Friday, 3 May 2013

Business Lunches and Dinners - Consolidated Blog

I wrote down these true experiences quite a long time ago. Having just found them again I thought I would put them all together and remind you of what to beware of when eating with business 'friends'!

Doggy and Chips anyone?

It is great when someone else is paying. You go to restaurants that you would never dream of frequenting if you were picking up the tab and they make a very welcome change to the local KFC. I have enjoyed many such lavish and sometimes damn unusual evenings out as my waistline and two visits to casualty will testify.

The most exquisite and possibly risky places I have ever dined in were in China including Hong Kong. The further you get out of the main centres of mass tourism the greater you test your taste buds and the more you discover just how squeamish you are.

On one visit to Hong Kong our local hosts decided to show us the ‘real China’ so they loaded us onto a coach and we headed off to the then border with the mainland. The thinking was to take in the sights and enjoy lunch in a well known restaurant where Chinese tourists went. It seemed a fine idea at the time and I think our hosts were prematurely congratulating themselves for thinking of it.

Unfortunately I nearly brought the whole thing to an end before it started. We arrived at one of the most dangerous looking borders I have ever seen. There were barracks around it and razor wire everywhere. Worst of all it was full of small fanatical looking soldiers who looked as though they would like nothing better than to shoot someone. We were told not to ‘do anything sudden’ and sit quietly at an outside table in the baking sun whilst our documents were checked. We were being chaperoned by two armed guards who looked like a pair of pit bulls straining at their leashes. ‘Make my day Punk’ they seemed to be thinking.

It was at this point my lighter exploded in the sun sending shards of plastic everywhere. I had bought it for next to nothing in the street outside my hotel and the combination of the sun’s rays and cheap components were all too much for it. I found myself the centre of attention. Guns were pointed and I had to lie on the floor with the rest of my bemused lunch companions while being screamed at in Chinese.

It took a while but eventually my explanation was accepted and off we went into the New Territories to find our ethnic restaurant. We eventually arrived after a hot and gruelling journey and got behind a huge queue of local tourists. Why anyone would queue to get in that hell hole I do not know. It seemed to be made of concrete squares and contained home made tables and a range of 24 different types of chairs (we counted them).

Our hosts soon discovered their big mistake. Being local there was no menu translation and no pictures of the dishes to decipher. There was nothing to tell us what we were eating so we ordered the ‘feast’ set meal. This arrived on 10 different types and colours of serving plates (we counted them) and their contents looked like the reject pieces from an abattoir.

The silence was palpable as we all sat there with our chopsticks staring at bits of beak, feet, possibly eyes and fins. The waiters extolled the virtues of each dish (in Chinese) and started ladling the choicest bits on our plates. It was bad for most of us but worse for our German colleague who was trying to explain she was vegan and American asking if it contained gluten. I do not think either got a conclusive answer.

The time had come to eat. By now we had become the centre of attention in the place. Other tables stopped to watch and even the chef had come out of the kitchen to see us enjoy his ‘feast’. I was first with a chicken foot and it was truly disgusting. Others started picking at their plates as it soon became clear that an international incident would be created if we refused to eat. It soon became a relay race to the toilet as one by one we bolted off gurgling like cats bringing up fur balls.

Somehow we managed to eat enough off our plates to make at least an appearance of having dined. We attacked the water and rice wine and started on a large bowl of rice that had mysteriously arrived unordered. Unfortunately the rice heralded the final dish which was the chef’s particular special that he prepared just for us. It was a stew. Well it had some kind of fatty liquid and there were lumps of meat in it.

The meat looked like a kind of pork belly. There was a strip of meat with a layer of fat covered with black crackling type skin. Unfortunately some of the skin still had a few hairs sticking out of them and it proved not to be at all crispy. With the chefs eyes boring into us we decided that the only way to deal with this was to swallow chunks whole. We were even quite organised and allowed the women to go first and swallow the smaller bits. Somehow we managed.

