Officially, I am a waitress.
What I really am, though, as one of the Westerners in a restaurant in Cambodia, is am the link between the guests and the kitchen. It’s an interesting spot to be in – and a fascinating if occasionally exasperating daily lesson in cultural differences.
It sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Write down orders, give them to the girls in the kitchen, and bring the food out when it’s done. Simple, right?
It can be tough being the intermediary between a staff that does things the Cambodian way and a restaurant full of Westerners who expect things to be a bit more like they are at home.
First of all, there’s the difference between Cambodian time and Western time, namely that a kitchen on Western time does things as fast as possible and a kitchen on Cambodian time does things when the Gangnam Style video is over. Things here take five times as long as they do back at home, and for no particularly good reason. I can’t tell you how many times I see finished plates of food on the counter out of my reach, just sitting there, and I have to wait for five minutes before anyone will hand them to me. Same goes for silverware. Every time I bring a plate of food out, I have to ask for a set of silverware, and every time I ask, somebody has to go to the dish room to find and dry off a clean knife and fork. My asking for this seems to come as a surprise every time. I’m naturally in a hurry (can’t help it – I’m American), and it drives me crazy!
Then, things like this happen almost every day: Two people order the same dish, each of which is supposed to come with a baked potato. The kitchen girls make the order for one of the people and send it out with me. Then, when I return for the other one, they inform me that they’ve run out of potatoes. Same with, say, two fruit salad orders for the same table. One order will be made with a mix of fruit, and the other (which will inevitably be made at least 20 minutes later) will be only papaya – because they’ve used last of the other fruit for the first person’s salad. This would be unacceptable in the home country of anyone staying here, so it’s nearly impossible to explain to the people who want their baked potato and variety of fruit. “You can’t do that,” they’ll tell me. “It doesn’t make sense!”
Trust me, I know it doesn’t make sense. Common sense doesn’t factor in very often.
Many of the answers I give people here would be unacceptable back home, too. “Can I have my burger well done?” Honestly? Probably not. Your burger will come out however it comes out, and if it’s well-done, it won’t be because I succeeded in telling anyone to cook it that way. “Can I have veggie spring rolls without the bell pepper?” Nope. If you’re allergic, order something else. “Can I have soft-boiled eggs?” HAHAHAHAHAHA! You’re a funny one. Don’t make me laugh, my hands are full!
When I have to explain things like this to people, I usually tell them that the kitchen staff doesn’t speak English, so we do the best we can.
But guess what? The issue isn’t that they don’t speak English. It’s that we don’t speak Khmer. We’re not at a diner in Seattle or some fancy LA brunch place. We’re in Cambodia. So who are we to get pissy that they can’t understand an English explanation for how many minutes one cooks a soft-boiled egg?
No matter how frustrating this is, and no matter how irritating the apparent lack of common sense, the fact is that we’re on a developing island. The people that cook for us can’t imagine themselves in our place to improve on efficiency, because they don’t eat at similar restaurants. They can’t afford it. Odds are, they’ve never been in our place. But they do a damn good job considering that they have the standard outfit for anywhere on Koh Rong, which is essentially a camping kitchen with a deep fryer and a couple of little burners.
So, if I feel like freaking out, I take a deep breath, think about this, and tell myself what I tell the guests that are scared of big bugs or think the food takes too long: Welcome to Cambodia.