Wednesday, April 9, 2014

One Overcooked Steak is One Too Many

When I work a "premium" galley position, or any galley position for that matter, I become very task-oriented.  Flying home from Tokyo this week, I worked the A zone galley.  I was responsible for assuring that our premium food service was delivered according to company standards for 25 of our highest-paying and most loyal guests.  Preparation and timing are critical.  They require much focus from the galley Fight Attendant to be accomplished well.


When my Japanese-speaker colleague informed me that the "1K" gentleman (very high frequent flyer status) specifically asked that his steak be cooked "medium rare", I took the request quite seriously.  He said that he was almost always disappointed with the degree to which a beef entree was overcooked on the airplane.  (The editorial side of me can think of SO many responses to that statement!)

Many factors can/will contribute to the degree of control we have or don't have to meet this customer's expectations.  Chief among them is the degree to which the food is pre-cooked in the flight kitchen before ever being loaded onto the aircraft.  (For the uninitiated, we don't so much "cook" the meals onboard as we "re-heat" them, even in a premier class of service.)  Another variable is the inconsistency of the onboard ovens.  Sure, they all look the same but their performance can vary wildly.  Another variable is the amount of time between the end of the cooking cycle and when the meal is presented; sitting in the ambient heat after cooking completion, the meal continues to "cook".

When the Service Manager arrived to help me "plate" the A zone meals for delivery, a significantly longer time than usual had elapsed since the end of the cooking cycle.  I was aware of that variable and asked that he designate a steak from the lowest oven rack for 2E to assure that he received the LEAST cooked option. (Our convection ovens tend to cook from the top-down.  Those on top are cooked the most; those on bottom, the least.)  Upon removing the container cover, it was clear that 2E was to be disappointed today.

Although I only cooked the meals for 18 minutes, I fear that the "sit time" doomed us to failure in one very important customer's eyes.  It was my responsibility.  My sit time calculation was off and the result was overcooking.  "Well done" would have been understatement!

After completing the plating for all customers in our cabin, I took a moment to clean up and prep for the next part of the service:  cheese and dessert.  A spare moment allowed me just enough time to face the jury and accept the verdict...

"Mr. Wu.  My name is Tony and I'm the galley FA today.  I am the one responsible for your meal preparation and I want to apologize for not meeting your expectations on the steak."  Mr. Wu's face pretty much said it all.  He was disgusted.  I looked at his plate and he'd taken a bite or two, enough to reveal the grey interior of an overcooked steak.  After he took a moment or two to let me know JUST how disappointed he was, I apologized again and excused myself.  Sure, I don't have total control over such things but I have enough that the result could have been considerably better than it was.

My order-taking colleague, Mitsue, was waiting when I returned to the galley.  "What did he say?", she asked.  "Oh, I think you know...".

Of course, it's not the end of the world!  Mr. Wu survived, as did my crew and I.  But I think it's safe to say that everyone concerned was disappointed.  I didn't and won't lose sleep over the situation but I won't forget it either.  Talking to Mr. Wu about it was a little "outside the box" but wouldn't it be worse to leave it alone?  Leave him to think I don't care?  Or worse, leave him to take out his frustrations on my colleagues working the aisle positions when they had no control over it?

After the service was complete and the cabin was settling in for the night, I stopped by and asked Mr. Wu what he'd like for the pre-arrival brunch.  We have 3 entree choices but limited supplies of all.  I thought it would be nice if he at least got his first choice.  Mr. Wu said he'd like to have the udon option and, without so much as a smile, he said,  "Can I get that medium rare?"

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