This was one of the points up for discussion at the TMRW Project’s latest Industry Talks event this week.
Panellists Gary Usher (chef-owner of Sticky Walnut, Burnt Truffle), Nick Gibson (owner of The Drapers Arms), Leah Kirkland (GM at Trinity), Sunaina Sethi (operations director at JKS Restaurants) and Gillian Lithgow (Marcus Wareing Group HR manager) sat down to debate the divide between the kitchen and the floor, and whether front of house needs a rebrand.
Here are five key points we learned from the event:
There’s still an issue with customer perceptions of waiting staff
Usher: How staff are dealt with and spoken to [by customers] says a lot about how the career is viewed. We have to get those types of people to encourage young people to see it as a [serious] option, because without respect from the guests, how can you tell anyone looking in that it’s a great career choice?
Gibson: I’ve been working behind the bar scraping plates and had people I was at university with come in and look at me like they were vaguely embarrassed. But I’m looking after [people], it’s incredibly noble and a great privilege. You need to create a nourishing environment where staff understand that what they are doing is a gift. If you’re given the right tools and a pleasant working environment the job is a fabulous one. It doesn’t matter [whether or not] everyone that comes in is nice to you.
The divide between the kitchen and floor isn’t helping
Usher: As soon as I walk out of the kitchen I feel like I’m front of house, and I feel good about that. The difference is most chefs feel that there is this separation between front and back and there shouldn’t be, it’s all united. There’s an ego from the kitchen, which affects the front of house. I think kitchens make front of house feel like it's lesser. A big part of the [image problem] is because there is so much arrogance from the majority of kitchens. Chefs might be key in changing the way people perceive it.
A role-reversal can help
Sethi: In every environment the main personality is a leader, so if the head chef or general manager feels that divide then you will too. It is about using techniques to try and break those barriers down. One thing we’ve tried is getting front of house to go in to the kitchen and make the staff food for the day, that seems to have worked quite well because suddenly the chefs learn a different element of respect.
Lithgow: We get the chefs to do wine tasting and the front of house staff come and do food tasting. If the chef is passionate about the food the waiter will be passionate about sharing that with guests.
Usher: The role reversal is important. Whoever is running the kitchen and front of house needs to know what the other person’s role is like. I think chefs totally underestimate what it means to run a floor. It’s a good idea to get front of house staff in the kitchen but the other way round is definitely a light switch [moment] for chefs. What I’ve seen a lot, particularly in high-end restaurants, is that head chefs treat front of house like they’re on a lower level, and that idea needs to change. Chefs are doing a lot of talking for the industry at the moment and they need to speak about front of house with as much pride as they do about the kitchen.
Service is important to guests, but the guides and awards don’t give it enough credit
Gibson: If you look on every review website food and service are given equal weight. When people complain they are as good at complaining about the service as they are the food. A lot of letters we get from people say ‘the server made my night’.
Usher: Maybe the guides should be changing as well. The last couple of years Burnt Truffle got in the Good Food Guide and they sent a questionnaire only asking for the name of the chefs. Michelin is the same. Someone on social media said that as it’s the Good Food Guide they’re only looking at the food, but maybe they shouldn’t be. We all know the front of house can save [a service] when we mess up in the kitchen.
Restaurants can engage the next generation
Kirkland: We recently started a behind the scenes Instagram account, everyone has a login and we have a prize every week for whoever posts the best picture. One of the main goals is that it shows what we’re passionate about, that we’re a family and that this is a fun industry - even in Michelin star restaurants.
The Switch is a great programme for the front of house stage that doesn’t really exist at the moment. Chefs are constantly asking to come in to restaurants but it would be great if the industry opened up a bit for us to accept more front of house stagiaires. It’s hard because there’s such a small pool of staff I think everyone’s scared they might lose them to other restaurants.
Lithgow: There’s a massive career fair in London this weekend for people between the age of 15-24 and they’re expecting 13,000 people to attend. I think there’s maybe five restaurants, and a few hotels, that will be there. Why aren’t more [hospitality businesses] going?
The TMRW Project was set up by chef Dan Doherty, writer Anna Sulan Masing and GM Emma Underwood to support and promote young hospitality talent. Its projects include Industry Talks, Chefs of Tomorrow and The Switch.