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Serves you right.

Photo Credit: Banks' photo of the ultimate professionals at Florian, Venice.

Recently I had the pleasure of working with two fine waiters from Bespoke Hospitality. They ran the floor and I schlepped in the kitchen.

Just before service, I checked the table setting and made a few adjustments relevant to my brief from the client. Thereafter, I left them to it - confident that the guests would be treated in a courteous, gracious and efficient manner.

My modus operandi is to leave a staff member in the dining room at all times, if practicable. I worry that a guest may drop a fork, a water glass may be empty, some other great dining calamity may descend upon the table and there is no one there to set it right. I need a team member to oversee the table, I cannot be everywhere.

The diner reigns supreme at table – his or her needs are paramount, they must not be left wanting nor needing anything. Their needs must be anticipated even before a stirring is felt. Why is this the case? Sure, the client – and by extension – their guests, is paying. But paying for what? What is the social and moral contract we ‘sign’ when we engage a waiter for service?

During the course of serving my little luncheon, I had occasion to ponder the structure of hospitality. It is more difficult now that I don’t have my own crew and rely on an agency, wonderful though it is.

Photo Credit: Miranda is an actress, Jessie is a PhD candidate in Physics.

Let me introduce my co-workers for the day – Miranda is an actress currently ‘resting’ between roles, Jessie is a PhD candidate in nano Physics. On other occasions, I have employed renowned artists, published writers, musicians, jazz singers, university students, young mothers doing a shift between school drop off and pick up, research scientists waiting for grant approval. All of them, with a few disastrous and infamous exceptions, have been intelligent, sociable, conservatively groomed and well mannered. It is probably irrelevant and politically incorrect to observe (yet I will do so nonetheless because at this stage of my career, I have nothing to lose) that the “hospitality crew” is very often far more educated, artistic, talented and interesting than all the guests put together. And there’s the thing. We are serving them - with grace, charm and efficiency. Wouldn’t it be nice if that were always reciprocated?

Because my clients are often conservative business types, I need to specify that the agency send only waiters who have no “over the top” tattoos; no visible body piercings; that they own “hospo” black shirts, trousers and shiny work shoes that will get them comfortably through a long service (no ballet flats, no sneakers).

I also need a basic level of training that the agency confirms – they can open wines with a corkscrew, indeed, that they have such an implement on their person; they can accurately pour said wine; they can set a table for various courses; they can carry three plates (no more, we are not circus performers); they can clear a table in one round.

Then, the specifics of each gig are up to me. I will explain the menu and its service, point out the dietary restrictions, explain the wine and beverage service, give them time to reapply lippy and ‘straighten up’ mid function so that they always look fresh and professional, feed them and keep up their morale for a long function.

Much of the effort for my catering and cookery school business was training staff for front of house duties. I produced a number of handbooks, which are used to this day, though I am sure they require updating and repurposing since so much has changed in this age of more casual dining. The basics still apply however.

The first lesson in my training regime was teaching would be waiters how to stand. Seriously. If someone had taught me about correct posture I possibly would not have lower back issues in my dotage. Likewise, the correct way of carrying three plates to minimise hand and forearm strain is important. We move to polishing and setting cutlery, glassware and plates and setting up our mis en place. All the while, proper hygiene must become second nature. These are part of the physical skills I taught. But even more important is how to interact with people.

Photo Credit: table set for a private dinner.

For many years, I was honoured to work with a “mature” woman who was my front of house specialist. She had no formal training in a Hospitality College. She gave many splendid dinner parties and that is how she ran the floor. My paying customers were her guests and she made them feel comfortable and special - but she called the shots and regulated the flow of dinner. If I wanted them to finish pre dinner drinks and take their places at the table, she made them think it was their idea. Time to go home? The taxis were already at the door. Seamless. The diners believed, rightly, that she wanted them to have a good dinner and they allowed her to choreograph the dance. Of course, she made mistakes – as I did, and do – but the diners allowed us the privilege to make it right for them, then and there. They trusted us.

In my experience, skills are easily taught and quickly learned. But these skills alone do not make a good waiter. A waiter serving a table of ten will need to make four trips to the dining room. A clever waiter will take three plates, then another three, then two and two. A clever waiter does not need to be told that taking out a sad, solitary plate is embarrassing to the diner who has been left waiting.

It is almost impossible to teach the lessons of how to be a good waiter to those who grew up in a house without dinner parties; to those who don’t eat out occasionally in a “proper” restaurant; those whose parents ordered for them from the “children’s menu”; those who regularly eat their meals on the couch watching television or their screens, or those who do not know what the word “conviviality” means.

Good waiters instinctively understand dining, as opposed to merely eating a meal. It is not a mysterious custom conducted by people who are somehow better than them. They are in the hospitality industry precisely because the rituals of dining fascinate them, they love the discipline of the set up, the frenetic service, the wind down. Above all, they like people.

Photo Credit: Igor Miske's swan song. "And we're done. A plate of pasta and a glass of wine in a tumbler, filled to the brim. We are sitting on milk crates because the chairs are packed. It's been a good gig".

Good waiters understand that conversation at the table is sacrosanct and should not be interrupted lightly; they know how to orchestrate the pace of the meal, they are the conduit between the kitchen and the dining room. If they develop a rapport with a table of people, they will champion their cause in the kitchen. They know that they are the face of the restaurant or the caterer. Their next shift depends on the boss staying in business, they don’t want to blow it.

Waiters need to read and understand people. And this is another skill that can’t be taught. Having jolly conversation may be a wonderful tonic for the diner, or an unforgivable intrusion – reading body language accurately is a must. Being confident to address a person, eye to eye, may be terrifying for a young person but in a noisy restaurant explaining the specials to the wall or over the heads of the diner is frustrating all round. How do waiters achieve this balance of approachability and distance? Knowing that they are part of a team that is doing their best to make the diner have a great meal and relying always on their training is how they make it through a shift.

The diners’ contract is with the establishment but the waiter is the key to understanding the venue, the menu and philosophy of the team. Learn to trust them, they are like Switzerland – stuck in the middle, trying to keep everyone level headed and happy.

Photo credit: end of service.

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