The Gold Service Scholarship winner can enjoy privileges such as being mentored by the best in the industry or serving in world-famous restaurants. Before the competition opens again for 2015, John Cousins, who sits on the scholarship's technical advisory group, takes a look at how last year's finalists enjoyed their tour of Champagne
Chefs have long been celebrated through competition, but until recently those with a talent for front of house operations had missed out on the limelight and learning associated with pitting yourself against your peers. But now, through initiatives such as the Gold Service Scholarship, front of house is finally getting the recognition it deserves.
Last year's winner was James Fleming, chef de rang at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire. For the final, he and his six fellow contenders demonstrated their skills in mise en place, decanting, reception service, meal service, wine and beverage service and customer engagement during a lunch service at the Connaught hotel in London.
They were watched closely by judges including Edward Griffiths, deputy master of the household at Buckingham Palace; Sergio Rebecchi, director at Incognico and Quirinale restaurants; and Alastair Storey, chairman of lead sponsor BaxterStorey.
Fleming's reward was a year of mentoring, including the opportunity to work side-by-side with industry luminaries such as Diego Masciaga at the Waterside Inn and Emmanuel Landre and Silvano Giraldin at Le Gavroche. He has had the chance to take part in high-profile culinary events, tour French vineyards and serve in some of the world's best restaurants.
One of the tours he undertook was with his fellow finalists, who were invited to be guests of Champagne Malard in Epernay, France, on a three-day educational tour.
"A highlight of the trip was to experience the process that every bottle of Champagne goes through to meet the necessary standards," says Fleming.
"It starts with filling the bottles, then moving on to the storage and lying down of the bottles for a long period of time to develop the Champagne's flavour, style and the bubbles.
"Then it's on to the riddling process [turning the bottles to move the sediment to the neck of the bottle] followed by the disgorgement [freezing the neck of the bottle and removing the cap and pellet of ice that contains the sediment]."
Like the other finalists, Joana Maria Pons Gari, head waitress at Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles in Perthshire, was impressed by the exacting standards employed to produce the celebrated product.
"We had the privilege to taste the still wines before the assemblage [blending], and this was an educative and amazing experience for somebody like me, who works with wines most of the time," she says. "It was possible to appreciate how they can make Champagne from still wines and how it changes the taste. It was wonderful."
Royal Household footman George Oates adds: "It was a true pleasure to be learning from professionals whose lives have been immersed in the business and yet still take joy in sharing their expertise with great warmth.
I have always found that the best way to learn is to grasp on to a story and Champagne offered a wealth of these."
Next month, the competition will open for a third year to find the finest practitioners in front of house service. To enter, visit www.thegoldservicescholarship.co.uk
The Gold Service Scholarship 2014 finalists
• (From left) Devid Isabella, assistant restaurant manager, the Ritz
• Daniele Quattromini, trainee hospitality manager, Lusso Catering
• Joana Maria Pons Gari, head waitress, Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles
• James Fleming, chef de rang, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons
• Adam Hersey, assistant restaurant and bar manager, Brocket Hall Golf Club
• George Oates, footman, the Royal Household, Buckingham Palace
• Julien Gardin, junior assistant restaurant manager, the Fat Duck (Julien couldn't make the trip)
The Malard house is an independent family house founded in 1996 by Jean-Louis Malard, a Champenois born in Epernay, capital city of Champagne, and his wife, Natacha Malard, a former high-level sportswoman. Their sons, Antoine and Charles, also work in the family business.
The house's head office is based in Epernay, and its vat facilities and cellars are based in Oiry, a Grand Cru village in the famous Côte des Blancs, spread over more than 5,000 sq m with a capacity of 8,000 hectolitres of wines.
The house owns no vineyards, which is not unusual in Champagne, where even the large houses that do own vineyards still have to buy additional grapes from independent growers.
The company also owns and operates Champagne Georges Cartier, based in Epernay, which provides cellarage located at a depth of 12m, spread over more than a kilometre and a half.