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The Caterer interview – Elena Salvoni

09 February 2011 by
The Caterer interview – Elena Salvoni

Did your childhood in Clerkenwell contribute to your sense of hospitality? Our house was full of visitors. People were always coming and going but were always made to feel welcome. I think Italians have that warmth. My Mum used to ask everyone who walked through the door if they'd eaten.

What was your route into the hospitality industry?
I left school at 14 and became an apprentice seamstress in Mortimer Street, making clothes with my friends. Then the war began. I worked in a factory making parts of uniforms "on the belt". But I hated the vulgarity of it. A friend said "come and work with us at Café Bleu".

Who was your first mentor?
The restaurant manager at Café Bleu was Mr Paccino from Milan. He taught us everything about serving a table and how to be there when a customer needs you. He showed us how to pick a plate up, everything, and in the gentlest manner. If my friends or I made a mistake, Mr Paccino would say "my stars don't shine tonight".

How did your career unfold?
There was a fire at Café Bleu, so we moved with Mr Paccino to work for Mr Bianchi at Bianchi's, now Little Italy. I worked there for 30 years. When Mr Paccino fell ill, I took over as restaurant manager. At 65, I decided to retire. Then Nick Lander got in touch and said "I'll buy L'Escargot for you". I signed for two years, but I was there for 10.

When Nick fell ill, the new owner wouldn't buy unless I stayed, but he overstretched himself and went bankrupt. Then Roy Ackerman got in touch. I said "Roy, I've had enough". He said "no I'd love you to work at the Gay Hussar so customers know you are still around". Then he found L'Etoile for me. I said to myself, "you're mad". But then I thought "I've got to have somewhere to hang my pictures" http://www.caterersearch.com/tabletalk" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">Elena has a large collection of signed celebrity photographs]. The rest is history. I was at L'Etoile for 15 years.

You lead teams by example. Can you explain further? When I get up, I know I'm going to work to enjoy it. When I put a foot in the door of a restaurant, I get the feeling it's going to be a good lunch. You've got to show that to the staff, so they are ready to give customers a smile.

Can you describe how you greet a guest?
You must make them feel comfortable right away. Say "good morning, how are you? Have you booked?" Then take them to their table - but you mustn't rush things. Allow them to settle down, then give them the menu - it's your style of doing all this that counts.

How do you gauge whether they want to develop a rapport with you?
You get a feeling that they want to be chatted to or not - and sometimes they tell you! You might talk about the weather, or their holiday, but when their host arrives, you leave them to it. If they don't want to chat, you walk away.

What's the secret of being there when a customer needs you?
When you walk a room, I know you've only got two eyes - but you need four. If someone needs you, and you are carrying something, don't ignore them. Just nod your head to acknowledge them, and then go back to them quickly.

Can you define great service and what is the secret to running great restaurants? It's hard to describe the art, it should come naturally. It's about warmth, about listening to people and about having a sense of humour. Don't fall over people, but make them feel welcome, and make them think they're coming into your house. And if you have a problem, you must never, never show it - whatever troubles you've got, you leave them at home. It's also about all the small details that count so much.

What kinds of details?
Pick up glasses from below, not above. Put plates down gently - that shows how you feel. Never stretch across - always walk around. You shouldn't look as though you're carrying a bundle of parcels - make two journeys rather than one if need be. And whatever guests tell you in confidence, is for your ears only.

How do you deal with complaints?
If there's a complaint, I go over myself. If they tell me the truth I can put something right. If a customer leaves food, you must always ask if there was anything wrong. The message should be: tell us so we can put it right. If they're honest they will tell you. Those customers come back.

What's the secret of dealing with contretemps between guests?
If a couple has an argument and someone walks out, I ask the remaining guest, "would you like another coffee?" A guest once had coffee poured over him. I dried him off and said "Have another cup of coffee". You have to mother them sometimes. [Television presenter] Bill Grundy once had a salad turned over him. I wiped him down with a napkin - I remember he had lettuce on his head. But another guest threw a glass of strega over his wife and hit her over the head with it. I said, "you don't do things like that, you'd better leave".

What do you think of service today?
Service has changed a lot. Now sometimes it's a bit too offish and not warm enough. You're doing a service - you have to make people feel comfortable.

What is your attitude to upselling?
I don't like the idea, it's the worst thing you can do. Look after your customers and they'll spend and tip well. When they order wine, you ask what type they like, offer a range and show them the wine list, so they can see the price. And if a customer asks you to leave the wine, don't pour it - don't push it.

And system-led restaurants?
Systems should never be at the expense of what the guest wants. For instance, never take the bread and butter plate away until they don't want it. If you do, it looks as though you want them to hurry. If a guest asks for something that's not on the menu, don't say "chef can't do that", but "I'll ask chef". And never say "sorry, that's how it's cooked".

How do you feel about the rise of the celebrity chef? Before, chefs never came out unless they were asked. And if they did, they would change their jacket.

Have you seen Michel Roux's Service? Yes, I have. I wouldn't want to knock it completely as it does raise the profile of service. But I am a bit concerned that it's very difficult to learn everything in such a short space of time. I could see they were nervous and I felt for them.

You've clearly enjoyed your career. Would you recommend it to others? Absolutely! I can't explain to you how much pleasure I get from my job. This is what my life is all about. I just love looking after people. My job is the great richness in my life and that's worth more than anything.

And a last word of advice?
You've got to love people and feel comfortable around them. If not, you won't enjoy the job.

To celebrate Elena Salvoni's career in hospitality, Caterer and Hotelkeeper, Roy Ackerman from Coolcucumber.tv and Malmaison & Hotel du Vin are together hosting three unique "Audience with Elena" events. We are offering you the chance to join the select few to hear Salvoni's stories and experiences from down the years.

The three lunch events will take place at:Hotel du Vin Harrogate, 15 February â- Hotel du Vin Edinburgh, 7 March â- Bistro du Vin, London, 5 April

Each event will kick off at noon with an informal Italian-themed lunch complemented with regional wines and beverages, followed by an exclusive interview by Roy Ackerman with Elena Salvoni ending with a Q&A session.

Caterer has six tickets to give away to each event. For your chance to attend one of these truly unique lunches and hear from one of the most legendary people in hospitality, go to [Caterersearch.com/tabletalk and reply to the Elena Salvoni thread, detailing your name, job title, company, e-mail address and preferred venue.

HIGHLIGHTS FROM ELENA'S L'ESCARGOT TRAINING MANUAL â- Smile and be courteous to both your colleagues and the customers. Remember, it all helps the customer's final impression of the establishment
â- Use your social skills to their full potential
â- Keep your eye on your table and at eye level so that the customer can easily attract your attention
â- Remember to keep smiling!
The Academy of Food and Wine Service offers more tips at www.afws.co.uk

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