Rebecca Dibben, restaurant supervisor at Deseo, Gleneagles, has won the inaugural Gold Service Scholarship, set up to promote brilliance in hospitality service at all levels and within all sectors of the industry. Janet Harmer reports
Good service is good service, no matter what the style of restaurant. Rebecca Dibben has proved that to be the case by becoming the first winner of the Gold Service Scholarship, set up to promote excellence in front-of-house service.
Although she works at Gleneagles, one of the UK's most prestigious hotels, with five red AA stars, the restaurant where she is based is relaxed and informal. Deseo is an 180-seat all-day eaterie, with an open kitchen, serving a Mediteranean menu that includes tapas, pizza and seafood. It doesn't do linen or silver service, which you might think would have put Dibben at a disadvantage in competing against the scholarship's five other finalists, all who are based in the very best fine-dining establishments: Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Claridge's, the Berkeley, the Ritz and Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons.
Her success is perhaps even more remarkable when considering Dibben previously had very little experience of many of the service skills she had to perform to reach the finals and then ultimately win a competition that aims to become as respected and deeply entrenched in the hospitality calendar as the renowned Roux Scholarship.
The judges declared Dibben as the clear winner. "Rebecca had a winning combination of charm, enthusiasm and technical skill that just captured her guests and us as judges," said John Davey, a judge and a trustee of the Gold Service Scholarship who runs the John Davey Consultancy.
Willy Bauer, the scholarship's founder and chairman of AB Hotels, said: "We have a lovely young winner who can spread her wings and we can give her the benefit of our advice and experience."
The right balance For Dibben, winning the scholarship was equally "astounding and exciting". She is incredibly proud that she won as the only female among the finalists and firmly believes that it was her character that carried her through. "You have to find the right balance, but I used the opportunity throughout the lunch service to put across my personality and enthusiasm," she explains.
"I had to learn many of the skills we were tested on in order to take part in the competition, particularly involving the decanting, service and knowledge of wines. Having the knowledge of those skills will now help carry me through my career."
Dibben has worked at Deseo in her current role since May 2012, having previously spent a work placement for one year at the restaurant during her international hospitality management course at Plymouth University. Originally from Bournemouth, she has wanted to work in the hospitality industry ever since she took a part-time job as a barmaid.
"I immediately knew that this was the career I wanted to be in as I just love the interaction with guests," she explained.
She is thrilled that winning the Gold Service Scholarship will now propel her career onwards beyond her wildest dreams. The 12 months ahead will see Dibben be mentored by some of the industry's leading service specialists including Silvano Giraldin, director of Roux Restaurants, Emmanuel Landre, general manager at Le Gavroche, and Edward Griffiths, deputy master of the household at Buckingham Palace.
Her prize also includes an international stage with the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, a trip to the Champagne vineyards of Laurent-Perrier, tutored wine tastings with Berry Bros & Rudd, a magnum of Laurent Perrier Champagne, and a portrait painted by artist to the hospitality industry, Henrietta Graham.
"I'm very excited about sitting down with the mentors and judges over lunch to plan the year ahead," says Dibben. "I'm particularly looking forward to visiting Champagne and getting the chance to work in such amazing places as Le Gavroche and the Fat Duck. Going to Claridge's [for the awards presentation] and seeing how the service works there was a fantastic experience and I can't wait to spend time at more wonderful places."
Dibben says that when she started working in hospitality, her ultimate ambition was to own a restaurant. Now she is looking no further ahead than gaining as much experience and knowledge from the scholarship through as many diverse locations and sectors of the industry as possible.
"This is such an incredible opportunity. My career has only just started and I couldn't imagine a better way to gain such invaluable experience. It will be fantastic if I can become something of a role model for my team at Deseo."
Emulating the Roux Scholarship The full significance of Dibben becoming the first winner of the Gold Service Award may not become apparent for some time, but the experience of Andrew Fairlie, the inaugural winner of the Roux Scholarship in 1984 and today the chef-patron of Restaurant Andrew Fairlie at - by coincidence - Gleneagles, would suggest it could be considerable.
Talking to Caterer and Hotelkeeper, Fairlie says it would be brilliant if the Gold Service Scholarship proves to be even half the success of the Roux Scholarship, whose past winners have included Sat Bains, Andre Garrett and Steve Drake.
"There is no doubt that winning the scholarship nearly 30 years ago has played an enormous role in furthering my career," he says. "The support I have had from Michel and Albert Roux [founders of the Roux Scholarship] has been invaluable. There have been times when I have been fed up and picked up the phone to Michel and he has always given me brilliant advice.
"My key advice to Rebecca and any future winner of the Gold Service Scholarship would be to trust and respect the judges and mentors of the award and use them as much as possible to help you move on in your career.
"Rebecca now has quite a responsibility on her shoulders to help the future success of the scholarship. But in order for it to have the longevity of the Roux Scholarship, it also needs to have the right people to drive it forward."
Looking at the long list of trustees, advisors, judges and sponsors, the Gold Service Scholarship has already achieved extensive support to get off the ground. Its future is safe for the next two years as lead sponsor BaxterStorey has promised support for the first three years of the event.
The intention is that the scholarship will become a beacon of brilliance for hospitality service at all levels and within all sectors of the industry. At the awards presentation at London's Claridge's hotel, Bauer said he would like to see more applicants in the future from businesses that take pride in their work and be prepared to give service to the guest. He urged the gathering of leading industry personalities to become committed supporters of the scholarship in the future.
"Remember that those of us on the top mostly started at the bottom, but with one major talent - the right attitude and understanding that ours is a people's business," he said. "Caring, friendly personality and commitment to service are a must."
THE COMPETITION PROCESS
An impressive 120 applicants for the first Gold Service Scholarship resulted in the selection of 24 candidates being judged on a series of practical skills at two regional finals at the University College Birmingham and University of West London, in January.
As well as being tested on napkin folding, cocktail making, food and wine matching, and dealing with complaints, the personalities and social skills of the finalists also came under a microscope during a series of interviews with the judges.
At the national final, held at Westminster Kingsway College, the six contestants once again showed off their service skills and temperament under pressure by serving a three-course lunch menu with Champagne, wines and coffee to four guests. The judges observed the technical skills displayed throughout the service, alongside the candidates' general demeanour, engagement with customers and level of professionalism.
For veteran chef-lecturer Victor Ceserani - one of the guests served lunch at the final - the launch of the scholarship was long overdue. "But better late than never," he says. "This really is the first step to giving recognition to the importance of the front-of-house and its marriage with the kitchen.
"As a young boy who grew up among waiters - my father was a waiter at the Ritz - I've always had the utmost respect for front-of house staff. However, when I started as an apprentice chef at the Ritz, I realised that respect was in short supply.
"I've liked the enthusiasm that I've seen in the organisation of the Gold Service Scholarship and I hope that will help to drive it forward in the years to come.
Whatever the level or style of service - be it Michelin or casual, British or ethnic - it should be professional, and the scholarship should help to promote that."
Ceserani, now 93, was head of the school of hotelkeeping and catering at Ealing College of Higher Education until his retirement in 1980.
Daniel Crump, 23
Chef de rang
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, London
Ivo De Beus, 29
Rebecca Dibben, 22
Deseo, Gleneagles, Auchterarder, Perthshire
Steven Driscoll, 23
Graduate trainee food and beverage
The Berkeley, London
Devid Isabella, 29
Assistant restaurant manager
The Ritz, London
Ben Robinson, 22
Sommelier de rang
Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons