Jennifer Santner, winner of the 2016 Gold Service Scholarship and restaurant manager of Fenchurch restaurant at the Sky Garden, talks to Katherine Price about how the scholarship has equipped her with the skills and knowledge to take the restaurant, and her career, to the next level
One thing that you don't expect to hear when you first meet Jennifer Santner, the 25-year-old winner of the 2016 Gold Service Scholarship, is that she didn't always want to work in restaurants.
"It's not like I always knew I was going be in hospitality. I was looking at being a car mechanic," says the restaurant manager of the Rhubarb-operated Fenchurch restaurant at Sky Garden in London.
With her impeccable grooming and excellent, softly accented English that barely betrays her Swiss origins, it's hard to imagine her in a pair of overalls. But after falling into hospitality ("it was very random"), Santner has achieved one of the highest accolades for young front of house professionals in the UK.
Santner, originally from Lucerne in Switzerland, did a week's work experience in a hotel at school and was won over by the glamour, the flexibility and the variety of the industry. That, and the mechanic job didn't quite work out.
"They didn't think I was suitable," she laughs. "Hospitality was the right decision."
After training as an apprentice at the Grand Hotel National Lucerne and a two-year stint at the Dolder Grand hotel in Zurich, she moved to London with the intention of staying for six months to improve her English. Five years later and she's still here with a CV full of some of London's most glamorous hotel restaurants, including those at the Athenaeum, the Como Metropolitan and the Hilton London on Park Lane (Galvin at Windows). And she's not planning on returning any time soon.
"I'm happy here and I don't think I could have achieved the same in Switzerland. There are fewer hotels and restaurants as good as those in London. I found Galvin at Windows and it was perfect. I'm not a patient person and I developed fairly fast there, which was great."
Santner's next step was Fenchurch and the scholarship which, like the previous year's scholar, Daniele Quattromini, she took two attempts to conquer.
The Gold Service Scholarship, which launched in 2013, is the UK's leading annual competition for young front-of-house professionals. The winner is given the chance to undertake placements at Buckingham Palace, Michelin-starred establishments and top hotels. Contestants are rigorously interviewed and tested on table preparation, service priorities, drink service and salesmanship, and the judges look for confidence, product knowledge, professionalism and passion.
The first time around, Santner didn't get through to the final, but she wasn't too surprised. "It was daunting and I was very nervous," she says. She very nearly didn't enter last year and ended up sending her application in on the last possible date. Luckily she did. Her previous experience and being among familiar faces helped massively. "I knew what to expect, so I knew what to prepare for," she says.
Santner's confidence shone through at the final, where seven competitors had to plan and serve a three-course lunch, Champagne and wines to a table of four industry professionals at London's Connaught hotel.
In addition to being announced the Gold Service Scholar at a presentation reception at Claridge's hotel, Santner received the ultimate honour of receiving the award from the scholarship's patron, the Queen.
During her year as scholar, Santner got to work at a garden party at Buckingham Palace for 7,000 covers ("I'd never do that many covers in a day again!"), pouring tea and serving canapés to guests in the royal tea tent. In the summer she travelled to Malaysia for a 10-day stage at the Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur. "I think that was the best experience," she says, "to see a different culture and how they do it [service] over there. It just seems to come so much more from their heart than from a sequence or standards, it just seems to be natural to them, which is really impressive."
On her return she spent a week at the three-Michelin-starred Waterside Inn at Bray, Berkshire, with director and general manager Diego Masciaga, working on canapés in the kitchen with Alain Roux and shadowing the head waiters. "The service is very co-ordinated, everyone knows what they're doing without talking. It's so synchronised."
tner says Masciaga has been a particular inspiration to her. "He managed to find a topic to talk to each guest about for at least five minutes during the meal. We do more covers here, but during a quiet service I try to go and talk to each guest like he does."
In November she got to work at a state visit at Buckingham Palace for the president of the Republic of Colombia. "It was very impressive to see such a big dinner that was so beautifully well-organised," she says.
Overall, Santner feels the year has given her more of an understanding of the industry, boosted her confidence and given her ideas to implement in her current workplace, from how to train and develop her team and steps in the sequence of service, to little touches such as providing torches and reading glasses for guests who need them to read the menus.
Despite her busy year, Santner intends to enter next year's Restaurant Manager of the Year competition. Her focus will be on Fenchurch, which she would love to achieve a Michelin star (or two) following the recent recruitment of head chef Daniel Fletcher, previously senior sous chef at the Square.
