My shift comes days after the final of the hugely popular TV series Michel Roux’s Service. For those who didn’t follow it (shame on you), Sirieix, along with the chef, took a bunch of hapless misfits who could barely carry a fork without losing an eye, and in eight weeks trained them up into plausible waiters, maître d’s and sommeliers.
Thanks to Fred and Michel, front-of-house is now cool.
For Sirieix, my shift is all par for the course; it gives him the chance to work his now-famous front-of-house magic on yet one more feckless candidate. For me, it’s the opportunity to see exactly how a great front-of-house team works.
11.30am Getting the most from the staff
First up is the team’s weekly meeting and it quickly becomes apparent that, while Galvin at Windows takes its service very seriously and invests much time and effort into getting it right, it faces the industry’s endemic problem: recruiting British staff.
Our huddle more resembles a meeting of the UN Security Council than a Park Lane restaurant, with just three hailing from Britain.
While there’s nothing wrong with Galvin at Windows – or any other restaurant for that matter – having an international feel, it brings it home that front-of-house is still not regarded as a suitable career for the youngsters of this country.
So the ability to communicate effectively with all staff is crucial, Sirieix tells me. “We have simple standards for people who don’t speak English as their first language. It’s very important that everyone understands what you want to achieve. The most common mistake restaurants make is not sharing their values with their staff. This means there’s no base level and no consistency.”
Each week Sirieix holds meetings for specific areas of service to drill into his staff exactly what he wants. Today, for my benefit, the theme is meeting and greeting guests, showing them to their table, offering drinks etc – things everyone in the room will have done a thousand times before. But woe betide if any complacency slips in.
Strong product knowledge is equally essential. Before each service, waiters are grilled on how to describe each dish in terms of flavour and preparation. Any French terminology on the menu has to be explained without being patronising. Not being able to answer guests’ questions at the table is clearly tantamount to treason.
12.00 Putting the skills into action
Even the most enthusiastic staff won’t ensure your restaurant is a well-oiled machine without order. This is where the subtle skills of front-of-house come to the fore. As I learn just three minutes into my shift on the reception desk, there’s a lot more to it than a penguin suit and a smile.
From the minute a guest enters the dining room the balancing act begins. By 12.03pm 10 diners are already seated and others are in the bar area, and the subtle art of guest manipulation starts.
The room contains 32 tables across four stations and the art, says restaurant manager Andrew Sicklin, is to balance the room so that each station has a manageable number of guests for the waiting staff.
If guests are early the receptionist suggests a drink at the bar; if a sudden rush is imminent it is suggested they go straight to the table. Customers at the bar who need to be seated also have to be encouraged to move through to the restaurant, but in such a way that they don’t feel rushed.
Once guests are seated guests are placed in the hands of the waiters.
For the waiting staff the tricks of the trade are slightly different. Their two main roles are service and anticipation. Each station has a number of waiters who take orders, serve food, clear tables, top up water – standard waiter fodder – but more important is the ability to read the signs and second-guess what is coming next.
It’s not as easy as it looks. With 10 tables in my station, keeping track of who’s ready to order, clearing plates and anticipating when glasses will be empty requires constant attention. To help, Sirieix enforces a rigorous formation so everybody is in the right place at the right time to act.
“It is important everyone has an absolute position that they must stick to like a football team. We’ve got our own goalie, midfielder and attacker,” says Sirieix.
The minutiae that make the restaurant’s service so respected also have to be followed, so water bottles are opened at the table, not before; napkins are folded when a guest leaves the table, and must not touch the waiter’s apron in the process; dishes are cleared two minutes (no sooner) after the last diner has finished eating so guests don’t feel rushed; glasses are removed on a tray; the bill is checked by the manager and the sommelier before being presented to ensure it is correct. All this has to be done in such a manner that diners feel at ease and not suffocated.
3pm Beyond the perfect serve
With some 25 staff in the dining room and the bar I’ve successfully managed to hide behind my team for the majority of the service.
But what about the thousands of restaurants out there that don’t employ legions of staff for every service and, for that matter, the casual restaurants for which such minute attention to detail is unnecessary?
The fundamental principles that Galvin at Windows adheres to form a blueprint for any restaurant.
Whether you’re a two-star dining room or a democratic-style cantina, there exists the need for passionate and knowledgeable staff, a dining room that works in tandem with the kitchen and a desire to serve customers to the best of your ability.
One final key to perfect service is keeping staff happy.
Raymond Blanc, who himself started his career on the dining-room side of the pass, says at his restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, he had to work hard to get front-of-house staff and chefs to discuss issues. “It is an employer’s duty to make front-of-house a more attractive job by training and empowering people to achieve their goals,” he says.
The full version of this feature is available in the March 2011 edition of BigHospitality’s sister title, Restaurant magazine.