Didier Fertilati: "No one should be ashamed to be a waiter"

By Sophie Witts contact

- Last updated on GMT

Didier Fertilati: "No one should be ashamed to be a waiter"

Related tags: Front of house, Restaurant, World's 50 Best Restaurants, Food on the Edge

Restaurant manager Didier Fertilati spent five years in charge of the dining room at The Fat Duck and is currently maitre d’ at Quique Dacosta’s eponymous three Michelin-starred restaurant in Spain.

Fertilati became the first front of house speaker to talk at Food on the Edge,​ a two-day food symposium, in Galway last week. He discussed the change in perceptions of being a waiter, the difficulty of service and why back and front of house need to work closer together.

On how restaurants have changed

In the past 30 years there’s been a big change. I started 28 years ago in a restaurant called Le Moulin de Mougins near Cannes, France, which had three stars at the time. There were 35 waiters and less cooks. Nowadays it’s the other way round. At that time the maitre’d was one of the most important pieces of the restaurant, the one clients were coming to visit.

Getting customers to a restaurant back then was much more difficult than it is now. It was limited to a specific social class, you had to know how to talk and behave. Travelling was more expensive, so the people who could afford to go to those kind of restaurants had families with money. Nowadays customers range from seven to 77 years old, which makes our job more difficult if you want to give them personal treatment. 

Kitchen vs floor

I tend to tease the chefs by saying what they do is much easier, because they’re only dealing with dead products. If you get in to the kitchen hungover you don’t have to smile, when you’re cutting up the sea bass the fish is not going to say you’re doing it wrong. That’s always the war between room and kitchen, but the gap is getting narrower and I’m really glad about that.

Change in how front of house is valued

The [rise of] tasting menus, and [decline of] carving and preparation in the room is a bit of a shame because it’s started to become waiters just getting a plate from A to B. Restaurant owners decided to save money and thought they wouldn’t need as many [waiters] anymore. Service has dropped in quality and professionalism.

The worst thing for me is that being a waiter has become vulgar, [it’s perceived as] a job that anybody can do without any qualifications. I’m a little bit jealous of the success of cooks because the evolution of cooking TV shows means chefs have become stars. I’m glad the chefs are being much cleverer than we are to make the most of it.

With this huge success we’ve now got a few problems. All the kids now want to be a chef, they don’t want to be a waiter. It’s a bit like football, everyone wants to be the goal scorer, and no one wants to be the goalkeeper. I remember at school we were always putting in goal the person that couldn’t play. I feel a bit like that nowadays, and that’s a bit of a shame.

Turning things around

The good thing is, there’s not a week someone isn’t calling me asking if I know a maitre d' or sommelier. People are starting to think about their room and are conscious that service is a big aspect of a restaurant. The food is not just enough anymore. It’s very important to have a professional in the room who can sell and create an atmosphere.

We all have huge difficulties finding good front of house staff…we have to get unified in that battle. I beg the chefs and restaurant owners to start telling the world about their front of house team and how important they are. All the young people need to see and hear that service is important, we want them to be part of it.

Why front of house is key to a restaurant

I really feel that we are [crucial to diners’] second visit to a restaurant. The first visit is due to the name of the chef or a recommendation by a friend, but we are the ones that make a difference. Nowadays there is lots of very good cooking all over the world. I’ve been working all my life in top Michelin restaurants and I’m sure there is not a single customer who comes prepared to spend 200-500 euros thinking they’re going to get bad food. So we can make the difference between one place and the other.

[Chefs], we are your voice, your eyes and ears and I think we should work together much better than we do. I always thought that restaurants have got an easy definition, it’s about the importance of cooking and service [together]. If just cooking it’s called takeaway.

It’s time to get the front of house world back where it belongs in gastronomy. Nobody should be ashamed of saying, I am a waiter.

Food on the Edge is a two-day food and restaurant symposium in Galway, Ireland.


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