Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Pie Nazi

The menu at the Crystal Palace in Abuja comes with the following warning: “Beware the food at roadside stands. You may be putting your life in danger!” A bit extreme, perhaps, but experience has shown that menus in Nigeria should at least come with a warning label that the food you receive may not resemble the order you placed. In some cases, this may be a good thing. Sitting at a roadside eatery in Gusau, Kristel and I examined the extensive list of breakfast options and debated whether we should take a chance on the “cock out with custard” before deciding that it was a dish best left unexplored.

On another occasion, we did make the mistake of placing an order for breakfast. It seemed safe enough. The Suhljuiced Breakfast Bar in Abuja was bright and clean, its staff apparently wide awake and ready to please. So my order of waffles with butter and syrup appeared to be bland and uncomplicated, especially compared to Kristel’s banana and Nutella challenge. When she opened up her breakfast box and found only a thin Nutella coating on her waffle and her banana MIA, I gave a supportive shake of the head while secretly thanking the breakfast gods for smiling on me, since the odds of lightning striking twice and both of our orders being screwed up was surely on par with picking the right numbers in the 6/49.

Sure enough, my waffle arrived in perfect condition, with a pat of butter melting leisurely in the centre and syrup running in all directions to provide a flawless coating. As the staff dusted off a banana from a back cupboard that they had apparently been saving for a special occasion, I smugly dug into my waffle. The first bite met expectations, the second one decidedly less so. Kristel noticed my grimace and asked what was wrong. “I think there’s something wrong with this butter,” I said, “I think it’s a little off”. The strength of our relationship was then put to the test, as I speared another square of waffle and said, “Here, try this.”, which is the gastronomical equivalent of asking, “Does this look infected?” Gamely putting the suspect piece in her mouth, Kristel chewed for a moment with that faraway look in her eyes that one gets when trying to identify a taste that defies recognition. Brightening suddenly, she said triumphantly, “No, it’s not off," she said, “It’s mayonnaise!”

It’s a true sign of my experience in Nigeria that this really came as no surprise and even more indicative of my time here that my gag reflex wasn’t triggered. Instead, I calmly walked over to our waitress and mentioned the curiosity that my breakfast had become. She shrugged and said it might have had something to do with using the same knife that had previously rested in the mayonnaise container. When I suggested that the combination of mayonnaise and syrup was best left to haute cuisine and requested a replacement, I received the blank stare that is apparently the universally recommended response for service providers faced with a demanding customer, followed by the inevitable sigh and a muttered comment that clearly translated to “Like, whatever”. Waving off the butter this time, I chose to go with the syrup straight up, and Kristel watched with amusement as I waited and fumed, her own Nutella and banana creation long ago consumed.

But all of these misadventures pale in comparison to my encounter with the Pie Nazi. With Kristel’s birthday coming up soon, I decided to find her an apple pie, her dessert of choice. Apples don’t exist in abundance in Nigeria; in fact, I’d be hard pressed to recall seeing any apple trees in the country since I’ve been here. As it turned out, her birthday coincided with the start of our stay in Abuja to facilitate the in-country training for VSO rookies, so this would hopefully make my search somewhat easier. If any place was going to have apple pies, surely it would be the capital city of the country. I was given the name and number for an upscale bakery by one of our VSO comrades. She said she had received instructions from the owner of the bakery that orders for special items like apple pies must be received at least a week in advance. “Or he may have said ordering a week in advance is too early," she said, “ I couldn’t really understand him. Anyway, good luck and save me a pie!” This is what’s known as foreshadowing.

On the designated day for ordering, ominously enough being Friday the 13th, I called the number:

“Hello? Is this Cherry’s?”
“Is this Cherry’s?”
“Yeah, what do you want?”
“I want to order an apple pie, please”
“OK. OK. You come in and place order.”
“I can’t come in. I’m in Kafanchan, I’m two hours away from you”
“OK. OK. You send someone in to order pie.”
“I can’t do that. I’ll be there to buy the pie on June 20th, next Friday”
“OK. OK. How many pies you want?”
“Just one.”
“You want just one pie?”
“Yes, I want only one…..Phone disconnects.


“Hi, I just called about the apple pie.”
“So, I want to come in and buy one apple pie. Only one pie. Next Friday, June 20th”
“Yeah. OK. OK. Bye bye.”

Not exactly bursting with confidence at this point, I followed up the calls with a text message to confirm my order and hoped for the best. The following week, I arrived in Abuja on the Thursday and decided it might be a good idea to visit my friend to make sure everything was set for the next day. Arriving at the bakery, I found it to be very upscale, the type of store that would fit in among the chichi shops of Bloor Street. I approached the counter and said I was there to confirm my order for tomorrow. Receiving the familiar blank stare, I asked if the owner was available, and the cashier rushed to the side of the store and whispered something to a man with his back to me. With an annoyed shrug of his shoulder, he brushed the cashier back to her post and turned to deal with me:

“Hi, I called you last week. I ordered a pie for tomorrow.”
“Ummm, I just wanted to make sure the order was OK and will be ready tomorrow.”
“Yeah, sure. Tomorrow, you come and buy a pie, like this one.”

