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The Caterer

Front of house and back of house – two teams, one goal?

10 November 2010 by
Front of house and back of house – two teams, one goal?

Are chefs really from Mars and waiters from Venus? Not in this day and age. Tom Vaughan reports on why the days of warring waiters and chefs are largely gone, while Kerstin Kühn talks to the next generation, Young Chef Young Waiter winners Mark Stinchcombe and Ben Dantzic (left)

We need to talk about the vegetarian options," says the restaurant manager as Jonathan Creek waves a trotter in her face. "I think that our menu is a little meatcentric." The reply: "Why don't I worry about what I'm going to cook, and you worry about typing this dish on to the menu."

The scene, which comes from the BBC's recent hotel kitchen-set sitcom White's, is classic front-of-house versus back-of-house stuff. The message: chefs are from Mars, waiters are from Venus, and never shall the two get on. However, the programme's writer, Matt King, admits that his one stint in the kitchen - striving for a Michelin star at Hanbury Manor in Hertfordshire - came 20 years ago.

Were he to put on whites again, he might find that those days of warring factions - of waiters and chefs eyeing each other with suspicion - are largely gone. But what has been the secret? How can you ensure that back of house and front of house do really get on?

Craig Bancroft, managing director at the Michelin-starred Northcote in Lancashire, has had one of the industry's longest-standing and most successful partnerships with a chef, Nigel Haworth, over the past 27 years. Part of the DNA at Northcote, he says, is a mutual respect between kitchen and front of house. "You have to have a professional respect, and out of that comes trust. Nigel and I have trusted each other implicitly - he has always been happy with what my team has been doing on one side of the wall and I have always been happy with what his team are doing on the other."

Mutual respect between two famously close individuals is one thing, but how have they ensured that symbiosis is continued in the four-strong pub group they have founded in Lancashire? "We try to ensure that there isn't a culture of blame in any of our properties," Bancroft explains. "The most likely cause of an argument arising is from a blame game. Mistakes sadly happen and you can't take someone outside and castrate him. You need to find the cause of the problem and make sure it doesn't happen again. Senior people in all our properties have to have a matriarchal element to them. They need to teach, not blame."

Alasdair Elwick, restaurant manager at the two-AA-rosette Seaham Hall in County Durham, says that when he started in the industry, relations between front and back of house could be strained. "There were times as a waiter when I was scared to talk in the kitchen in case the chef jumped down my throat," he says. "It often came from the chef and his brigade wanting to take control of the front of house - not trusting you and the rest of the waiting team."

Elwick says the answer is respect. "If the kitchen sees that the front of house are passionate about what they are doing, they will trust them to take control of the food once it leaves the kitchen door. It also leads from the top: if a head chef and restaurant manager get on well, that will filter down; if they argue, their teams are likely to do the same."

David Hennigan, general manager of the Michelin-starred Crown at Whitebrook and Celtic Manor in Monmouthshire and winner of the UK Restaurant Manager of the Year 2010, says that it is vital both teams meet once a day. "The more both teams talk the more they stop acting as a member of one team and start interacting as human beings. It's about getting them to understand that they are both there to look after the guest," he adds.

When tempers do rise in kitchens, it's often because someone feels overloaded. "Maybe a junior member of staff is under a lot of pressure, and a lot of checks have come into the kitchen at once and they can't deal with it," Dodson says. "As a result they offload on the front-of-house representative when he or she comes into the kitchen.

"It's a head chef's job to make sure his staff aren't overloaded, and - if they do find themselves in that position - to mentor them in how to behave."

But has the advent of the celebrity chef rocked relations between front and back of house? Elwick believes the phenomenon is positive for waiting staff. "You can see how front-of-house staff now strive to work in these establishments," he adds. "They want that achievement on their CV. Plus, these days, there are plenty of accolades for waiters as well as chefs."

To level out the playing field, Bancroft insists that it is vital to constantly put staff forward for these accolades. A team from Northcote recently competed in the Copa Jerez - an international sherry-pairing competition - and staff members also competed in the final of Young Chef Young Waiter, which was won by Lucknam Park's Mark Stinchcombe and Restaurant Andrew Fairlie's Ben Dantzic (see below).

Everyone has their part to play, and everyone will excel somewhere, Bancroft says. Dodson agrees: "You can be the best chef in the world but you still need a great team around you - waiters, sommeliers, managers. Otherwise what are you going to do - walk out there and serve the food yourself? You wouldn't be nearly as good as those whose job it is to do that."

A restaurant where both team gets on is a restaurant void of ego, Hennigan says. "If a chef, for example, kicks off at a waiter because there is a vegetarian making demands, then he's got no place in my restaurant. They have different skillsets but one job - and that's to serve the guest."

How to build the best relationship

Nick Scade, chairman of the Academy of Food and Wine, on how to foster ideal back-of-house and front-of-house relations

