Fri, 17th Aug 2018
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CODE Special
Service, please

 

There are two questions that, as a

customer, you’re probably quite used

to hearing in a restaurant. Do you have

a reservation and how is everything?

 

Yet, for me, both of these are the

hospitality equivalent of nails down

a blackboard. On the face of things,

you may ask why. “Do you have a

reservation?” seems like an obvious

question for a host, receptionist or

maitre d’ to ask when you arrive at

a restaurant. But let’s take it a back

a step. You walk into a restaurant, a

simple, “hello, how are you?” along

with a welcoming smile wouldn’t go

amiss first.

 

The second, and by far the more

infuriating, is the server check back

that goes along the lines of, “how is

everything?” It may seem the most

pertinent choice of question to ask

a diner but in fact it is a pointless,

opened-ended question. Anyone

from the Corbin & King school

knows all it requires is a simple, “is

there anything else I can get?” when

checking on diners.

 

Two conversations of late got me

thinking about this and the London

restaurant industry. Those of us

working in it along with customers

cannot deny that there has been a

revolution in the industry over the

past decade. Not only what we eat

and drink has changed sharing

plates, poké bowls and oat milk in

our flat whites but the way we eat

has also changed. Restaurants like

POLPO and Dishoom have made

queuing for our supper the norm and

lengthy meals in hushed dining rooms

with stuffy service have been replaced

with the informal option of dining

at counters, communal tables and

the recent rise in popularity of even

being able to do this on your own

sofa, thanks to Deliveroo.

 

But with huge growth in the

restaurant industry come challenges

- most notably staffing and service.

One of the aforementioned

conversations occurred at a recent

industry drinks party where

someone mentioned that the norm

in this country is to experience poor

customer service anything better

is often a welcome surprise. Of

course, it should not be like this. Yet

I’m always aware that it’s not the

individual in question’s fault the

majority of time it comes down to

management, training and attitude.

 

With the swathe of openings in

the capital, it’s no surprise that a lot

of the new restaurant and bars are

being led by young restaurateurs

and chefs keen to make their mark

on the London food scene. But that

presents a dilemma. Who’s training

the people that are now working in

these restaurants and how are they

being trained?

 

I’ve always been fascinated by

the history of restaurants, especially

when it comes to the people involved.

What drew me into this industry was

the people. Food can be flawless - but

if the service is not on point, it can

ruin a meal. Memorable meals are

often just that because you’ve been

made to feel special by the restaurant

while breaking bread. I remember

finding myself on the terrace at the

Groucho Club a while back. I was

surrounded by some of the best

maitre d’s in London. We chatted for hours

about the industry and the

people involved in it.

 

The one thing everyone had in

common in this conversation was

that they’d all worked for some of the

finest restaurateurs in the industry,

including Jeremy King and Chris

Corbin, during their careers. It struck

me that this group of individuals are

a somewhat dying breed apart from

the odd establishment, restaurants

are not run like this anymore and

people are not trained in this way.

Very few dining rooms are properly

orchestrated in the ways they used to

  1. The skill of seating a dining room

juggling tables for regulars, making

sure certain advertising CEOs are not

seated near each other and keeping

a room from being a boring throng

of suits is a dying skill. Much like a

Savile Row tailor it’s been replaced

by the more affordable high street

option.

 

Speaking to Matt Hobbs, now

managing director of the Groucho

Club in Soho, he recalled his time

at the Ivy in the 90s. “The internet

hadn’t gripped everything like it

does now. The result was there was

a one hundred percent emphasis on

personal relationships. Customers

and staff knew each other and

especially the maitre d’ team were

aware of customers lives and careers.

Now it’s far more transient in the

wider industry and most contact with

the restaurant is online.

 

It’s so often the finer details that

make dining out enjoyable. Being

offered a copy of the Standard to

keep you company when you’re the

first to get to your table for dinner

or being led to a favourite table.

Restaurant consultant Seb Fogg, who

has worked at restaurants such as

The Delaunay and the Monkey Bar

in New York, also recalls his time at

the Ivy. “It was whilst attending the

waiter briefing at 11.30am during

my trial shift I realised what sort of

place the Ivy was. I looked around

at the seasoned waiters surrounding

me - they were writing their notes

on their order pads. As the briefing

ensued, virtually every table had a

name assigned to it and who they

were. Tables 6, 16, 11, 21 and 24

were the power tables all the

corners of the dining room. Tables

1-5 were the first row on the left

hand side as you entered. Table 7

was a favourite as you often sat in

between Melvyn Bragg and Harold

Pinter. 20, another table, sat in

between the top 2, frequented every

Friday at 2pm by one of the great

television producers and his friend

the advertising behemoth following

their AA meeting.

 

A chef who appreciates the power

of front of house, their importance

and respects a maitre d’ who knows

their room is Mark Hix. In my

younger days overseeing Le Caprice

and the Ivy, they bred some amazing

talent under the Corbin and King

regime. Those restaurants taught

not only finesse, but how to cope

and understand volume, while still

retaining our loyal regular customers.

Hix goes on to explain the important

lesson he gained while heading up

those kitchens. “I learnt it’s all about

what the customer wants and not

what the kitchen think they want. It’s

about serving simple food so they can

focus on the conversation in hand.

 

We’ve all experienced being

on the end of bad service when

a server doesn’t know their menu

inside out or the daily specials. Arno

Rossman’s staff briefings at Keith

McNally’s Minetta Tavern in New

York were legendary. He’d spend

close to 45 minutes explaining to his

team about the ingredients in dishes,

getting everyone to taste to live and

breathe the service that they were

about to commence on.

No one table is ever the same

some want more attention than

others. Certain guests want a rapport

to be made to feel special. The

usual, Mr…” and there’s a skill in

knowing how to read a table. Do

they want to engage in conversation

or do they simply want to place their

order and be left in peace.

 

Hobbs goes on to say that, “it

sounds crazy but talk to people. If

a customer has called to complain

from the day before call them up

and find out what happened.” One

of Hobbs’s most powerful tools he

still likes to deploy is asking the

chef to come and talk to the table if

there’s a problem with the food. “It

always creates a positive outcome.

It’s a reminder that the kitchen and

front of house must work together

they support one another. A small

hiccup in the kitchen that can easily

spiral out of control can be saved by

a diligent front of house.

 

At the annual Welcome

Conference a couple of years ago,

Will Guidara of Eleven Madison

Park discussed the importance of

being present when working front

of house., He recalled a time when

he was trying his best to make sure

all his tables were happy looking

across the room to table 12 to see

that the host’s wine glass was running

low, table 17 had a stray napkin on

the floor but when he in fact should

have been giving his full attention to

the table he was serving and taking

their order. The beauty of offering

genuine hospitality is that it’s not

a science, it’s an art. However, this

makes it far more difficult to teach.

 

Adam Hyman

 

This article was first published in Issue 15 of CODE Quarterly.




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