Who'd want to be a waiter? Self-confessed plate-dropper Tom Vaughan takes a look at front-of-house personnel and discovers it really is a career worth aiming for.
Before we get down to the nitty-gritty - the how, the when, the all-important why of waitering - I have a confession to make. I was a rubbish waiter. Really rubbish: a plate-dropping, order-scrambling, wine-spilling shambles.
Ten years ago, as one of the vast number of debt-ridden students dabbling in front of house, I failed to ever quite grasp the innumerate skills required. It all seemed so easy in theory - I mean, I must have poured myself a dozen glasses of wine in the past week alone. And I was perfectly friendly, in an over-zealous type of way.
However, Sam Harrison, owner and host of two London restaurants, Sam's Brasserie and Harrison's, puts the situation succinctly. "There is a difference between service and hospitality. You get waiters who can carry six plates or pour a perfect bottle of wine, but they do it with absolutely zero hospitality. On the flipside you don't just want a smiley, chatty waitress who then gets your order wrong. But when service and hospitality come together in a waiter, then you have something special."
Maybe it was 10 years of Jamie, Gordon and Hugh. Maybe I was truly convinced that the kitchen was hospitality's route to glory. Television had a Naked Chef but no Naked Waiter and so I ended up paying off my overdraft as a chef.
Maybe it was a peculiarly British conceit - a ludicrous vestige of a class system - that directed my subconscious. Nick Scade, chairman of the Academy of Food and Wine, articulates the problem well. "It's seemingly not natural to Brits to do something that might be seen as servile. On the Continent and in America, it's a well respected profession. But here, that inbuilt class thing about serving people stops waiters seeing their job as a career."
In hindsight, my mindset was boringly stereotypical. "Everyone leaving college these days wants the limelight of the chef," says Simon Girling, restaurant manager at the Ritz in London. "They want a part of everything TV has done for the chef."
If only I'd known back then what I do now. An occupational perk, or cardiovascular hazard, of a career writing about restaurants is the high number of meals out. For every truly great dish, there is a great waiter; an individual front of house that made a meal an occasion - Gabriel Danis at Marlow's Aubergine, Tham Prawattree at Fulham's Blue Elephant, Darren Neilan at One-O-One. They were people that showed first hand just how important front of house is, and just what the effect can be on a customer when service and hospitality come together. As Joseph Durrant, manager at the Atrium, and its sister restaurants Blue and Café St Honore, in Edinburgh, and winner of the Young Waiter competition in 2006, pointed out when I put Harrison's comments on service and hospitality to him, the sum of those two assets is far greater than the parts.
Watch Simon Girling demonstrating the way to carve smoked salmon, carve grouse and make crêpe suzette
But how on earth were those individuals so good and so memorable? What did they do differently that made my meal such an occasion? And why couldn't I, as a rookie waiter, see that enviable skill-set as a product of the job?
The reason I failed to see it, suggests Durrant, is that the skill-set is largely intangible, different, say, from watching the very comprehensible talent of knife skills. "There's a real art to it," explains Durrant. "And it's an art that is much less tangible than that of being a chef. It's in creating an experience with the timing and personality of an evening, and being able to tailor that to every person that walks through the door."
At the forefront of these subtle skills is the ability to read a customer. "You learn to judge the look on people's faces and their body language," says Elena Salvoni who, aged 89, still works the floor of her restaurant, Elena's L'Etoile in London, on a daily basis.
"You read what mood they are in, when to interrupt and when not to." And unfortunately it's not an art that can be learnt overnight, says Gianluca Rizzo, restaurant manager at Ynyshir Hall in Wales, but one that grows with age.
And if you ask most career front-of-house personnel, it's this interaction with customers that originally appealed to them about the job. Jean Mounaix, restaurant manager at Galvin Bistrot de Luxe in London, says he can't imagine someone not liking the job. "It's a job that puts you in contact with people and your goal is to make them happy," he says. "And to help achieve this, you are talking mainly about the great pleasures in life - eating and drinking."
"Merchants of happiness" is the expression Silvano Giraldin, who spent 37 years managing Le Gavroche, uses to refer to waiters. People who "sell memories" is how Rizzo refers to them.
And the reason individuals such as Giraldin, who is now retired, and Salvoni have spent so long in the profession is the sheer variety of the people to whom they are dishing out happiness. "There are so few jobs where you can meet that range of people - from the prime minister to the pot washer in the kitchen," says Giraldin.
And it's not just a love of talking food and wine that's required, but a love of conversation itself. "I will be honest with you, and people laugh at me for this," says Diego Masciaga, general manager of the Waterside Inn in Bray, "I like to read Hello! and OK! magazine because people like to talk about those things and I like to talk to people."
