Service has its secrets too

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dreamstime_1748892.jpgI am sure you will all join me in congratulating Michel Roux on his recent series BBC 2 on Service; it was a most timely piece, which reminded us all that there is much work we need to do collectively in order to bring service to the forefront of our industry. Bravo Michel.   

As some of you will know, I will be giving away all my "Kitchen Secrets" - in the TV series that starts on BBC2 on 21 February, and in the book with the same title published the same day by Bloomsbury. A week ago, though, I spoke to a seminar for the National Restaurant Awards. And told them all my "Service Secrets.". This week and next, I would like to share a few with you.

I only found out what I really wanted to do when I was 19 and a half. I saw an extraordinary scene unfolding in front of me. It was a warm August evening, in the middle of my hometown Besançon. The maîtres d'hôtel, dressed in their black ties, were carving fat ribs of beef, flambéing crepes Suzettes, and the young waiters, in their claret-coloured jackets, were moving attentively around the guests' tables. It was just so beautiful!  At this very moment I decided to be a chef, even, let's say, a great chef. It was my destiny; it was so obvious.

Like most things in life, you do not get what you want exactly when you want it, so I got a position as a cleaner. I became the best cleaner. I gave my heart and soul to it. I turned this 18th century house into the Palais de Versailles. I won the respect and trust of the maîtres d'hôtel, and the waiters who did not have to check behind me. That was service.

Then I was promoted to plongeur. I was in charge of the glasses. They were hand made and delicate. I learned the skill, and soon enough they were sparkling. I also reduced the breakage rate by 30%. The sommeliers loved me; the boss loved me.  That was also service.

Next I became a commis débarasseur, or runner, and at last I was able to approach the guests. Then, after a lot of running, I became a commis, and I was given the most beautiful purple jacket, the one that I saw first on the young waiters. It was a proud moment in my life.

I had the best imaginable teacher, Jacques. Patiently, he taught me how to carve, and the basics of service of both food and wine and at all times to give more than the guest expects. Under his guidance, I grew in confidence. He was exacting and always looked for perfection, but he was fair and would acknowledge my successes as well as point out my failures.

He taught me to prepare the room and lovingly make it even more beautiful.

He taught me how to be a host, and how to cherish each guest  - to make him or her feel that special. Much of this, of course, I had already learned from Maman Blanc at home, at our Sunday lunches.

I learned that service was a wonderful craft, but that it is also much more.

It empowers you, gives you empathy, even as a mere waiter. It allows you to give someone whom you did not even know, a moment that would be remembered fondly, sometimes for years to come.

Equally important, through this selflessness, you could make delicious food taste even better. Something that chefs sometimes forget.
This discovery, and particular moment, shaped my professional life, and established the most solid foundations for a true culture of welcome, a culture of valuing people - first brought into the Quat'Saisons, and then transported into Le Manoir. It is the very culture that still today drives its success.     

When I first came to England, the values I had learned in France were useless. Service had little or no meaning here. As a waiter I felt invisible, especially in front of my employers. As a chef you may have been negligible, but as a waiter you were even less.

This was partly to do with the dictionary definition of "service," reflecting the attitude that to be "in service" in Britain meant that you were "a domestic servant." The phrase became negative (probably rightly so) because of the reforms that led to the institution of the welfare state and the feeling that some degree of equality had been achieved.

From that time on, nobody wanted to be called a "servant." Ok, fair enough. And voilà, a generation of young people began to feel that working in the hospitality industry as waiters, cooks and so on, was beneath them. This sea-change was happening only ten years before I arrived in this country, though the consequences can still be felt today.

Catering colleges became dumping grounds for the academically least able students. Careers officers in schools considered jobs in our industry as being the last resort - a career fit only for those unable to do anything else. The prestige of the career was rock bottom - and never mind if a young person had a calling or a talent to cook or organize a dining room with dozens of covers.
It is all too easy to look at our failures, without recognizing some of our successes. What is evident to much of the world, is that the catering profession in Britain has reconnected with its food and its service culture, and that London's hotels and restaurants are world-class, and can compete with the best in the world. Service is naturally a hugely important, essential component of this success; and this is of course spreading across our provincial cities of Britain. Gastronomy as a craft is reconnecting with its roots, and this has a direct effect on the standards of service as well. Your sandwich is better to eat, and it's served more elegantly as well.  

In every business I've created in the UK, service is not just a craft, but also a powerful tool. Service comes in many guises. I connect service with the environment we create, how we train our waiters, the budget we set aside for their training, and with the culture we're passing on to him or her.

One problem we all have is that we tend to reduce service to the mere act of serving, dissociating it from all other concerns. What the customer wanted yesterday is greatly different from what the customer wants today. The modern guest wants a different form of luxury, a more responsible, different food, that is sustainably produced in an ethical fashion, with traceability, assurance schemes etc. Service also has to adapt to these changes.

In part 2 of this blog next week, I'll cover some key aspects of service and our industry.

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I have thought for some years that a Waiters main task is not to deliver the plates but to entertain the customers, that it to ensure that they enjoy not just the food but the entire experience. It is rare to get service like this in most restraunts in England but common (but not universal) in France and Italy.
In locations with large numbers of tourists, especially British ones, it is quite common to get good food but poor or average service.
I suspoect this is the fault of the customers as much as the staff. We seem to have lost the knack of developing a proper relationship either being overawed by a 'posh' maîtres d'hôtel or treating the waiter as a serf.
The result seems to be maîtres d'hôtels who look down on the customer and give the impression that he thinks you are not good/wealthy enough to eat in "His" establishment and customers making discourtious and peromptary demands of waiters.

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