Writer’s Preface: My wife Devon and I are quite familiar with the rough cultural waters sailed when one eats in a small restaurant in a foreign country. I still vividly remember the scream of surprise as a live fish jumped out of a cook’s pan only to land underneath my wife’s feet as she made her way to the bathroom in a dingy restaurant in a small town in China. I am actually long on patience when I travel. Perhaps I wasn’t expecting the same need while dining here in Boulder.
I was quite excited as I looked at the menu of Korea House (no website), officially addressed at 2750 Glenwood Drive in Boulder but in reality located in the strip mall on 28th Street and Glenwood. The menu looked good but, more importantly, the quiet young Asian waitress asked us “Is there anything you are looking for?” Great start, I thought to myself, as we explained we were looking for vegetarian dishes that were not fried. “Yes, we have those,”, she replied in a confidence-building way.
That was where communication deteriorated.
Devon: (Trying to order kimbap, a Korean form of sushi.) Can you tell me what is in the Veggie Roll?
Devon: Can you tell me which vegetables?
Waitress: No, I don’t really know.
Devon: Do you think you could ask the chef?
Waitress: Yes. (Exits to kitchen.)
Waitress: (Returns from kitchen.) The chef won’t tell me.
Allan and Devon: (Exchange looks.)
Allan: Could you tell us, then, what is the difference between the Veggie Roll and the Vegetarian Roll? One is $4.50 and one is $8.50.
Waitress: I don’t know.
Allan: (Thinking the waitress should really know more about her own menu.) Could you please ask the chef? He should answer that question at least.
Waitress: OK. (Exit to kitchen. Waitress and chef return from kitchen.)
Chef: What you want?
Devon: I want to know what vegetables are in the veggie roll.
Chef: Mix of vegetables.
Devon: But which ones? I want to make sure there is no avocado and nothing fried in the Veggie Roll.
Chef: Carrots, celery, four or five vegetables. You want a Veggie Roll?
Devon: (Beginning to give up.) Yes, but with no avocado.
Chef: It has avocado.
Allan: Then can you tell us what is in the Vegetarian Roll? (Points out the two rolls on the menu.)
Chef: (Getting irate) Listen, I am chef. You want veggie roll, I make you veggie roll.
Allan: (To Devon) If you want to eat here, we can order something else. If you don’t want to eat here. I am fine leaving at this point.
Chef: (Walks to door and holds it open.) You go. Thank you. Good bye.
This was either the first time I had left a restaurant in Boulder after sitting down or, more accurately, the first time I had been kicked out of a restaurant. I have no doubt communication caused part of the problem. The chef did not speak English and the young waitress was too timid to translate effectively with her boss.
The menu didn’t help. Putting “veggie roll” and “vegetarian roll” on the menu isn’t very clear. Worse, the waitress clearly had no idea what was on the menu. Before this exchange, she was unable to answer whether the oshinko roll had pickled radish (it normally does but we asked because it was spelled differently on this menu).
You’ll need to have patience to eat in Korea House. In the end, however, the “patience required” applies more to the chef. In these days of mass obesity in which restaurants are prime culprits; food allergies that seem omnipresent; and a gaggle of vegans, vegetarians, and pescatarians, especially in Boulder, a chef needs to not only expect questions but to celebrate them.
A good chef should relish the chance to exit the kitchen and engage a brand-new customer who asks about his or her food. At Korea House in Boulder, best not to ask.