â- Encourage good communication between front of house and back of house. It sounds simple, but it's often overlooked. The chefs should discuss each new dish or changes with the front-of-house team.
â- Encourage your sommelier, or waiting staff, to discuss particular wine recommendations with the chef. Give the two teams a chance to try food and wine matches and make suggestions.
â- Encourage debate. If your waiting staff have an idea about enhancing a dish, make sure the back-of-house team listen. Likewise, your chef might have a great idea on how to serve a dish or which wine might match it.
â- Have regular, if not daily, meetings with your entire team to discuss any problems in service, particular bookings or how certain dishes are selling. Follow-up any issues the next day and make sure problems are sorted out, rather than just discussed.
â- Ensure your front-of-house team has tasted all the key dishes on your menu and know how each dish is prepared, the ingredients used, where the ingredients were sourced and any potential allergy issues.
â- Throughout each service make sure the kitchen communicates with the front of house, and vice versa. Front of house should give the kitchen regular feedback on dishes, delays to tables or any customers who might be in a rush. Likewise, the back-of-house team must inform the waiting staff of any delays with particular dishes, or if a particular item has nearly sold out.
â- Encourage a member of your waiting staff and a chef to work together on a particular dish, or enter a competition together such as the Gastronomy Team of the Year. It's a chance for both to pool their knowledge, work together and come up with a special menu or themed food and wine match. These "specials" can be marketed to customers as a special event.
â- Encourage each team to respect the other. The middle of a busy service can be a particularly fraught time in a kitchen and front of house need to understand the pressures chefs are under; likewise your kitchen team must treat front of house with respect and understand they are the front of the business and the restaurant's only interface with the customer.
â- Make sure your teamwork is demonstrated throughout the entire business. Customers are always pleased to receive comments from the chef - "Chef first tried this dish in France, but has adapted it and developed his own version using local produce". Likewise, comments from the sommelier on the wine choice - "This is one of my favourite Burgundies because…" Good communication - and knowledge - is always impressive!

Young Chef of the Year

Mark Stinchcombe (above, right)
Age 22
Establishment Lucknam Park, Wiltshire
Position Chef de partie, Brasserie

Mark Stinchcombe has had a phenomenal year, winning not only the Young Chef title but also Young National Chef of the Year and the Award of Excellence at the Academy of Culinary Arts' annual awards. He puts his success down to the support he has enjoyed at Lucknam Park, particularly from head chef Hywel Jones. "Hywel has been an amazing mentor," he says. "He has given me all the opportunities to compete and has guided and helped me with ideas."

Stinchcombe decided to become a chef at the tender age of 15, inspired by his home economics teacher at school. Aged 16 he did three months of work experience at Von Essen's Royal Crescent hotel in Bath, after which the company offered him a full-time position at its nearby sister property, Ston Easton Park, where he stayed for two years, working his way up from apprentice to demi chef de partie. During his time there he enrolled in an NVQ course but quickly gave up, having found the hands-on experience of working in the kitchen far more rewarding.

Stinchcombe's next role took him to Cornwall, where he joined the three-AA-rosette Driftwood Hotel in Portscatho under head chef Chris Eden as commis chef. "It was a fantastic experience to work in Cornwall and to learn about the incredible fresh produce available there. The seafood was amazing," he recalls.

He worked his way up to chef de partie before leaving to do a one-month stage at Heston Blumenthal's three-Michelin-starred Fat Duck. "It was brilliant to work in those kitchens and I learnt so much about food preparation, presentation and the whole dining experience," he says.

Stinchcombe then joined Lucknam Park as commis chef in 2008 and in the past two years has not only worked his way up to chef de partie but, under the guidance of Jones, developed into one of the brightest young talents in the industry.

On winning the Young Chef title: "It's a great competition in the way that it is run and it gives you the opportunity to meet other people in the industry, which can be a difficult thing to do. It has taught me a lot about working together with a waiter and being able to relay what's going on in my head as a chef to someone else."

Young Waiter of the Year

Ben Dantzic (above, left)
Age 25
Establishment Restaurant Andrew Fairlie
Position Head waiter

Ben Dantzic says his passion for the hospitality industry was awakened at a very early age, thanks to his mother's cooking. "Food has always been a big part of my family life and I decided quite early that I wanted to work in hospitality," he recalls. He celebrated his 17th birthday at the two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles and was so impressed with the quality of food and service he made it his goal to work there one day.

After studying law for a year and a half (his marks were so good he was discouraged to go into hospitality), Dantzic followed his dream and enrolled on a BA course in hotel and hospitality management at the Scottish Hotel School at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. While studying, he started working part time at the Conran Restaurants-owned Zinc Bar and Grill where he met Geoffrey Smeddle, who was head chef.

After graduating, Dantzic's first full time job reunited him with Smeddle and his wife, Katherine, when he joined the couple's restaurant with rooms, the Peat Inn near St Andrews, Fife, as a waiter in September 2008. Eight months later he was promoted to assistant manager, a role in which he really got to develop his skills. The hard work paid off for both Dantzic and the rest of the team when in January this year the Peat Inn was awarded its first Michelin star.

However, just a month after celebrating the coveted accolade, Dantzic decided to spread his wings and pursue an opportunity to work at the restaurant which first ignited in his passion in the industry, Restaurant Andrew Fairlie. "It's the most acclaimed restaurant in Scotland and the only place I would have left the Peat Inn for," he says.

Dantzic joined as head waiter and says he has received an enormous amount of support from the restaurant, without which he would never have succeeded in winning the Young Waiter of the Year title.

On winning the Young Waiter title: "It has been such a fantastic experience to take part in this competition and winning it has really helped boost my confidence," he enthuses. "You learn so much through the many tutorials and challenges you are given and it's a really great opportunity to make contacts. Before entering I didn't realise just how big an event it was."

Young Chef Young Waiter

As the winners of the Young Chef Young Waiter competition, Mark Stinchcombe and Ben Dantzic received a selection of prizes, including £1,000 each courtesy of the Savoy Educational Trust, plus a three-day culinary course sponsored by S Pellegrino at the University of Alma, based in Parma, Italy, which includes practical courses on food, wine and water.

Young Chef Young Waiter, which is run in association with luxury hotel group Von Essen, rewards the best young chef and young waiter aged 25 or under. It is organised by the Restaurant Association in partnership with HSBC, the Savoy Educational Trust and Sodexo.

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