Eating Authors: Amber Royer

No Comments » Written on September 24th, 2018 by
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Amber Royer

My September is turning out to be one of those months that just race by, which would be fine except the work that needs to happen this month is not likewise zipping along to completion. On the other hand, August already seems to be receding into the distance, which is a shame because the Worldcon overflowed with so many wonderful things crammed into just a handful of days.

If that sounds like the opening of a segue to you, give yourself bonus points. One of my favorite events at each Worldcon is the morning Stroll with the Stars. I always meet interesting people and afterwards I’m saddened that the hour has gone by so swiftly. I met Amber Royer, this week’s EATING AUTHORS guest, on this year’s stroll, and discovered that her first novel, Free Chocolate, had only recently come out from Angry Robot.

So we chatted, we strolled, we shared some chocolate. All in all, a sweet start to the day. And I’m happy she accepted my invitation to drop by and share a meal, so you could meet her too.

LMS: Welcome, Amber. What stands out as your most memorable meal?

AR: At a point in life when we were totally broke, my husband and I decided to take up mystery shopping as a way to finance date night. It got us into some swanky places, and led to a few anxious days waiting for reimbursement for triple digit meal tabs before the credit card bill came due. But we never got scammed, and we always got paid… eventually.

I highly recommend mystery shopping as training for writers who have trouble with details and descriptions. You have to get things right, and often, the companies involved want blow-by-blow descriptions – that still retain objectivity.

Free Chocolate

One time, we accepted an assignment at a restaurant inside an upscale hotel. I signed a confidentiality agreement, so I can’t tell you which one, or where, just that it was some of the best food I ever had – but at the same time, that “best meal” was one of my husband’s top five worst meals. Ever.

See, when you’re mystery shopping, you are basically going undercover. You don’t want special treatment, and you don’t want to be one of those annoying customers who have a problem with everything. In fact, if you are too obvious in your behavior, and you get tagged as a shopper, the company may decide not to pay you.

Which is why I immediately got nervous when we arrived at the place, only to find out they were shooting a cooking show, starring the restaurant’s chef. There we were, supposed to be all suave and invisible, but there’s a hand-written sign on the door stating that by entering, you’re agreeing to be interviewed and/or filmed. I relaxed when I realized the wait staff’s attention wasn’t on us – the way it was supposed to be – but on the cameras. They were going to certain tables and interviewing diners, but we were on the other side of the dining room.

When they finally took our order, I went with classics that are better the longer they cook, like the roasted chicken, but my husband went for fussier dishes, since the restaurant was supposed to be top rate. Only, nobody was paying attention. The waiter recommended some kind of lamb dish, then came back to let us know they were actually out of it. When the appetizers came, my husband’s softshell crab was a weird temperature (not hot, not chilled, just that memory-of-having-been-hot perfect for breeding bacteria) and the polenta under it had turned to something resembling stucco. But he didn’t send it back, since we were already so freaked out about calling attention to ourselves – potentially on camera. So I shared my appetizer – can’t remember what it was called exactly, but it involved meat-covered potatoes – and we carried on.

There Are Herbs in My Chocolate

When the entrees came, the hubby’s sea scallops were so overcooked, we could have used them for hocky pucks. He started making frowny faces at the waiter’s back – and I was giving him desperate looks that meant, we still have to be discreet. Though I was wondering, at what point is it weirder NOT to send stuff back rather than just not eating it. But that just made me more nervous. So I shared my chicken – which was amazing – and the waiter didn’t bat an eye when he came to clear away my husband’s second mostly-untouched plate.

The dessert, which we ordered to share, actually was good — though the hubby grumbled that if he’d ordered his own, it probably would have been burned – and the booze (some of these mystery shops actually require you to order alcoholic beverages) took the edge off the situation, so we were able to laugh about it while still at the table.

We were honest in the report, which I hated to do, since it was so obviously NOT an ordinary day for that waiter, but the company hired us to be objective. So that’s what we had to be. They wanted a blow-by-blow of what actually happened (in such detail that reports for that company take about three hours to write). If nothing else, the whole mystery-shopper experience taught me one thing: you have to structure your writing to meet audience expectations, and that’s true whether it’s a shop report, a blog post, or a novel.

Thanks, Amber. I don’t think I’m cut out to be a mystery shopper. If the food isn’t done right, I’m quick to send it back. How else will they learn? Plus, I’m really good at complaining!

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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