The chef was pleased to bits and shook all our hands. A Chinese lady from another table came over and asked in halted English whether we enjoyed Doll. ‘Doll’ we queried? ‘Yes Doll’ she replied. “You know, Woof Woof” she mimed. "Oh my God she meant dog not doll" said our vegan as the fur ball imitations started all over again.

We fled to the coach and many of us could not look a dog in the face for weeks!

Helga's Fishy Friend.

You would have thought they might have learnt wouldn’t you? Having nearly poisoned us on dog they nearly went one stage further. Our German Vegan lady was already talking about needing counselling after one ethnic meal but the second one definitely made her mind up. If you have no idea what our culinary ‘Chinese doggy’ experience was see part 1.

Our hosts in Hong Kong were still keen to show us just how nice a truly local Chinese meal could be. To do this they remained determined not to take us to a tourist restaurant but one that well off locals might go to. This time they promised no doggy treats (and I am not talking biscuits here) but a fish feast instead. What could go wrong? Hmm I thought as shark fins and jelly fish flashed through my mind. ‘Don’t worry’ they assured us as only fresh fish and shellfish would be used in a pre-ordered set feast.

We arrived at a fantastic place. The whole of the large restaurant had a giant aquarium built into the wall which was teeming with beautiful coloured fish and even sea horses. Absolutely magical especially when lit up with various shades of discreet lighting. Everybody felt good, except for our German Vegan lady who somebody had unkindly nicknamed Helga the Hungry Hun. Again she did not know what the hell she could or could not eat.

Language was a problem again but it did not matter so much as the meal had been carefully chosen to suit western palates and we had a fantastic corner table right by the biggest part of the aquarium. The only uncomfortable feeling we had was when we were eating our main fish course we could imagine fish in the tank saying ‘oh my God that’s my friend Cyril on that plate!

Much to the consternation of the management ‘Helga’ was only eating plain boiled rice. ‘I will not get caught out again’ she vowed. Also she had made a new friend. It was the most gorgeous fish in the tank and it would not leave her alone. She would tap the glass and the fish would do all sorts of somersaults and headstands while staring at her intently with wide eyes. He became her friend and the table mascot. We even gave him the name Herman. Herman was one cool fish and Helga became besotted.

The waiter came over with the wine and Helga could not resist trying to find out more about Herman. She pointed him out and asked what kind of fish he was, how big he would grow, how old is he etc. It was obvious something was lost in translation because the waiter replied saying that it was an unusual request but he would speak to the manager.

I realised something very wrong when behind Helga’s back I saw a large net descend into the pool and scoop out Herman. ‘Oh no’ I thought, ‘please not Herman’. But it was too late and yes, it was Herman. He arrived with a flourish on a plate, in a bed of rice and with bit of garnish sticking out if his gills. He was no more and he was placed by the manager, with great ceremony, in front of Helga. She screamed as Herman lay there with his now blank eyes staring reproachfully at her.

‘What is wrong’ the manager asked as Helga fled to the taxi rank. ‘We did our best’ he continued. ‘We do not normally cook our aquarium fish for guests but the VIP lady asked so we made an exception’. He went off shaking his head and muttering in an inscrutable way about ungrateful foreigners while we asked for a bag to put Herman in.

We eventually left as our hosts were keen to placate Helga and a few of us weaved our way to the waterfront outside the Grand Hyatt hotel. We buried Herman at sea and got some very strange looks in the process. The bag was weighted with two ‘stolen’ items of cutlery and we slid him into the deep off a KFC carton we found on the way. One sentimental colleague imitated the playing of ‘the last post’. We filmed it all in the hope that it might give Helga ‘closure’. But it didn’t.

What Shall We Do With The Drunken...Prawn?

I am not sure what it is about me and prawns. Apart from eating them what have I done to the little pink crustaceans that have merited me being chastised badly at least twice at business lunches and dinners?

Like the time I invited a somewhat eccentric but sensitive older lady to yet another gourmet restaurant in Hong Kong. It was in a major international hotel so I assumed we would be safe from any culinary shocks as this lady was too important and far too straight laced to endure any food carnage.

