Diego Masciaga is director and general manager of Alain Roux’s three-Michelin-starred Waterside Inn in Bray – a role he has held for 30 years. He reveals the secrets of great service to Katie Pathiaki
When I was younger, the front of house profession was not about learning skills, people did it to learn languages. The waiter had to speak the language of the guest. I did stages around the world and I had reached a point where I knew I would have to learn English. I came to the UK and it took me a while because I hadn’t learned it at school – I learned French and German. I remember when I met my girlfriend (now my wife) and all I could say was ‘how are you?’ Now I speak three languages fluently and professionally I can speak five.
I’m a great believer that front of house staff need to have a cultural background. It’s not enough to talk about the wine and the food, you have to be able to talk about music or art. I don’t go travelling for the sunshine and the palm trees, but to learn about culture, religion and a different way of life.
My father was a policeman and my mother made shirts. I come from a small village in Italy in the mountains. I was never academic – school was just something I had to go to. I wanted to see the world and I thought of what profession would allow me to do that without paying. At 14 years old I went to France to work in a big hotel, but I was too young to be in the dining room so I was in charge of dogs! At that age I didn’t know that for some people their dogs are all they have if they have no family. I spoke very little French, but it was a wonderful experience.
I left the Waterside briefly in 1993. I was sad that I’d never worked in my own country, so I went to Italy as a general manager at a beautiful place with a wonderful chef called Gualtiero Marchesi. After I started I realised that Italy had changed and it wasn’t the same Italy that I left 15 years before. I found a different world and felt a bit out of place. Maybe Michel Roux knew, because he never employed a restaurant manager and I came back six months later.
I’ve learned that you have to be honest. If you try to fool a guest that is to try to cheat the guest. And one day, you’ll be caught. Always be yourself and always be happy in yourself. The technique will come later.
The key to a restaurant manager is to be able to read people’s minds. A lot of people come to the restaurant to celebrate special occasions, and as a manager you’re selling them a dream – not a glass of wine or water. They have been looking forward to coming to the restaurant for so long and they’ve been saving for six months, so you need to recognise that and make sure that dream is fulfilled. You have businessmen who are trying to make a big deal, so you have to be polite, but formal. The last thing they want when they are about to sign a deal is to have someone explain how the lobster is cooked. Then you have people who have just had a big row in the car. You have to recognise this and give them space and time to relax.
Too much service is as bad as not enough. Leaders have to be on the floor with their team and take charge to direct them to the tables.
My motto is ‘it’s not about how long you stay with me, it’s how you leave’. If a young person gives a year of their life to work for me, I’m a very happy man. When you’re young you need to see different things – you can’t stay in the same place for 10 years.
The world is much faster and the stress in our profession is not what it used to be. I’m a great believer that if we want to get the best out of our team we have to respect their hours in their working day and I’m very proud to say that at the Waterside we are closed two full days a week. I’ve noticed that my chefs are staying, my waiters are staying and, in my profession, that’s a little luxury. I’d rather have happy staff. There’s nothing worse than a waiter who is there half-asleep. I’ve done it, but I don’t want my staff to do it.
I don’t employ people on technique but on attitude. The training I do is to help them understand that they’re not just here to do a job, they’re here to do a very important profession. Customer service is not well recognised by many companies and I think good customer service can bring a lot. It doesn’t just bring you happiness, but also wealth, as your guests will always come back to you.
I love the Waterside, it is my house. But maybe because of my age I’ve got another dream. I want to be able to speak to young people, to motivate people in businesses and colleges. Not speeches that I read out – I’m no good at that – but speeches that come from the heart and that are about my experiences. That is my dream, to be able to teach people, to make them understand that this is a profession and that customer service is so important.
1988-present Director and general manager, the Waterside Inn, Bray
1986-1988 First Maître d’hôtel, Restaurant Alain Chapel, Mionnay, France
1985-1986 Restaurant manager, Le Mazarin, London
1983-1985 Maître d’hôtel, Le Gavroche, London
1980-1983 Maître d’hôtel, Restaurant Alain Chapel Mionnay, France
1979-1980 Head waiter, Hotel Barrière Royal La Baule, France