He pointed at the display case, where a lonely apple turnover sat forlornly on a plate.

“Right, but I want a whole apple pie, not just one piece.”
“That is apple pie.”
“Right, but I want many pieces of pie. Not just one.”
“That is apple pie.”
“But I want a big, BIG pie!” I helpfully gestured with my arms in a circle in front of me.
“That is only pie.”
“So, you’re telling me that is the only size of pie you have?”
“Can you make a big pie?”

Visions of the six people attending Kristel’s birthday dinner having to divvy up one apple turnover started to dance in my head.

“OK, so can I have six apple pies tomorrow?”
“Maybe, lemme check”

At this point, he stormed off to the back of the store, likely for his smoke break. Returning minutes later, he placed HIS order:

“Tomorrow, you come in the morning. You may get six pies. You may get five. I dunno.”

He shrugged his shoulders to indicate the end of the conversation.

In Canada, I would have told him how many pies he could shove in his pie-hole, but in Nigeria, he remained my best hope for apple pie, so I smiled and wished him a good day and said I would see him tomorrow.

The next day, I kept one eye on my watch as a full morning of preparation for the in-country training rolled by. I was sure that if I arrived one minute past noon, the Pie Nazi would refuse to sell me any pies. Likely, he would stand there and eat all six of them in front of me. So, by 11, I made the flimsiest of excuses to leave Kristel in the VSO office and dashed to Cherry’s to meet my deadline. Rushing in through the front door, I found him standing behind the counter in the same location as the day before. I resisted the urge to point to my watch and declare, “I’m here! I’m here!”. Turning around, he greeted me with a nod of his head. Or maybe it was just a twitch.

“Hello, I’m here to pick up my pies.”
“Yeah, today, you get four pies. That’s all.”

And that was all. Service with a snarl. Resigning myself to the fact that I would never see the two remaining pies, I boosted my order with the addition of two chocolate éclairs and left the store muttering a curse that his éclair would always be limp.

In the end, the effort was worth it. Kristel loved her apple pie and the rest of the dinner guests enjoyed their desserts as well. And I had a great story to tell as we finished off our meal. But I hope this will also serve as a cautionary tale for all of those seeking pastry in Abuja. Beware the Pie Nazi. His creations may be sweet, but he is definitely not a treat.


Anonymous said...

Are you gaining or losing weight? With all the food stories, I can never really be sure!


Anonymous said...

Ah, the joy of food in the international theatre! The range of experience is never limited by time, culture, values, price, ingredients, cleanliness, or desire. You get service with a snarl; you get chicken heads in the soup [Shanghai, 2005...I recall it with a shiver]. Take your pick; you're bound to be amazed, whatever your gag-reflex threshhold. And you don't have to be in a developing economy to experience the full enchelada, as they say.

Take yesterday, Sunday, July 6, in a tony upscale neighbourhood in Toronto, Canada's most cosmopolitan, multi-cultural, eclectic city. I just returned from a wedding feast in small town Ontario celebrating the marriage of one of my favorite nephews and his beautiful wife. I was with my close friend and neighbour Rita; we spent the weekend together at the wedding.

We had driven through small town Ontario enjoying the gems that still exist in the "hinterland" [like Paris, Ontario], and arrived by mid afternoon at Rita's friend's mother's house. The Mother is in her 90s; the friend is pushing 60; her brother is a bit older; we are all adults well-on in experience, age, sophistication, and so on. We pride ourselves on being urbane urbanites enjoying a trip in the country [like M. Antoinnette going to the Petite Trianon to watch cows being milked].

After a day of driving, an afternoon pool-side at Mommy's house, we arrived in the big smoke just around dinner time...that is, Rita, her friend Barb, and I, the humble driver and servant. We were all a bit peckish, and I suggested dinner somewhere -- which can be a bit difficult in downtown Toronto on a Sunday evening because we still sometimes suffer from the old provincial "blue laws" -- no businesses open on Sundays.

We were in Barb's neighbourhood at Yonge and St Clair, just on the eastern fringe of exclusive Forest Hill [where Rita and I live -- snoots-ville]. Barb recommended a Spanish tapas restaurant within walking distance of her place, and so after a well lubricated discussion over martinis, we headed out for food.

The resto was interesting but not glam; the menu was confusing and explained nothing for the uninitiated. I personally have little experience with Spanish wine and so had to be helped by the "maitre d'hotel" [I use quotation marks because this bozo in a plaid shirt was not quite maitre d' calibre to our taste, but then again it is summer in the city -- can I sound any snootier?].

Of course, the maitre d' recommended the most expensive wine on the list -- his favorite and the one he always drinks [I doubt if he could afford it -- do I sharpen those claws or simply retract them?]. We deferred to wisdom of experience but without a hint of reverential appreciation [I was hungry and that meant I was not in a good mood; besides I hate fawning wait staff at the best of times and esp when I know I'm being taken].

