Lilliput, Jamaica: In much need of Gulliver

We are in the midst of Restaurant Week in Jamaica. That’s a great opportunity for eating places across the island to show case their fare, flair, and style. I had no intention on Friday of heading to any restaurants to try all of that. I was headed on a road trip with some friends to play a practice round of golf in Montego Bay, at the beautiful Cinnamon Hill course. While we were there, we had a conversation about caddies. They are a microcosm of many things problematic about Jamaica. Many of them have done their jobs a long time. Many of them are good golfers. Many of them are not good caddies: they may be great bag carriers but they are often average advisers. Many of them do not appear to have been trained in any systematic way, learning on the job. It’s a problem for golfers to work with them and it’s a problem for them because they can’t progress far if they are just average. The whole matter of training staff occupied many minutes of our driving to the north coast and also while we were playing a tricky course–for me, the first time. But, let’s say that the caddies we used did a decent job and would not be rejected out of hand on another round. Final ball in the cup, tired bodies and minds needed refreshment, so we showered and headed back towards Kingston. We had some good food options for ‘road food’ en route: a great jerk spot or a great spot for roast yam and salt fish. But, our driver knew a cool beach-side spot just a few minutes from the course, located near the village of Lilliput.

If you’ve read Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travel, you’ll know it starts with the hero arriving at the island of Lilliput, whose inhabitants are very small people, about 6 inches tall. Gulliver is naturally a giant amongst them. We soon felt like Gulliver after we took our seats at our wooden table in the sand. The sand flies and mosquitoes were quick to come to serve us, biting and setting up itches with minutes. We begged a waiter for some repellant spray. Our waiter was a young man, who seemed keen but very raw. We looked at the menu and saw that the bar was on the list of Restaurant Week participants–offering a three-course meal for J$1700 (about US$17). We asked him about items on the menu. We should have taken our cue from his reaction. He looked around and asked some colleagues about what ‘whole fish’ was being served: snapper he was told. We asked about the appetizers: jerked chicken wings took my interest, but one of my play mates wanted fish tea. We look down the rest of the menu and decided that the seaside demanded we eat sea food. So, one order of brown stew fish, one order of steamed fish, one order of lobster al fredo. Within minutes the manager was with us asking that we come to the kitchen and choose our ‘one pound’ fish. We followed like puppies, excited at the prospect of seeing what we were destined to enjoy. But, again, we should have heard the sirens: none of the one-pounders came up to a pound. We suggested that some of the bigger fish find their way onto our plates. We went back to our seats and ordered our liquid refreshments: coconut water for me, lemonade and light beer for my pals. A good night ahead, we thought. Our driver told us about the great meals he’d had here before. The sea was calm. We did not hear the brewing storm.

Fifteen minutes passed and our drinks had not yet arrived. Antsy, we eyed our server, who was playing with cocktail shakers at the bar: none of our drinks were cocktails. Strange, we thought. We hailed the youth. He came and muttered something, then went away. The drinks came a few minutes later, in unnecessarily elaborate glasses. Half an hour passed and we were now champing at the bit. Our driver signalled for our man, again. “Do you have any peanuts or crackers we can chew on? We’re ravenous.” The youth shook his head and told us “They’re working on your food. It will come soon.” Like snow, we should have thought. He came back in a minute with the soup…alone. Ten minutes later, our orders of chicken wings appeared, with plates of fries (which we’d not seen offered, but we welcomed). Our soup drinker had already finished so helped us eat our hefty appetizers, really a meal in themselves. Hungry bodies fed feverishly on the little leglets and wings. Nice! We sank back and looked forward to our main courses. We should have found hammocks.

Fifteen minutes later out came the brown stew fish dish…alone.Chill out food Fitting? Sort of. Our friend had had his soup earliest, too. Then five minutes later, the al fredo arrived…alone. The scrawny youth started to talk. “We have a problem with the other fish. They served it to another table and are starting to prepare another one…” Steamed fish does not cook quickly. That was a blow to my stomach. We asked how that could be. What kind of system did this restaurant have that meant that food came out of the kitchen and went to the ‘wrong’ table? None, it seemed. We asked the waiter to send the manager to us.  He went away. She did not come to us. Minutes later, the youth came to us again. My driver gave him a lesson in customer service and how to respond to requests to speak to managers. He told us he was new and just a week into the job. He went away.

A man came to our table and he and our driver got into excited talk about a party. Then the visitor explained that the manager was new and was in the process of ‘restructuring’ the staff, firing many and having to hire new people. Things he’d been slow in the kitchen. We agreed that that had not changed. We explained our chaotic situation.

My two friends finished their meals and wanted to wash up, so went to the bathroom. I sat patiently, waiting…. The manager came towards my table, and turned away to take a phone call. She came back towards me and turned away again, for another call. Like waves, I thought. At last, she arrived and explained that things had just been a nightmare. She talked about having to work with her new staff and on top the bathrooms had flooded. I told her bluntly that the meal was “a disaster”. She agreed, and said that she would deal with the meal and the bill accordingly. She mopped a sweaty brow and headed to the kitchen.

My friends returned shaking their heads. “Man, my feet are so wet!” one said. The flooded bathroom had been ankle-deep in water. They were shocked that I was still meal-less. Well over two hours had passed. I explained that the manager and I had had friendly words. But, still no food in sight.

Ten minutes later, a bold striding waiter came my way, with his tray help proudly aloft. “Your fish…” It looked lovely and all of my expectations were about to get their real test in the eating. The fish, dressed with steamed okras, onions, and carrots, looked great, with steamed bammy at the side. I patiently began to work with knife and fork. My friends chilled and talked about how hard they found it to train staff. We were back at our earlier talk about caddies, but this time dealing with restaurant or other staff. “Some of them don’t want to learn…” “Some of them can’t learn…” “Some of them think they know it all because they’ve worked for years…” “Some of their managers just want to pick up their pay…” Problems in training. Problems in attitude. I couldn’t comment on either except that I was suffering from something not working well.

“Man, you’re working that fish!” one of our trio said. I smiled. “It was good. Worth the wait, but that was long,” I replied. Done, we were now focusing on a three-hour drive ahead, over the mountains in the dark, with tired and aching bodies. We had our left over bagged and asked for the desserts to be boxed. We got ready to pay and leave. My meal had been ‘comp-ed’, so we only had to pay for two dinners, plus extras. Paying then took another ten minutes. How else could it be?

Two and a half hours for a slow, lazy, beach-side dinner. Not what we had come for. Tired, but filled with food, we edged back to the car and headed onto the road. Back to discussing how a country with so much potential was losing its way through so many little things that aren’t done well. The little people of this Lilliput needed a few giants to help them out. Situated in the strip that is most traveled by foreign visitors and having a week to showcase their best one restaurant had failed miserably. Did they need Gordon Ramsay? Did they just need something more basic? Was the owner and manager able to tackle the little things that were making them grow in the wrong direction. The food was very good, but the experience is not just about the eating. The meal will be memorable for many wrong reasons. We are due to be back in this area next week to play a tournament, with over a hundred players and supporters in tow. Our idea of trying this place out as a means of suggesting it for a group meal was not going to be more than another idea. Failing where we ought to find it easier to succeed seemed too familiar a tale.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)