Marco Pierre White's demotion of celebrity staff from the kitchen to waiter on his Hell's Kitchen TV show created a furore. Our letters pages were rammed as readers complained about the implied downgrading of front of house. So, with the 2009 Young Chef Young Waiter competition looming, Emily Manson looks at how the situation has changed over the past few decades - and how the two sides of the pass can combine to better effect
Some call it a healthy rivalry, some a bitter division, but if you're a chef or a waiter, you'll know what we're talking about. The relationship between front and back of house has always been fraught with tension; with chefs feeling superior, as they are the unsung creative geniuses, while waiters secretly know that, without their skills to look after and serve guests efficiently, even the best food in the world will fail to impress.
The recent fracas during the latest Hell's Kitchen series when the sabre-tongued Marco Pierre White "punished" failing chefs with a stint as a waiter stirred up all these emotions once again. Our letters page was filled with waiting staff defending their role, while industry leaders pointed out how unhelpful his actions were to the industry in general (see page 32).
The two roles do require very different sorts of characters and, especially in the heat of service, friction between them is understandable - but how can you, as an operator, help your teams get along and get the most out of each other?
We talked to some leading lights to get their experiences and advice.
THEM AND US?
Martin Burge, head chef of Whatley Manor in Wiltshire and the only Brit to get two Michelin stars this year, began his career at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons and with John Burton Race. "When I started at L'Ortolan at 27 it was my first head chef role, and there really wasn't much understanding about teamwork between the restaurant and kitchen. It was very much them and us, and what didn't help was the restaurant side was heavily French, so there was also a natural rivalry on that front and the two sides just didn't gel. We did what we did and they just served, so it didn't work, and there was no team spirit. It was pretty hard core - sometimes there were physical situations, which just wouldn't be acceptable today.
"Now, at Whatley Manor, the dynamics are completely different and we work as one team. The restaurant staff are as important as us: they showcase the food and play a massive part in the delivery of the guest experience. We work on communication between both teams and there's a really friendly atmosphere, and both groups are really willing to help each other. Tim [Allen, the sous chef] also has huge patience and is constantly training the staff on cheeses, which he's happy to do, as it's crucial.
"I used to be renowned - and many chefs were like this - for being aggressive during service on the pass. If waiters made mistakes, I'd hound them, but I learnt and realised this was counterproductive. It's just a waste of energy, creates a distraction and doesn't achieve what you want anyway. If things go wrong now, we sit down after service and talk it through to make sure we don't get the same problem again. It's just common sense."
Bruce Poole, chef-patron of the Michelin-starred Chez Bruce in Wandsworth, south London, started out front of house before taking to the stove, so has seen both sides of the divide. He says: "Marco's comments are quite old-fashioned in many ways, although I don't think he would have made them specifically wanting to denigrate front of house, rather as a punishment, because they were there to work in the kitchen. I do think the press probably made too much of them.
"Having said that, if there are tensions between front and back of house, they normally stem from the person at the top driving the business. I worked out front for many years and have always believed it's just as important as the food. Both departments are under equal amounts of pressure. At Chez Bruce there's no distinction in terms of seniority or job descriptions and that's probably why our staff get on pretty well together.
"The roles do attract different characters - you have to remain cool and unflustered in the dining room and staff are at the sharp end dealing with difficult customers; and while chefs can shout or scream, they have to deal with the greater time pressures and are more against the clock throughout service. Both departments carry their own stresses, they just show themselves differently.
"It's crucial that the key players, restaurant manager and chef, want the same thing. They don't have to be bosom buddies, but they do have to be after the same goal - it's no good having a chef who only cares about the food - they all have to work as a team and be customer-focused. It's not about chefs or waiters; it's about the customer."
Restaurateur Will Smith has set up several London resturants, including Arbutus and Wild Honey, with his business partner and chef Antony Demetre. The front-of-house man and his chef get on together because they respect each other, he says:
"Chefs and waiters are two distinct jobs. Chefs respond to a piece of paper that prints out and they react to that, whereas waiters have to communicate and pre-empt customers' wishes by reading them and their body language. It's a totally different skill. Waiters are also always on show, like the swan gliding around the room but paddling like mad underneath, whereas chefs are clearly grafting away in a hot, sweaty kitchen, and that's where confusion can begin.
"Waiters normally understand clearly what chefs do, as it's easily quantifiable: they take a raw ingredient and turn it into a finished product; but chefs, conversely, sometimes don't totally understand what floor staff do. Waiters have nothing to show for their efforts at the end of the night - it's totally intangible - except perhaps for smiling customers.
"Waiters gain respect from chefs when they are seen to be on time, smart and clean-shaven, and know and be interested in the menu, understand the seasonal products and order the dishes correctly. Waiters generally respect the chefs, as the physical nature is unavoidable in the kitchen - the hours tend to be longer and there's the sheer endurance of service."