This is not an upscale restaurant, but the food looked interesting and the wine turned out to be spectacular [coming down from my perch of self importance, I must say "hats off to the maitre d'"]. It turns out the food was also spectacular -- mini dishes of sardines [usually too oily for my taste but the ladies insisted on having them] -- roasted and marinated [incredibly good and again I found myself "unperched" by the quality]; Spanish hams [jamons]; grilled asparagus; Spanish tortillas [differing from Mexican tortillas by being omlets instead of bar food]....and the desserts were to die for both in elegance and quality.

But what went wrong with this evening? The waiter was a pompous ass -- he outdid me in achieving a level of obnoxious callousness.... and this was not a cultural thing. One expects Euro waiters to be obnoxious [Italians are famous for being downright rude]; but this procine little twerp was a local, and hardly continental.

Each time he took our order he kept looking around the empty room [it was Sunday evening and it's cottage season so everyone is stuck on the highways trying to get home] to determine if someone really important had arrived and whom he preferred to serve. He repeatedly returned to confirm our order because he failed to listen to what we were saying in the first place. He was offhand in his tone as if to indicate we were simply unworthy of his attention.

The ladies were outraged and complained bitterly to me. This rant became the core topic of our dinner conversation -- much to my chagrin. I do not complain about being abused by publicans; I simply do not return for a second round.

The ladies, being good North Americans, wanted to give him a piece of their minds. Since I had little mind to give late on a Sunday evening after driving all day in the summer heat, I did one better: I treated him with cold disdain. With each order, I didn't bother even to look at him and simply barked commands over my shoulder as if he were unworthy of my acknowledgement. But this was not enough for the ladies -- too subtle; too indirect. They wanted to skewer him.

At one point he became so arrogant that he did the unthinkable: in our conversation that revolved around his rudeness [which to my mind detracted from our enjoying the good food and fine wine], I noted that he was pulling a gender thing -- I was the male in the group and so he deferred everything to me, despite the fact that I was clearly the guest. He ignored the ladies in every way he could.

To prove my observation, the dumbass came to the table with a jug of water, pointedly asked me if I wanted a refill, filled my glass, and then walked away without even noticing that the ladies wanted water as well. Their jaws hit the table at this gross slight. They were ready to throw things across the restaurant and shout out their disgust. I had all to do to hold them back. Yet even I was outraged, so I asked to see the chef/owner.

This delightful young man came to our table -- shaved head, piercing stud in his lower lip, slight goatee grown long and braided, somewhat handsome, body art on exposed flesh [neck, arms -- he didn't strip down for us]. He did all the right things: he crouched down to our eye level; he spoke directly to all 3 of us, and not just me, making eye contact and smiling; he was delightful, kind, appreciative, and very nice.

I started the conversation by thanking him profusely for such a wonderful meal -- and this was easy praise to give: the food was stupendous and the wine so incredible as to be over the top. He spoke admiringly about his wine suppliers and told us his story -- a resto 2 years in the making, new relationships, untried and risky, but now relatively successful.

Only after such a warm exchange did I then say we were disappointed about the obnoxious service. I didn't speak in anger, but made it very clear that horrid service would kill his restaurant. The most perfect food cannot sustain a resto if service is obnoxious.

He was most apologetic and invited us to return so that we could do a special tasting of Spanish wine. I told him I was already preparing to return, at least one more time, because the wine and food were so good, but that it would probably be my last time if no corrective action was taken about the service. He thanked us for our advice and we wished him a good evening [he was going home to his family, leaving his resto in the hands of our waiter, Attila the Hun].

We sat for a while continuing to analyze this situation: I told my friends that for a complaint to be effective you have to aim it at the person in charge. An obnoxious waiter isn't going to tell anyone, least of all his boss, that he was screwing up. So it was a waste of breath to yell at the waiter. You had to find the power source, and aim your energy at him/it/her. And you had to do it in a meaningful way: teaching a point, not screaming in outrage.

Within minutes of our conversation with the young chef, the waiter returned with a special bottle of French sauterne dessert wine, which he poured for us complements of the chef. The smarmy little bastard even started a conversation with Rita, which was rebuffed -- she was still so pissed off by his behaviour.

So you don't have to be in an emerging economy to face the rigours of food wars. These wars are faught around the world by the rich and poor alike...sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, but we can never avoid them, whatever the culture or economic situation.

Keep up the good fight. I'm delighted to see that you were able to secure those apple one gastronome said: you go out of your way preparing a meal for special people primarily because they are so is never a chore or a burden; it is always a gift.....victor

Thessa said...

oh my god, you have a comment that's longer than your post! anyway, just wanted to let you know that i enjoyed your story. I was already happy to have given you the number to Cherry's, but i could never have fathomed it would lead to such a delightful story. And the name of MY blog is wahaladey?! or is 'wahala dey' just applicable to everyone in Naija? wonder what Kristel will have to get you for YOUR birthday... ;-)

Natasha said...

The pie story was hillarious! I just landed in Abuja two weeks ago and I could really just obliterate 99% of people in customer service! Please stay away from the Bakery in Sheraton, nothing tastes fresh...
Are you based in VSO Abuja? I wanted to swing by there and meet up with the director but the address on the web is apparently not current. Please help if you can, thanks!