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Viewpoint: A maître d’ with perfect composure

27 February 2020 by
Viewpoint: A maître d’ with perfect composure

With diners turning away from rigid formality, Peter Hancock asks why we don’t embrace a bit of theatre when it comes to service

Some may regard what I’m about to describe as a corny gimmick, which indeed it would be if attempted on Park Lane or in the Cotswolds, so please make allowances for the fact that we are talking here about a small business in the old quarter of Funchal, Madeira’s charming capital.

A short time ago my wife and I enjoyed a delightful week on the island we have come to know well, including the almost obligatory visit to a restaurant called Mozart. The place is packed with curios dedicated to classical music and, more importantly, its long-serving South African-born host, Simon Ribeiro, is dressed from head to toe as the great composer himself.

A keenly priced deal, which includes any choice from the à la carte menu, along with copious wine, ensures a full house every night. We went one stage further and availed ourselves of the equally good value chauffeur service in an ancient, open-topped VW Beetle, guzzling some of the island’s famous fortified wine in the back seat.

To describe Mr Ribeiro as a character would be a wild understatement. He is the restaurant’s living, breathing advertisement, standing proudly at the entrance while attracting lots of attention. Once inside, his personality ensures every guest is immediately swept up in the magic. It’s hard to think of a better example of the close connection between hospitality and show business. He told me, without a hint of irony, that he is “famous all over the world”. I don’t doubt it for a second.

Reflecting on the success of that modest establishment, it is clear that while people do indeed look for good food with good value in pleasant surroundings, the extra factor is being made to feel part of something fun. Nobody can take themselves too seriously when being served by someone in a ridiculous wig. It’s like a shortcut to being among friends, even on a first visit.

I think it’s worth dwelling on that for a moment, given the increasing number of young individuals who dream of a career on stage or screen but who regard a job in service as something to pay the rent while waiting for their big break. What if the service job were that big break, affording an opportunity to shine in front of an audience of appreciative customers?

I’m not suggesting for a moment that we’d want all waiting staff to suddenly appear in costumes and go around flaunting their performing skills – that would be ghastly, of course – though I do feel the public may be ready to accept a little more ccentricity from their hosts now that the trend away from rigid formality has gathered pace. Eating out is, after all, a form of entertainment.

Job titles play a large part in signalling status, which remains a handicap to recruiters in our sector, so maybe it’s time to let hosts, who just happen to carry plates, spread joy and happiness like our old friend Herr Mozart?

Peter Hancock is chief executive at Pride of Britain hotels

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