Silvano Giraldin, who has worked at the two-Michelin-starred Le Gavroche for 37 years, is retiring from the iconic Mayfair restaurant next week. He spoke to Kerstin Kühn about his long-serving career
This month marks the end of an era for London's restaurant scene as one of its best-loved luminaries retires after nearly 40 years on 30 August.
For longer than most London restaurants have been around, Silvano Giraldin's name and presence have been as synonymous with Le Gavroche as the existence of a Roux in its kitchens. A Catey Special Award winner in 2000, he is one of the longest-serving managers in the history of the capital's restaurants and an institution who will, no doubt, be sorely missed.
Giraldin was born in Padua, Italy, in 1948, and started his career at a very early age by enrolling in the local catering college. He left to travel Europe and - via a working stint in France - arrived in London aged 23 where he joined Michel and Albert Roux's Le Gavroche as a commis waiter in 1971. He quickly worked his way up to maître d' before becoming general manager in 1975, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Looking back at his career, Giraldin said that so much has changed over the years and not just at Le Gavroche. "Of course, many things have changed at the restaurant, but to me the biggest change has been the food culture in Britain," he said.
"Back in the day you could count the number of great restaurants on one hand, and the British public wasn't as sophisticated as it is today. People didn't want to eat their steak rare, and we had to fight to get our diners to embrace the French culinary culture."But things really have moved on, and today Britain has a fantastic culinary offering that is appreciated by the public." Giraldin said that while "every day was a highlight" for him during his time at Le Gavroche, a few days do stand out from the rest. "One highlight was moving Le Gavroche from Lower Sloane Street in Knightsbridge to Upper Brook Street in Mayfair, in 1981," he remembered. "We closed up on Saturday night at the old location and opened up on Monday morning at the new restaurant, serving drinks and canapés to 400 people that night. We didn't lose a single day of trading." During his 37 years at Le Gavroche, Giraldin said the only occasion on which the restaurant didn't trade was Prince Charles and Lady Diana's wedding day in 1981. "There were so many people on the streets watching a fireworks display in Hyde Park that our diners literally couldn't make their way to the restaurant," he said. When asked about low points, Giraldin insisted there were none and suggested that even losing the third Michelin star in 1993 didn't dampen the team's spirits at Le Gavroche. "It was disappointing, of course, but we took it in our stride and continued to run the restaurant as we did before," he said. Second to none "There have been three-starred restaurants in London, such as Chez Nico and Marco Pierre White \at the Hyde Park hotel\], that lost their stars and you never heard from them again. Le Gavroche's consistency over the past 41 years is second to none." According to Giraldin, Michelin is "just one guide's judgement" and it's the diners' views, not the critics', that really count. "The most important thing is that you please your customers, which we did, and they continued to come to Le Gavroche even after we lost the third star," he said. "Who is Michelin? They don't pay the bills, the customers do." Indeed, it's the customers who have kept Le Gavroche going for such a long time, and over the years there have been a few who have stayed in Giraldin's mind. He recalled a particular Middle Eastern diner, who ordered escargots. "When he got them, he took the meat out of the shells and proceeded to eat them - the shells, that is," he said. "Everyone in the restaurant was staring at him in disbelief. When he was done, I cleared his plate and asked him whether he had enjoyed his meal. He said: ‘Yes, it was lovely.'" Another memorable diner was a regular who came to have lunch at Le Gavroche every day for 18 years. "He'd arrive at 12.30pm, eat lunch and leave again at 1.15pm," Giraldin said. "When he got older, in his 80s, he started to suffer from Alzheimer's and on more than one occasion he came in for lunch at the usual time and then returned at 2pm because he'd forgotten that he'd already been in for lunch. So we called his secretary, put him in a taxi and sent him back home." Giraldin's devotion to the hospitality industry and his commitment to service are unwavering. In an effort to raise the profile of the service side of the industry, he founded - with Richard Edmonds - the Academy of Culinary Arts' Les Arts de la Table in 1985, and with Jean-Pierre Durantet he was responsible for setting up the academy's first Master of Culinary Arts award for service candidates. Over the years, he has worked tirelessly to promote closer ties between front of house and kitchen, and has steered, through his encouragement and support, many young waiters into management positions at some of the most eminent restaurants in the country, including the Waterside Inn in Bray, Berkshire, and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea, London. Yet Giraldin fears that service in Britain still has a long way to go. He said that while he feels it's partly to do with front of house lacking the public recognition and praise chefs are used to, it's also a deep-rooted cultural issue. "When I first started at Le Gavroche there were no British waiters, and 37 years on there still aren't any," he said. "It's usually people from the Commonwealth or the Continent who hold front-of-house jobs, because British people seem to frown upon service. Unlike the Continent, in this country being a waiter isn't considered a real profession, and it's a real problem for the industry." Continued investment Giraldin admitted that he doesn't know the answer to the problem, but stressed that raising awareness and continued investment in training won't hurt. And that's exactly what he plans to do after he retires. "I won't just sit around and do nothing after I've retired - that's not the kind of person I am," he said. "I do plan on spending more time shooting, which is my favourite pastime, and I love being outdoors. But I'll still play a role at Le Gavroche as restaurant director, alongside Michel and Albert Roux, and I will continue to be involved in the staff training." He will also be working as a consultant with Albert Roux at the Academy of Food & Wine and the Academy of Culinary Arts. "And if anyone in the industry needs my advice on staff training, I'll be more than happy to help out," he said. At Le Gavroche, Giraldin will be handing over the reins to assistant manager Emmanuel Landre, who has been at the restaurant for 10 years. Giraldin said he has no doubt that Landre and his team will do a great job. "My time at Le Gavroche has been fantastic and I couldn't have managed a better restaurant," he said. "I wouldn't have taken my pension if I wasn't 100% sure that I was leaving the restaurant in capable hands." History of Le Gavroche - 1967 Michel and Albert Roux open Le Gavroche on Lower Sloane Street - 1971 Silvano Giraldin joins as commis waiter - 1974 Le Gavroche becomes first Michelin-starred restaurant in the UK - 1975 Giraldin becomes general manager - 1977 Second Michelin star - 1981 Move to Upper Brook Street - 1982 Third Michelin star - 1991 Michel Roux Jnr becomes chef de cuisine - 1993 Loss of third Michelin star - 1995 Albert and Michel Roux win Lifetime Achievement Catey - 2000 Giraldin wins Special Award Catey - 2007 Le Gavroche turns 40 - 2008 Albert and Michel Roux win Silver Catey - 2008 Giraldin retires after 37 years Read more about the Roux brothers at [www.caterersearch.com/roux