Tale of two chicken chops

Trouble was simmering on a hot skillet at Maxwell Food Centre on the last day of 2013. I should have seen it coming, because the harried, hurried man who was about to speak to me had furrows in his brow, perspiration on his nose and murder in his eyes.

"Order?" he barked, without looking up from his notepad.

"Can I just get fries, please?"

He looked up and scowled: "We don't do side orders."

Fair enough, I thought, and ordered a chicken chop with extra fries. He walked away without acknowledgment.

So far, so rude. But this was the only Western food stall that was open at the food centre, and I was prepared to be patient. What I was not prepared for, was the public abuse that was to come.

"Order?" barked Mr Murder again, five minutes later.

I repeated it, with the fatal caveat: that I wanted takeaway.

"You have to wait here," he said, pointing to an exact spot two steps away from where I was.

Now, this was New Year's Eve, and I had been given the important task of supplying hawker food, including fries, to hungry friends in a nearby hotel.

Thinking that I could order food from other stalls in the meantime, I inquired if I could come back later to pick up my chicken chop. Instead, I was chopped down.

"You don't understand is it? YOU HAVE TO WAIT HERE!" he roared.

Right on cue, every diner around me took an intense interest in their smartphones or their chicken chop, which did look quite delicious from where I was standing in my own sweat.

As Mr Murder proceeded to give me a loud education on the iron rules concerning takeaway orders, his colleague yelled over the stove: "You don't want to wait, don't order lah! Don't waste our time!"

I didn't. Surely no chicken chop in the world was yummy enough for verbal flagellation, even if the stall had the word "tasty" in its name and claimed to have been in business since 1976.

That's around four decades of treating customers badly, I thought, though Seinfeld's Soup Nazi - the original purveyor of good food with a dash of abuse - also enjoyed a long line of cowering clients in New York City back in the 1990s.

His rules were simple: Pick the soup you want. Have your money ready. And move to the extreme left after ordering.

As a fan of the sitcom, I knew the Soupman's rules by heart. My bad then, for not recalling my colleague Rebecca Lynne Tan's Sunday Times piece in September last year, which clearly spelt out the commandments for this famous Hainanese-run Western food stall.

You will still need to wait in line even after your orders are taken, she wrote. Walk away and you risk not getting your food. She did not mention getting shouted at, but I guess I have been spoilt silly by my regular Hainanese chicken chop stall in Bedok North, which is not nearly as famous as Mr Murder's, but has the last word in customer service.

At Bedok North, I get exactly six packets of tomato ketchup with every order of chicken chop - because I mentioned once, sometime in 2004, that I needed more ketchup and no chilli.

The petite, genial auntie who ran the stall, while her husband ran the stove, saw all and remembered all. She even remembered my special order, when I was on a low-carb diet prior to my wedding and asked for a fried egg to replace the french fries in my chicken chop.

"Are you a policeman?" she asked me once, noting that I always dropped by late at night. "No? You must work for a newspaper then."

Mrs Genial never missed a trick. When I moved away from the area in 2008 and visited the stall once a week instead of twice, she noticed.

She could catch my lies too. When a rival Western food stall opened in the same hawker centre, she asked me bluntly if I had tried its chicken chop.

"No," I said, recalling guiltily that I had sampled the rival stall's dish the previous Tuesday when Mrs Genial's stall was closed. Her sad smile told me she knew the truth. Mr Genial had little to say over the years, but his chicken chop wasn't too bad, with a sweet, tangy sauce that I mopped up with every morsel of tender meat.

Speaking of sauces, the final act of my hawker humiliation on New Year's Eve was delivered by the old woman in charge of slathering on the Maxwell stall's celebrated sauce.

"Bye, bye!" she screeched triumphantly as I cancelled my order.

I slunk away, for the only thing I tasted that night was shame.

tvoon@sph.com.sg


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