After the success of Michel Roux's Service in highlighting front of house, Tom Vaughan looks at the qualities that got the programme's trainees to where they are now, and the attributes they'll need to carry on to the top
Here's a recipe for you: take eight directionless youngsters, mix in two of the industry's best mentors and knead for eight weeks in top-notch restaurants. What do you get? A very promising group of waiters and an enjoyable eight-part BBC series. But if I could then add one final instruction, with the aim of finishing the recipe, it would be this: allow the youngsters to prove for two years.
The leaps and bounds made by the trainees on Michel Roux's Service were undeniably remarkable. You need only compare the Brooke of week one - picking up men's phone numbers while running service at a café - to the Brooke of week eight, who spotted a sly seat switch while on the floor at Le Gavroche and served the table's dishes accordingly.
But as mentor Fred Sirieix, restaurant manager at London's Galvin at Windows, said to the trainees at a screening of the final episode: "Now the cameras turn off and you go from our screens, it is all about you and only you." For all the exemplary training, you can't perfect the art of service in eight weeks; it takes years.
A long road it may be, but what qualities does the aspiring maître d' need along the way? The first is character. Peter Avis, restaurant manager at Babylon Restaurant at the Roof Gardens in London, says: "You've got to enjoy people, you've got to work with colleagues all day, listen to managers like myself all day, then you have to go on the floor and serve your guests. So you've got to enjoy making something come together and enjoy pleasing people."
Christopher Noone is restaurant manager at the Academy Restaurant at Liverpool Community College and is tasked with training students in front-of-house skills. The best, he explains, have a natural flair: "You can teach the basic skills but there has to be something about the person first; they need to know how to engage with customers and there has to be something about their personality that wants to give that hospitality."
Sam Harrison, who owns brasseries Sam's and Harrison's in London, says that half of both of his opening teams were made up of staff with no restaurant experience, employed on the grounds of character. "We recruited on personality and knew we could teach them the rest," he explains. The result? In a glowing review of Harrison's, the Sunday Times restaurant critic AA Gill not only commended the food's provenance, but the restaurant's sourcing of "natural waiters".
The brasserie environment, however, isn't always the same as fine-dining, and knowing when and when not to show certain sides of your personality is an important quality. While Avis says that he wants Babylon to be seen as a "modern fine-dining restaurant", where banter and personality are on show from the waiting staff, it isn't always appropriate. For example, with trainee and scholar Ashley on a week-long placement at the restaurant, Avis didn't put him on service with a group of important businessmen, as they wanted a more classical, restrained style of service that Ashley had yet to master.
Part and parcel of keeping your personality in check on occasion is the art of reading guests. This, says Noone, is one of the hardest aspects to teach and largely comes with time: "Trying to anticipate customers - understanding when a customer wants to be engaged with and when he wants to be left alone - is largely down to trial and experience. We do some training looking at videos and doing role plays, but students learn most on the floor."
The last remaining characteristic - and one that Michel Roux's trainees often struggled to deal with - is the art of multi-tasking. "It is a real skill to look after eight tables at a time," says Harrison. "You have to make decisions when, for example, one table wants to order but another needs a second bottle of wine. You have to prioritise; the first table can wait two minutes but the second's wine glasses are empty and their steaks have hit the table. It's something only a lot of very busy services can teach you."
While Noone believes that it can take five years in a fine-dining environment before a waiter can take on a supervisory role, Avis says that knowing when a waiter is going to mature differs from person to person: "It's like when a baby starts to walk - it just happens. We had a girl who arrived here as a commis waiter, without the best command of English and now she is like a beautiful swan out there, running a floor amazingly well. When did that happen? I couldn't pinpoint it."
None of these skills can fully form in eight weeks - a waiter or waitress might need as much as eight years to fully master them. But when they do galvanise, it is hugely rewarding for all parties involved, says Sirieix: "Everyone wants to feel like a king. If people treat you like a king, you feel good. If they are caring, and want you to feel comfortable and like you to have status, it feels so good. And the waiter himself, he will feel what we call the hospitality buzz, and that is a great feeling, too."
