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The London Eye

Chris Neill confesses to loathing, and yet being guilty of, off-menu ordering

Published on December 13th 2011.

The London Eye

ORDERING off-menu is not something I generally approve of. If you go out for something to eat try to ensure the place offers food that that appeals to you rather than thinking of the menu as a template on which you can impose your own idiosyncrasies.  In a Glasgow restaurant several years back the man at the table next to me chose a dish of braised beef with pickled walnuts – but just before the waitress left with the group's order he enquired whether he could change his mind.

“Could I have a fork please?” I try not to feel ashamed – I Am Customer. If not always right, then certainly not contravening the unspoken terms of contract between establishment and customer.

"Of course," came the reply.

“Could I forgo the walnuts?” Whether, like me, she was impressed by his use of the much under-employed word 'forgo' I can't say, but the waitress explained that they were pretty much an integral part of the dish and not exactly a side-order. 

“Surely someone could just pick them out?”

“I'm afraid not, sir.”

“But I don't like walnuts,” he went on. 

“I'm sorry, sir.”

Her pity may have been for his intolerance of walnuts, his unfortunate tendency to order food he doesn't like to eat, for herself at having to deal with him, or for wider concerns such as topsoil erosion or how the digital switch over might affect some of her neighbours. Who can possibly say? 

After a round or two more of these exchanges, however, where his tactic was to ask the same question in a dreary variety of ways and her response was variations on an increasingly terse theme but with an ever-hardening smile, he finally harrumphed his defeat and then changed his order to the halibut - something he probably hoped had never been within twenty miles of seawater and didn't begin with the letter h. 

Oh but here's the rub. Having said all this, I am as guilty of a kind of off-menu ordering myself as the walnut and beef man but without even having the wit to incorporate the charming word 'forgo' in my requests. Eating in a Chinese restaurant, whether it be dim sum, searing Szechuan or old-fashioned Cantonese there is always something I ask for which is never on the menu. “Could I have a fork please?” Even as I type the words I feel my cheeks begin to pink up with embarrassment.

ChopsticksEven two-year-olds can do it

Like Ebenezer Scrooge forced to confront his own pitiful nature, I hear my voice coming back at me, weak and apologetic, as I look beseechingly at whosoever is serving me. “Could I have a fork please?” I try not to feel ashamed – I Am Customer. If not always right, then certainly not contravening the unspoken terms of contract between establishment and customer. Nowhere, I am sure, does it say you may be deprived the necessary implements with which to eat your food.

Knowing this, however, makes no difference. I am ashamed of this ridiculous fork-asking of mine. There then follows the same ceremony everywhere. The jasmine tea arrives, other drinks are doled out, food then begins appearing. But no fork. I ask again.  More food arrives. Then finally my fork. (Once in a rather down-at-heel place in Chinatown it was brought over on a velvet cushion; my ineptitude made most comfortable.) 

Everybody else I know can use chopsticks. Where they learnt this skill I really can't fathom. When I was tiny I had a Magic Roundabout place mat, knife, fork and spoon.  Maybe these people had the deluxe set which catered for around-the-world dining.

I passed grade eight piano (just), even flaky pastry has proved not beyond me, but however hard I've tried, and however many times I'm shown, I simply cannot use chopsticks. My only hope is to find somewhere that has them listed as ‘dish’ in their own right. And as that isn't likely, maybe asking ‘to forgo the chopsticks’ rather than requesting a fork is a nicer way of putting it.


Chris Neill is a comedian, broadcaster and a native Londoner. You can make him feel more popular than he actually is by following him at @chrisneill on Twitter.

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