"I know the company is expanding so I'll keep that in mind. I've had plenty of offers which I have politely declined. I can be myself here; I can be a part of what we're doing, and I'm able to make suggestions about how we move on. I'm very happy here right now. I want to work in a very good restaurant, and the plan is to take this one forward."
- 2016-present Restaurant manager, Fenchurch restaurant at Sky Garden, London
- 2015-2016 Assistant restaurant manager, Fenchurch Seafood Bar & Grill, London
- 2013-2015 Restaurant supervisor, Galvin at Windows, London
- 2012-2013 Chef de rang, Como Metropolitan Hotel London
- 2011-2012 Chef de rang, the Athenaeum hotel, London
- 2010-2011 Demi chef de rang, the Dolder Grand hotel, Zurich
- 2007-2010 Apprentice, Grand Hotel National Lucerne
The industry's view of Jennifer Santner
Artan Berdyna, general manager of Fenchurch restaurant at Sky Garden, London
"Seeing someone coming through the ranks at that age is very satisfying. I think she's a lot calmer now; a bit more mature in the way she approaches people. The passion has always been there and I think she's learned how to show that."
John Davey, trustee and consultant
"Jennifer certainly understands the true meaning of hospitality and how important it is to look after everyone and to create return business; she's a wonderful ambassador of the Gold Service Scholarship."
Edward Griffiths, chairman of Searcys and Portico, executive director of Westbury Street Holdings and chairman of judges
"Jennifer has been a wonderful Gold Service scholar. It is always very rewarding to see how the scholars develop and mature during their year. Jennifer has been no exception, and her frequent blogs on her experiences display a great appreciation of attention to detail and an ambassadorial approach to the scholarship."
Romain Pottier, director of restaurants at Rhubarb
"Since Jennifer was awarded the scholarship, the Sky Garden team have been delighted to watch her incredible professional development. She has embraced every opportunity and benefitted from the programme's mentoring, which has seen her excellent service and skills progress to exceptional new levels. As a very valued and inspiring member of Fenchurch, we are extremely proud of everything she has achieved."
Sergio Rebecchi, director of Serenata Hospitality and trustee
"Jennifer has a gift of portraying much that is unique to our industry: her personality and presentation, attention to detail, mentoring and supporting up and coming front of house staff and her unstinting delivery of service excellence."
Diego Masciaga, director and general manager at the Waterside Inn, Berkshire
"I was delighted that Jennifer was able to spend an entire week with me and my team. She immediately won the respect of all my team members with her ability to integrate readily and openly - such integration, whatever the rank, is imperative and incredibly important in an environment where there are both guests and staff members.
"Winners and participants of the Gold Service Scholarship award can only enhance, inspire and propel other young people into realising the wonderful opportunities and satisfaction that this industry can bring."
The previous winners: where are they now?
2013: Rebecca Dibben Dibben, the winner of the first Gold Service Scholarship at 22 years old, was a restaurant supervisor at Deseo restaurant at the Gleneagles hotel, Auchterarder, at the time of her win. She is now a senior recruiter for the front of house elite division of Platinum Recruitment Consultancy.
2014: James Fleming Fleming was formerly a chef de rang at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great Milton, Oxford. Since winning the Gold Service Scholarship, he has worked at the five-red-AA-star Berkeley hotel in London, completed the Master Innholder's Aspiring Leaders Diploma, and taken up his current position of duty manager at the five-AA-star Beaumont hotel in London.
2015: Daniele Quattromini Quattromini was the manager of CH&Co Group's Club Lounge 39 in London when he was awarded the scholarship. In September 2016, he was appointed restaurant manager at the five-red-AA-star Cliveden House hotel in Taplow, Berkshire.
Gold Service Scholarship 2017 finalists
This year's Gold Service Scholarship winner will be announced at an awards ceremony at Claridge's on 28 February. The finalists are:
- Stephanie Beresforde, the Seafood restaurant, Padstow, Cornwall
- Ashley Best, the Ritz, London
- Alexandra-Iulia Caciuc, 45 Jermyn St at Fortnum & Mason, London
- Tom Noller, Merchants Tavern, London
- Manuel Marchetti, the Waterside Inn, Bray, Berkshire
- Luis Oliveira Santos, Rosewood London
- Alexandra Spatar, the Woodspeen, Berkshire
- Nina Thomsen, L'Enclume, Cumbria