10 tips for achieving great service
1 Ensure there is a good flow of communication between front-of-house and back-of-house teams. Make sure front-of-house staff have tasted all the dishes on the menu, are knowledgeable about the ingredients used and how the dish is cooked.
2 Keep that flow of communication going throughout service. Keeping your customers informed means that they are never left wondering what's happening.
3 Make sure your front-of-house team feels motivated before service begins. Ensure they are well fed and happy and that they know everything there is to know about the menu, the guests and the food they are serving.
4 When guests arrive make sure your front-of-house staff recognise them and greet them by name if possible. People appreciate it when the service is personalised.5 Front of house should anticipate the needs of guests as soon as they arrive - do they want pre-dinner drinks or do they want to go straight to their table? Read their body language and respond to their needs accordingly.
6 Be prompt to offer them drinks as they sit down, give them long enough with the menu but not too long, and make sure they don't have to wait too long between courses.
7 Waiters should announce each dish as they serve it. The way the food is delivered is important.
8 Once the guests' food is served, don't forget them. Keep their wine and water topped up. No guests should serve their own wine and doing so gives you a great opportunity to check your diners are enjoying their meal and a good chance to up-sell. Keep the table clean throughout service, too.
9 All your waiting staff should be empowered to deal with a problem as it occurs. Diners don't want to wait for the restaurant manager to deal with a problem. Customers that have complaints dealt with quickly and efficiently can become your most loyal customers.
10 Don't forget to say goodbye: it's the lasting impression that your guests will leave with.
Compiled by the Academy of Food and Wine Service and Peter Avis
Michel Roux's Service - The Scholars
James Marvin, 24
Six-month maître d' scholarship London Hilton, Park Lane
One-week placements The Dorchester, the Waterside Inn, Le Gavroche
Job before the programme Sales rep for a travel company, then unemployed
Why did you apply? I saw the opportunity advertised and though "Why not?". I didn't think it would be that special at the start - just thought it would be a fun eight weeks to look back on. I saw waiting in a very British mentality - that it is just a stop-gap job. That changed so much as the weeks went by. I saw British people who were doing so well, not just in a financial sense but who were loving their jobs and very happy, and that is what I've been looking for.
Highlight The whole experience of going to France, especially visiting the Champagne region.
Low point I came very close to walking out in the first few weeks. We were thrown into the melting pot and I began to question whether it was worth it. Then we had a service at Babylon [at Kensington Roof Gardens in London] when I was maître d' and I got a huge buzz of nerves and adrenalin from it and I loved it.
Ambition Either I want to work my way up in a high-end hotel chain or restaurant chain, or through private restaurants, into the upper echelons of management, or I'd like to do that, build enough contacts, get some financial backing and open a place of my own.
Ashley Flay, 21
Six-month maître d' scholarship Hyatt Regency London - The Churchill
One-week placements The Ritz, Babylon Restaurant at Kensington Roof Gardens, Chewton Glen
Job before the programme Unemployed after leaving school aged 14
Why did you apply? I wanted to become a chef and there was a four-month period until my chef course started so I thought I'd apply to this to learn how the front of house side of things worked. That all changed when I fell in love with the front of house.
Highlight Bovey Castle or our trip to France. It was at Bovey that I really felt myself falling for the hospitality industry.
Low point I was ready to leave in the first few weeks. I wasn't getting on with people on the course and wanted to go back home.
Ambition I want to be a restaurant manager, learn the industry and then in 10 or 12 years' time to get some backing and open my own place. I love making people happy and seeing them enjoying eating out and having a good time.
Danielle Meenagh, 18
Six-month sommelier scholarship Hotel du Vin, Hampshire
One-week placements Le Gavroche, Chewton Glen
Job before the programme Part-time hairdresser and barber
Why did you apply? I typed "Find a job" into Google and this popped up. It didn't say it was about service at the time. It wasn't until the third interview that they mentioned service and I thought "Oh dear, well I'm here now".
Highlight The services in Heathcotes and Le Gavroche.
Low point I nearly walked out on several occasions. It was really stressful, we were constantly working and I was getting no sleep.
Ambition I've just found out that I'll be helping to open a Hotel du Vin Bistro in London as a wine supervisor and I want to go on from there and become a head sommelier.