I will always remember her as she looked and dressed just like Greta Gabo in her latter years as she swept into the cocktail bar like royalty with a friends Pekinese dog in her arms. I rarely pray these days but I asked God to please make sure they did not take the dog away and cook it. I could just imagine it delivered to the table on a large decorated platter boned and skinned.

I could have cooked it myself. The damn thing kept on baring its teeth at me and sniffing my ankles. ‘Bite and you are history’ I thought to myself. Thankfully it did not as my guest then went on at great length explaining how she passionately loathed any cruelty to all creatures however big or small. She explained how she once stood on a spider and cried as she gave it a decent burial afterwards. ‘Barking mad’ I thought as I smiled sweetly. Apparently the dog was there because her friend never took it out of her apartment and she was liberating it for the evening.

Apart from constantly sniffing at me like I was rancid the dog played no real part in the rest of the evening except for the occasional yap and a couple of unpleasant suspicious smells. In fact from the moment we started dinner until nearly the end everything went well. The lady loosened up and the Peke went to sleep next to my ankles. The waiters were attentive and made a great fuss of us which was nice. The maitre d’hôtel even came over and offered us their special signature dish of ‘drunken prawns’ which we accepted.

They arrived with a large bowl which they half filled with rice wine and various pretty leaves, herbs and flowers. They then snuffed out our table candles and turned the lights down. By this stage we were puzzled. Finally the chef arrived with a large handful of live prawns which he dropped in the decorated bowl with a great flourish.

We watched in shock as the prawns swam around ingesting pure alcohol rather than sea water. At the optimum moment when the prawns must have been both drunken and probably dead they set fire to the lot and it flared up like a torch. It was mesmerising to see the prawns seemingly leaping about as the inferno raged.

All the other tables clapped, the flames were extinguished and the now cooked drunken prawns were served. They were delicious and I ate them all but I am not sure this was the reaction my guest was expecting from me. She left very soon after dragging her complaining ‘loan dog’ with her and I never got one iota of her business. Apparently she told someone I was ‘barbarous’.

Another prawn catastrophe happened when I went with a group of people to a seafood restaurant in Ostend in Belgium. I still maintain it was an unhappy coincidence and not my fault but the lady in question does not accept this. I will let you be the judge.

We were given a bowl of prawns and were enjoying shelling and eating them. The place was packed with people doing the same. We were all in high spirits after a particularly rigorous sales campaign and the drink and prawns were going down famously. That was until I cracked a joke just as my colleague Jenny was in the process of swallowing a prawn. She let out a snort and the prawn got totally stuck in the back of her nasal passage.

Now Jenny has/had a very pretty pointed nose covered in freckles and this soon became the centre of attention for the whole restaurant. ‘Snort’ went Jenny again. ‘Breathe in deeply’ some shouted. ‘Blow’ shouted others and very shortly and to yells of encouragement the offending prawn started to peak out of her left nostril. We were all rapt and I broke the silence by picking up a seafood utensil and offering to pick it out. Not a welcome suggestion.

Finally, to cheers and applause from at least 50 people Jenny snorted more and the prawn emerged far enough for her to get her fingers around it. To be fair she showed a lot of dignity as she slowly and daintily drew it out as though it was a perfectly normal thing and placed it on the side of her plate. She maintained she could smell garlic mayonnaise for the following fortnight.

It was clearly not my fault but you try telling Jenny that.

Jolly Japes around the Campfire.

We were posted to Northern Zambia when I was about 30 years old. I felt I was pretty mature in those days but after reminding myself of a few business dinners I went to I have changed my mind. I must have been damn naïve as this little tale of drugs, politics and lust will tell.

It was a strange kind of job. I was District Sales Manager for a UK airline and my job was to persuade the mainly expatriate international population to fly to and from Europe on my airline rather than Zambia Airways. Not a difficult task in those days so I spent most of my time sponsoring events and entertaining. This made me very popular and there was not a local club or establishment where I was not an honorary member. The dinner invitations flooded in.