His story illustrates the evolution of front of house over the past 25 years, from stuffy to convivial. "The skill set of a waiter over the past decade or so has changed drastically," says Girling. "Back then it used to be about etiquette and formality, now it is about knowledge and behavioural skills. The Young Chef Young Waiter competition reflects this; once upon a time we looked for technical skills, now it's much more behavioural."
Mounaix agrees: "For me now, those old skills - the flambéing, the preparation of the steak tartare - they are not essential. I would rather employ someone who has travelled, who knows the wine regions or knows good cocktails."
This knowledge is another fundamental aspect of the modern waiter: the ability to discuss and inform on the food being served. "The customer who knows a lot about food and wine you enjoy the conversation with; the customer who knows a little you try and gently steer, you give him something to appreciate," says Giraldin. "That is the fascinating aspect of the job - talking and teaching."
The classic, tangible skills of front of house, the theatrics of a crêpe suzette or a flambé, might seem like they are going out of fashion. But, as Scade says, "Trousers go out of fashion, but then they come back in a decade or so later". They may no longer be essential, but young staff like Durrant are nonetheless eager to learn, in case their career takes them to an establishment still practising those arts. What's more, says Girling, "Some of the classic waiters' skills are interesting and captivating to young waiters - carving a grouse or flambéing - but unfortunately they are becoming less cost-effective. It's great shame and I think we're flying the flag at the Ritz."
Even the basic skills of waiting should be viewed in the right context, says Girling. Take up-selling. Rather than a duty, it should be seen as an opportunity to demonstrate the waiter's worth to a business.
"For me, the future of front of house is making sure we reposition ourselves as people who run the business," he says. "We need to show the people who own restaurants that not only do we understand money - the profit and loss - but we make them money. Something as simple as up-selling is a skill that makes the restaurant money where the kitchen can't. We need to become businessmen."
And it's this last mental barrier that stood in my way as a rookie waiter, and probably still stands in the way of many students - the inability to envisage waiting as a career. Quite simply, it wasn't spelt out to me like TV spelt out the trajectory of a chef. "As careers progress, waiters' opportunities diversify so much more than chefs," says Girling. "A chef will likely stay a chef, but a front of house individual, if he learns well, can become a maitre d', a sommelier, a general manager, a food and beverage manager, a restaurateur, or a businessman."
The list of perks a waiter or maitre d' might enjoy goes on - the opportunity to try food from all over the world, opportunity for career progression in an unsaturated market and the sheer enjoyment of running a well-oiled team, something Giraldin compares to "conducting an orchestra".
Trying to explain how to become a great waiter in a five-page feature is a bit like trying to describe how to become a great carpenter in 10 steps. The basic skill set - the silver service, the pouring of wine - can be mastered quickly. But the more complex skills - reading customers, the art of playing host, the knowledge of food and wine - come with experience. But above and beyond all of this, the attitude - the hospitality - comes from the heart. And even with all the service skills in the world, a lack of intuitive hospitality results in a bad waiter. "If a waiter does not have the right attitude to a guest, skills are not enough," says Masciaga. "And they cannot show to a guest what is so fantastic about putting a plate on a table."
WATCH THE VIDEO
To see Simon Girling demonstrating the way to carve smoked salmon, carve grouse and make crêpe suzette, go to www.caterersearch.com/video
FIVE RISING STARS
- Joseph Durrant, restaurant manager, the Atrium, Edinburgh, 27: won the Young Waiter competition in 2006 when assistant manager at the Atrium restaurant, now manages all three of the group's sites in Edinburgh.
- Nicholas Defremont, restaurant manager, Royal Hospital Road, London, 28: the youngest restaurant manager of any three-Michelin-starred restaurant in the world, Defremont heads up the front of house at Gordon Ramsay.
- Brad Gent, restaurant manager, Opus, Birmingham, 29: After winning the MARCHE Awards of Excellence for fine-dining assistant of the year in 2008, a regional accolade awarded to the outstanding young assistant manager of the year, Gent is now in the finals for the prestigious Master of Culinary Arts.
- Simone Sylvestre, catering manager, Restaurant Associates, London, 25: a Brazilian national who has worked in the UK for five years, Sylvestre has progressed through the ranks within Restaurant Associates from general assistant through sous chef to her current role as catering manager in London, winning the prestigious Acorn Scholarship in 2009.
- Katie Watson, chef de rang, Strathearn Restaurant at the Gleneagles hotel, Perthshire, 21: Watson already has a degree in Hotel and Hospitality Management under her belt and recently represented the UK in Restaurant Service at World Skills, achieving a bronze medal.
21ST CENTURY WAITING SKILLS
The art of waiting
"Everything should be at your table without you ever noticing it. Good service means the customer never notices."
Silvano Giraldin, former general manager, Le Gavroche
"Talk to the guest, discover their likes and dislikes. Maybe find out what their favourite country or wine is. Make sure whatever you suggest he or she will be pleased about. Never, never try to be cheeky and squeeze a sale. Maximising profits is nice but the main thing is to please the guest."
