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The art of service

05 January 2011 by
The art of service

Who'd want to be a waiter? Ask Fred Sirieix, restaurant manager at Galvin at Windows, that question and you'll get an effusive answer. "Ever since I was at catering college it has been a dream of mine to have a restaurant," he chimes. "Just like when there is a good football team, they will pass it and it will be effortless, precise and beautiful; front of house can be just like that."

Along with Peter Avis, restaurant manager at Babylon restaurant at the Roof Gardens in London, and former Le Gavroche general manager Silvano Giraldin, Sirieix is speaking ahead of the launch of the new BBC2 programme, Michel Roux's Service, on which he is a mentor to aspiring waiters. The aim is to try and bridge the gap in perceptions that television has created between chefs and waiters. The likes of Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White have all sexed-up the role of the chef to the television-viewing public. Front-of-house staff, however, have yet to come across in a particularly positive light. "Unfortunately, the only way waiters have been portrayed in this country on television is by Manuel on Fawlty Towers," Giraldin says.

In fact, both Giraldin and Sirieix originally aimed for a career in the kitchen, before finding themselves more suited to front of house. "I could not follow a recipe," Giraldin says. "So I moved front of house and found that I had a gift with people. I found I could meet so many more people than the chef. In fact, I found I could meet more people than most businessmen."

Like a lot of front-of-house staff, Sirieix has found the perceptions that go with being a waiter are often rather negative, and badly need altering. "Even in France I have an aunt who refers to me as a garçon café," he says. "People are of the mindset that they have to have a university degree to have respect and to be happy. It is a perception that cooking is a more worthwhile profession because it has a tangible skills set. It has been in the media for so long that people believe, wrongly, that it is better than being front of house."

It's not the case, the trio agree. The beauty of front of house, says Avis - who won the UK Restaurant Manager of the Year in 2010 - is that the only skillset that is essential to success is to be good with people. "People need to see that, like me, if you love to talk to people and interact with people, you can go to the very top," he adds. "Hopefully they can look at me, just a boy from Liverpool, and see how successful I have been just because I have a way with people."

Even knowledge of serving protocol or classic silver-service training comes in second place to the attitude of a waiter, Giraldin says. "It doesn't matter so much if, say, you put down the plate from the left side or the right side. If you are good with people, you are a good waiter."

Shortcuts to being good with people are virtually non-existent. However, there are tricks to be learnt in the form of body language. While working in New York, Avis found the Americans to have whole courses on effective body language for front-of-house staff. "I tell my guys in Babylon that I want them to move more like ballerinas than rugby players," he explains. "I want positive body language; assertiveness all the time."

Front-of-house service is, explains Giraldin, a performance, and the key is to master it. "Waiters must be like actors once in front of the guests - performing, smiling, acting. A little joke here, a little aside there, and the customer will melt."

Time will tell whether, one day, we'll have a celebrity maitre d' to go alongside the host of celebrity chefs. Sirieix, for one, knows it won't be hard to convince the nation how fascinating the role can be. "When I have a rare day off, and I go to dinner parties, people ask me what I do," he says. "And when I answer, the room falls silent. No one is interested in the guy who works in an office. But they always want to know what I do, who I've met, because this job is very, very interesting."

Tips on how to offer great service and customer care

"Great service and customer care are only achieved when your team members have a genuine and sincere interest in pleasing their guests and colleagues. Nothing else really matters and all our energies should be focused on delivering this consistently."
Guillaume Marly, Hotel manager, the Connaught

"Great service is about making the customer feel welcome and comfortable, understanding their needs, showing empathy and consideration. To deliver excellent customer service you must respect customers, appreciate how to deal with a wide range of different needs, personalities and cultures."
Professor David Foskett, Head of School, Thames Valley University

"Great service comes from within your heart. A passion to exceed people's expectation combined with a hunger to excel in anticipating needs and follow through on satisfaction."
Christian Kaberg, General manager, West Surrey Golf Club

"Service is more and more crucial to a restaurant in this ever so competitive environment. I remember a well-known celebrity who once told me that when he pays a certain price in a restaurant, he expects the food to be good, but the reason why he will come back depends on how good the front of house is."
Xavier Rousset, Proprietor, Texture Restaurant and 28-50

"The art of great service is to make guests feel completely welcome and at ease with their surroundings and anticipate their every wish before they voice it."
Arnulf J Daxer, Food and beverage manager, the Athenaeum hotel

"Great service is discreet anticipation. Service should always be warm and hospitable while remaining unobtrusive. It requires true professionalism, proper training and a total understanding of the task in hand. It also requires confidence, consideration and empathy."
David Morgan-Hewitt, Managing director, the Goring

"Ask a guest one or two simple introductory questions. Information is a gift which can support us in exceeding expectations when we are able to contribute to the occasion from the same perspective as the guest."
Graham Bamford, General manager, Royal Garden hotel, London

"Great service is the ability to recognise. To recognise a regular, a potential complaint before it happens or an opportunity to make someone happy."
Conor O'Leary, Director of food and beverage, Hyatt Regency London - the Churchill

"When I started out in hospitality I was told: ‘A waiter is like a football referee; if you notice him, he has had a bad game'. It's no longer the case - a great waiter can make dinner truly memorable and guests often want engagement. The real skill is working out who does and who doesn't."
Andrew McKenzie, Managing director, the Vineyard Group

"World-class service begins at the front door. The recognition that the doorman gives you, the warm, personable relationship of the front desk and the dedication of experienced staff make the significant differences."
Derek Picot, Jumeirah Carlton Tower

"To provide exceptional service to guests our employees need to receive the same dedication from us, through ensuring they have sufficient training, management and direction."
James B Clarke, Director of food and beverage, Grosvenor House

"Great service is attention to detail, anticipation of a guest's needs and delivering it with sensitivity, an exchange of mutual respect performed with an attitude of genuine kindness."
Achille Checuz, General manager, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon

"No matter how talented the chef, the dish he or she prepares will never become a meal experience unless it is delivered with skill and style. Great service is about creating great memories, which both delight and attract the customer."
Philippe Rossiter FIH, Chief executive, Institute of Hospitality

To coincide with Michel Roux's Service, the Academy of Food and Wine Service is running a series of interviews, blogs, video links, training advice and downloadable fact sheets after each episode, to help front-of-house professionals.

Visit www.afws.co.uk

Fred Sirieix on the anatomy of a waiter

Brain "In Avatar, the Na'vi have a ponytail that they can connect with their animals, so they think in harmony. This is what you have to do with customers - plug in your ponytail so that you are working together."

Eyes "In Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger has a list of options when he sees something. That is what you must be like - everything must be prioritised for every table you look at."

Eyes Meaningful eye contact - builds trust

Smile Must be friendly and engaging. Build a rapport.

Expression Constantly engaged

Posture [knees] Must be flexible, ready to lower slightly to the guests level if they are on sofas or low chairs.

Hands Open hands looks honest and trustworthy. Closed, inexpressive hands make you look suppressed. Hands held in front, or behind back make you look "like a sergeant major".

Feet Should not swing drastically, but disengage slowly from customers.

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