The first client dinner of note was at a nearby ‘ranch’. ‘You are not going there are you’ a staff member said,’ it has one hell of a reputation?’ I smugly told her I was more than capable of looking after myself. She rolled her eyes in a way that said ‘they won’t be told’ and returned to her counter. The host was supposedly a bit of an eccentric who people said had spent too long living in the bush but that just added spice to my interest.

We had not been there long and knew we were meeting a lot of new faces so Judith got dressed to kill and I dragged out my very best suit (UK winter thickness) and off we went. We followed the directions we had been given and ended up in the middle of nowhere driving down a pot holed track that threw Judith around the car like a ping pong ball ruining her hairstyle and creasing her cocktail dress in the process.

The ‘ranch’ was in a clearing. From a distance it looked like a shack. Close up it looked like a big shack. Outside was our host waiting to greet us. I started getting concerned when I saw he was wearing beads, a string vest and some very ancient dirty shorts. Should I have worn my pin stripe I thought? Should I kill Michael now or later’ thought Judith as she climbed out in her heels?

After we all had a jolly good laugh at our expense we were led behind the large house/shack to a wild area laughingly called their garden where we were introduced as ‘The British Ambassador and his lady’ to the giggling guests who were all wearing what seemed to be gardening clothes. Where is you feathered hat one wag called out. Must read dress codes on invitations I thought to myself as I am sure this one must have said ‘dress like a tramp and then roll in mud’.

The party was a wild one. A huge fire was lit in the middle of the garden and the drink flowed freely. We borrowed clothes from our host, started to relax and I felt great. We sat around the embers of the fire and watched the ‘ethnic’ food being fried and flame grilled on big racks and in huge frying pans. The food and air was filled with exotic herbs that were thrown on the fire and I did not even mind when I found some animal’s ear on my plate. Judith was munching through the kind of gristle that would normally make her sick.

Towards the end of the meal we all took a break to enable the last special dish to be prepared. Well actually I thought the host said ‘caught’ and prepared but assumed I heard wrong. A vast bucket full of beer floating in ice arrived and I was in seventh heaven as I languished on my back at peace with the world. I had even found my tie and tied it like a bandana around my forehead as a statement on how ‘cool’ I felt.

Then the ‘Zambian Peanuts’ arrived to be fried. Apparently they were only available for a few weeks every year and were seen as a great delicacy. They looked just like dry roasted peanuts as the frying pans were filled and more scented herbs were added to the blaze. They sizzled and jumped in the pan and the most delightful aroma of groundnuts permeated the already sweet smell of wood smoke.

They were incredibly tasty with a hard nutty tasting exterior with a surprising soft and liquid centre. Even when I spotted a few insect wings in mine it did not bother me. Down it all went with the beer and I felt that all my birthdays had come at once. We left at dawn and I do not know to this day how we got home. I was missing a shoe and Judith’s handbag was minus all her expensive UK make-up but hey we had a fantastic time.

The next morning (actually afternoon) when I staggered into the office I noticed my ticket agent was sniggering to herself. ‘Did you have a good time?’ she asked. “Brilliant” I replied. “You like drugs do you” she asked sweetly? I looked blankly at her until she explained why I had been feeling so very wonderful. The ‘herbs’ was Dagga which is a local name for marijuana and they had been chucking bales of it on the fire all night. It grows like weeds all over Zambia. I had been stoned out of my mind without knowing it for the first and last time in my life.

She went on to explain the ‘peanuts’. They were a special kind of giant flying ant that only sprouts wing for a few days each year. The host had two bright lights which these things flew into and stunned themselves on. They were quickly picked up, had there wings torn off, the body dusted in ground nut powder then chucked probably still alive in the frying pan. The soft centres were parts of the inside that had not been full cooked.

My stomach turned. I will never be so naïve again I thought, until the next time. My next blogs will be about those two ‘next times’ when politics and someone’s lust have a bearing on my stupidity!

A Sexy Snack?

