it is with vague or patently phony excuses that everyone recognizes as a borderline polite way of saying “someone else is throwing a more exciting shindig than you.”

The whinging going on within the expat population here makes it clear that among the American folk, in particular, though many of the Brits are chiming in, that these cultural differences are not to be tolerated. After all, they’re down here, supporting the Argentine economy, with all those trust fund dollars, pounds, even euros, and why should they have to accept the cultural viewpoint of this country. I mean, after all, where would Argentina be, how would the locals survive, if it were not for the profligate spending in clubs and restaurants of these self-absorbed, spoiled, wankers? To use a British turn of phrase…

Mañana, if not later. There’s a rhythm to life here that’s not based on something that for me is pretty much an ingrained priority – pride in achievement and accomplishment, whether it’s in work or play. With that as a base, in the norteamericano culture, we find ourselves driven to constantly do things, try harder, give it one more shot… No question it leads to the common admonision to “stop and smell the roses”, and after a good amount of time here, there’s no question I’ve re-evaluated the level of importance of some of that stuff. Especially when put up against family and friends. Not that I didn’t have time for family and friends back in the States, but I have to face it, they were something scheduled into my days. Of course, working fulltime restaurant hours demands a huge amount of time, and I don’t have that to deal with here. But, the reverse can also be true, and the mañana idea can be carried to far extremes, and it seems to lead to a lackidaisical attitude that’s the equivalent of a shrug.

Why study when you know the teacher may or may not show up to teach class? When the same teacher doesn’t care if your homework is done now or turned in a month or two after the course is finished. After all, you’re going to pass – they can’t fail you, it would lower your self esteem, and that’s simply not permitted. Now, from my perspective, not having to accomplish anything is a surefire way of lowering self esteem… far more than getting a failing grade. But that’s the culture I was brought up in, where the idea of responsibility for actions actually exists.


Mr. R

fredrogers“They felt so entitled,” he recalls, “and it just hit me. We can blame Mr. Rogers.”

doctorevilApparently, Fred Rogers was evil incarnate. According to the theory, no… make that the spoutings off of a finance professor named Don Chance, at Louisiana State University, it suddenly occured to him one day that the self centered-ness of the current college generation was symptomatic of the attitude instilled in them by growing up with Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the amazingly long lived – 33 years of sheer boredom – show that told kids they were special just the way they were. Thankfully, I guess, I grew up on Bob Keeshan of Captain Kangaroo, who for 29 years of silly stories, hijinks, and cartoons, just simply entertained us. One can’t quite count Romper Room, as I was initially tempted to do, only to find out that not only over its 41 years did it have three different hostesses, Miss Nancy, Miss Sally, and, good golly, Miss Molly, but that was only on the national version – local stations were free to franchise the show and refilm their own versions with their own hostesses as long as they stuck to a reasonably similar format, which several did – including New York and Chicago.
This, by the way, is not to say there’s not some food for thought in the idea that kids today do seem to be a little bit too me-centric – but perhaps it’s a phenomenon more serious than making flippant remarks on camera?