Gianluca Rizzo, restaurant manager, Ynyshir Hall, Wales
Dealing with a moody customer
"You have to admit there has been a problem. You have to be sincere. And most of all you have to show that you are honest and human."
Diego Masciaga, general manager, the Waterside Inn, Bray, Berkshire
Dealing with the irascible chef
"A few years ago the front of house and the kitchen was very separated - like two sides fighting each other. These days it is changing - it is more like teamwork. Always communicate with the chef and always try to understand what he is doing and his problems."
Jean Mounaix, restaurant manager, Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, London
Reading a customer
"If you like people and you want to understand them then this grows. You cannot learn it quickly, it comes on with maturity." Gianluca Rizzo, restaurant manager, Ynyshir Hall, Wales
2010 ACORN SCHOLARSHIP
The 2010 Acorn Scholarship is open for entries. Now in its eighth year, the scholarship's objective is to seek out talented individuals within the catering and hospitality industry and help them realise their ambitions and reward their determination. The Acorn Scholarship is a self-nominated award - although you must have the backing of your employer - and is open to individuals who are UK residents and able to work in the UK without restriction. For more information, visit www.acornscholarship.org.uk
YOUNG CHEF YOUNG WAITER
Now in its 25th year, the Young Chef Young Waiter competition rewards the best young chef and young waiter aged 25 and under.
Sponsored by luxury hotel group von Essen and organised by the Restaurant Association in partnership with HSBC, the Savoy Educational Trust and Sodexo, the national finals will take place on 6 October at Westminster College, London. Judges include Bruce Poole, chef-proprietor of the Michelin-starred Chez Bruce, as the chair of the chef judges; and Stephen Mannock, programme director at the National Skills Academy for Hospitality, as the chair of the waiter judges.
Nick Romano, von Essen Hotels' chief executive officer, says of this year's competition: "Von Essen Hotels aspires to the highest standards of service and cuisine and our support of the Young Chef Young Waiter competition reflects our commitment to encouraging young talent throughout the hospitality industry. For the first time this year, the Young Waiter regional finals were held in ‘real-life' environments in two of our hotels, Cliveden and Seaham Hall. The standard of entries has been very high this year, the 25th year of the competition, and we are looking forward to rewarding this year's winners."
- The winner of the northern regional chefs' heats was Rose Greene from Le Champignon Sauvage, Cheltenham. Runners-up were Mark Stinchcombe (Lucknam Park, Colerne), Jenny Thoden (the Church Green, Lymm) and Lahiru Jayasekara (Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, Great Milton).
- Winner of the northern regional waiters' competition, held at von Essen's Seaham Hall in County Durham, was Harald Prock (Mosimann's), with Catherine Hudson (the Longridge Restaurant, Preston), Daniel Campbell (Number One Restaurant, Balmoral hotel, Edinburgh) and Peter Saunders (Northcote hotel, Blackburn) as runners-up.
- The winner of the southern chef regional final, held at Thames Valley University in London, was Shaun Dickens of the Michelin-starred L'Ortolan restaurant in Reading. Runners-up were Nicholas Hill of the Ledbury and Andrew McFadden of Pied à Terre, both in London, as well as Eliza Thomas of contract caterer Jackson Gilmour in Croydon.
Winner of the southern waiters' competition, held at Von Essen's Cliveden hotel in Berkshire, was Marco Fusato of the Ritz in London, with Matthew Balman of Gidleigh Park in Devon, Sarah Cooper of the Ledbury and Julie Doig of Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's in London as runners-up.
Kerstin Kühn reports from the Cliveden final:
The day started out bright and early with a briefing by chairman of the panel of waiters' judges, Stephen Mannock of the National Skills Academy for Hospitality.
Three 30-minute tutorials on wine, cheese and coffee-making then followed, during which the 12 contestants were given tips that would come in useful during the lunch service later on.
"The reason we have these tutorials is so that the contestants relax a bit during the day," explained Mannock. "Even the ones who won't make it through to the final will get a huge amount out of the day. What they don't know is that I judge them right from the start of the day and it's fantastic to see how their nerves start to calm down after a while and their true personalities come out."
Cliveden's executive chef, Chris Horridge, briefed the waiters on the four-course menu and the competition began.
Members of the Cliveden Club were welcomed to their tables as each waiter poured a half bottle of Laurent Perrier Champagne into three glasses of equal measure without revisiting any of them.
They then served an amuse bouche of foie gras parfait, followed by a starter of potage of early autumn vegetables with herbs and pesto croutes, served "deconstructed" with the waiters expected to pour the hot liquid over the vegetables.
The main course of Dover sole had to be filleted at the table and served in equal portions with new potatoes and green beans.
The dessert of chocolate soufflé with raspberry coulis and berries was followed by a cheese board and the meal was then completed with a choice of four coffees the waiters had to prepare.
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