Over the years I have come to a conclusion that there is a definite link between food and sex. OK, the alcohol served along with the food makes a major contribution but the ambiance brought about by close proximity, relaxation, liberated discussion and sharing taste sensations with each other aids in the dropping of inhibitions.

Maybe sharing a hot curry and lots of lager is an exception but the act of say feeding each other oysters and champagne is clearly a good illustration of this phenomena. All those who have seen that old ‘bawdy romp’ of a film Tom Jones can bear witness to the old oysters and booze syndrome. However, don’t try the same effect with Guinness as it plays havoc on the stomach at the most inopportune moments which is a real passion killer.

So what has this to do with business travel dinners? A great deal in my experience. Despite being relatively naïve with regard to what goes on around me at dinners and banquets I have seen and experienced much that could turn me into a successful blackmailer if I had carried a camera and tape recorder with me. Maybe I could hire a small person with a camcorder to sit under the tables of the high and mighty and record the goings on under tablecloth.

Under table groping is rife at many major business dinners which may explain why most banquet table fronts have a cloth that extends to the floor. The omission of such ‘modesty cloth’ can provide much hilarity as I discovered one night in an Italian restaurant in Edinburgh. We had taken over the whole place and the tables were laid out in a large square. Our then very high profile leader was sat in the place of honour and beside him, by chance I am sure, was our most eligible and eager lady sales representative.

It all kicked off by the middle of the antipasto. Unfortunately they were not aware that everybody the other end of the square could see every move. It started with warm patting of knees that progressed to thighs and I leave the rest to your imagination. By then my end of the table was spellbound. What was fascinating was that their faces and upper bodies showed no sign of the wild activity below, except that they were eating one handed.

The show ended when they noticed me grabbing a passing colleague and saying ‘hey look at that’ whilst pointing an indiscrete finger. Well I was young at the time and had yet to learn about discretion. After an icy stare in my direction that would have frozen hell all ‘down below’ activity ceased. The big chief left for his room soon after and, strangely, the whole experience must have brought on a headache in our young lady as she left soon after. In the same direction!

I have been on the receiving end of such overtures twice both directly and indirectly and neither was enjoyable in the least. Once in a banqueting suite in a Dubai hotel when a dinner guest’s wife started grappling me under the cloth. I think she was doing it more for fun (like a cat playing with a mouse) than intent but when you are sitting next to a husband that has no idea what is going on and is in the middle of discussing his business travel needs it isn’t easy. Also you could end up in jail for less in Dubai.
Fortunately she stopped before being discovered although she did give me a broad laughing wink as she departed hand-in-hand with her clearly doting husband.

My indirect experience was even more unpleasant in that it involved my then partner not me. My boss decided to take all his sales team to dinner as thanks for a great result that year. It was Christmas and everyone was looking forward to a big celebration made more enjoyable as spouses and partners were invited too. It was a Chinese feast where everybody could share dishes although I did not realise that my boss considered my partner to be ‘dishy’. He cut a strange figure. He arrived dressed in a Caftan (it was not fancy dress) and with a newly trimmed goatee beard. All this topped with a paper hat three sizes too small and a leer that would make a maiden scream.

He plonked himself down between the two of us and entered what he thought was a subtle and suave conversation about ‘sharing’ experience other than food. Alarm bells rang in my head but, he was my boss, I liked my job and hey, he was only joking, wasn’t he? The answer to that question was almost immediate when he shrieked and leaped backwards, made his excuses and left.

‘What the hell happened’ I asked of my partner. He squeezed and pinched me under the table she demurred. ‘Oh no’ I replied ‘but why did he yell’? ‘’ I pinched him back’ she explained, ‘very, very, hard and he will have great difficult explaining that bruise to his wife’. Not a woman to be crossed I mused as my eyes started to water at the thought. Not a man to continue going out with she must have been thinking as she dumped me soon after.
Politics and dinner can be an indigestible combination, especially in some African countries. Even more so if there is a virtual state of emergency in place. It was like this during my last year in Zambia caused by poverty, disappointment and insurgency in that order. Rightly or wrongly many of the people felt let down by what they received after’ In