Fred Siriex, general manager of Galvin at Windows at the Park Lane Hilton in London, has been working with André Garrett for several years. He's optimistic that the situation has improved over the years.
"The tensions do still exist, although it has got better over the years. I never liked the fighting, and it always seemed to be a question of ego, which, like the stereotype of racism, needs to be stamped out. It's not good for the industry; and when conflict happens, customers, and therefore your business, will suffer.
"I do think there needs to be an understanding of what it takes to get a steak out of the kitchen on time and the pressure chefs are under. The kitchen is like a funnel where everything comes from, so it's really concentrated in there. But both sides are equal and under different types of pressure.
"I'm very lucky, as I have a very good relationship with André and we don't have that divide. I think that's first and foremost because we understand what our mission is and what we need to do to have a successful restaurant and bar. The key is to give the customer what they want, so they're happy and want to return. To understand that, you both need to know what you want to achieve.
"There's no room for ego; you have to see the bigger picture. It's not about what's more important; it's about getting overall quality in what we do. We always discuss new things with front of house, kitchen and the sommeliers - we're all in the same room putting ideas down, as the sole aim is to do things that the customer will like that will make the restaurant successful - and everyone needs to be part of that."
LETTERS ABOUT MARCO: HIGHLIGHTS FROM OUR PAGES
Chris Elliott, Cloche Hat restaurant
"I have been running restaurants for 30 years, and although I hold MP White in the highest regard as one of the world's best chefs, I do wish he would show a little more appreciation to the front-of-house staff.
"There has always been a little healthy angst between the front and back of house, each thinking they are the best. In the kitchen I always say to the chefs: you may think you are the best, but without the potwashers keeping you fed with clean pots, pans and plates, and without the waiters serving your great creations, you would be stumped.
"Marco, more than anyone should know that the catering business is a team effort and that we are only as good as the weakest link. A good chef or manager can be measured by the team he surrounds himself with."
Antonia Kay "As a front-of-house lecturer in further education, I am astonished that someone like Marco has no respect for front-of-house staff. I was under the impression that the bully boy days where chefs shouted at and belittled waiters were over. How wrong I was.
"I am also left wondering as a businessman with his own restaurant how his front-of-house staff are feeling and how it will affect their morale. Marco has set training in the area back 10 years. So, well done, Marco - you should be ashamed of yourself."
Nick Scade, chairman, Academy of Food and Wine "I think it's a great shame to ‘punish' shortcomings in the kitchen with a stint as a waiter. It belittles the essential role that front-of-house staff play in any restaurant experience. To state that waiting just involves ‘pushing trolleys… and slicing bits of cake…' is firstly incorrect and secondly rather demeaning to those who regard front-of-house service as a proper career path.
"I should just like to remind Marco that many a restaurant, despite serving splendidly prepared food, has fallen by the wayside when it has mediocre serving staff. Truly great restaurants invariably have truly great front-of-house teams - like Marco's own restaurant manager, Nick, who at least he acknowledges is critical to his success.
"It would be nice if a bit more emphasis was given to the importance of the front-of-house team rather than it being seen as the place where no-hopers are dumped."
YOUNG CHEF YOUNG WAITER
This year Young Chef Young Waiter celebrates its 25th anniversary. The competition encourages and celebrates those under-25s in the industry who are passionate about championing excellent food and great service.
Chefs are tested on their cooking skills, for butchery, theoretical knowledge and ability to create a dish from surprise ingredients, while waiters have to serve Champagne and wine and undergo an interpersonal skills interview.
The award, organised by the British Hospitality Association, the Savoy Educational Trust and Sodexo, as well as various sponsors, boasts a host of well-known previous winners. The chef side has been won by Marcus Wareing, Mark Sargeant, Brett Graham and Neil Borthwick, while William Bonfield from the Box Tree in Ilkley, Simon King from the Ritz, and Nico at Rhodes W1 are some examples of front-of-house winners.
The national competition is widely recognised as one of the best showcases of young talent in the industry and it is especially popular due to its unique structure, pairing the skills of both front and back of house, as well as its spectacular prizes.
There are prizes to the value of £250 for the winning chef and waiter at the four regional finals. All the national finalists are invited to Epernay to visit the Champagne Besserat de Bellefon vineyard.
First prize includes £2,000, plus a gastronomic stay in London, a visit to the Restaurant Show, dinner at Chez Bruce, lunch at the Dorchester's Krug Room, chef knives and accessories for the chef and wines for the waiter.
To enter the competition you must be under 25 years old and be in full-time employment in the UK. Regional finals will be held in September, with the national final being held at London's Westminster Kingsway College with an awards dinner at the Jumeirah Carlton Tower hotel in London on 6 October.
The deadline is fast approaching - 7 July - so if you have a passion and talent for your job, enter Young Chef Young Waiter by visiting www.bha.org.uk/ycyw.