Front-of-house hero Silvano Giraldin is best known as the former maitre-d’ at London restaurant Le Gavroche where he worked for 37 years. The Italian father-of-two started his career in France before moving to the UK in 1971 and although he retired from Le Gavroche in 2008 he remains working with the Roux family as an executive director for Le Gavroche and at their restaurant consultancy Chez Roux. Silvano is also involved with a number of industry organisations and competitions, including the Academy of Food & Wine and the Gold Service Scholarship, where he is a senior judge and trustee.
You spent almost four decades working at Le Gavroche, what was it about the restaurant that kept you there for so long?
Le Gavroche has been one of the top restaurants in the UK from day one and it will be 50 this year, so when you’re working in a place like that you don’t want to move. I was maitre d’ when Le Gavroche became the first restaurant in England to gain three Michelin stars. It made history, so I was never tempted to leave. Why would I when there was no better place to work in London?
I was head-hunted by Claridge’s in the mid-1980s, but I didn’t want to touch hotels because I’d be a restaurant manager with five or six bosses above me, whereas at Le Gavroche I had one person who was my boss. When Claridge’s gave me a fantastic salary offer I had to go back to Albert and say ‘can you look at this offer, I need to think about my career and family and I think it could be good for me’. He looked at me and said ‘Silvano, we are splitting with my brother and you can become a director of the company if you stay on’ That’s why I stayed so long and I don’t regret it for a moment. It was a privilege to work for the Roux family. I’ve been in England now for 46 years and have been involved with them for that time. They have been fantastic employers.
What do you think of service levels in the UK currently?
The quality of service we have in England is possibly one of the best in Europe. In the rest of Europe service can be a bit sloppy and snotty whereas in England it really has improved. Now you could get quality service in 40 or 50 restaurants in London, compared to five or six when I arrived here more than 40 years ago.
Levels are still not as high as I’d like them, but we are doing a good job. The style of service has changed of course. It was very formal, but now it is more friendly. I’m not a fan of it being too friendly where they call you ‘mate’ though.
As a waiter you need to be able to judge when to be be formal and when to be less so. The secret of good service is judging the moment. If you are serving one or two people you can take some time to talk to them, but if you are serving a table of four or more, the waiter shouldn’t engage in a long conversation with the host. They are distracting the host from their guests and that sometimes is what they don’t understand. If I get the waiter to explain the dish when I order, I don’t need them to describe it to me again when it arrives. That’s the subtlety of good service.
How exactly has service changed in the UK over the last 40 years?
Before it was much more formal. Now there is more warmth and it is better like that. However, I think we’ve lost a bit of the theatre of service. In the past a lot more was done in front of the customers, now everything arrives on the plate as it left the kitchen. Before, the chef would send food out on dishes and the waiter would take it from the dish and put it on the plate. We used to ask the customer if we could de-bone a pheasant or prepare a partridge for them, but you don’t see that anymore which is a shame. If I I order beef and it is cut in front of me, I love it. If it is cut in the kitchen it loses the blood and will probably be less tasty. I know things evolve and we have to move with the times, but it’s nice to have a bit of theatre. That’s why we try to maintain a bit of that service through the Gold Service Scholarship.
Where have you received the best service in the UK?
Establishments like The Ritz and The Waterside Inn – obviously Le Gavroche too – and then Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road and Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester are still at the top of the tree. If I hadn’t stayed at Le Gavroche these would have been the only places I would have worked with.
Many people can name a restaurant’s chef, but not its restaurant manager, why don’t front-of-house share the limelight?
Chefs write a recipe you can read, then they make the dish which you can take a picture of and then taste. What can you do with service? Nothing. You can’t take a picture of good service. It’s only when you don’t have it you notice it is missing.
Sometimes I say to the media, you don’t praise service enough, you only say when it’s bad, but you never give praise to the person who took your order. You will describe every detail of the dishes, but will never mention the person who has been serving them, that’s why we need a bit more recognition from the press.
Michel Roux Jnr did the series Service with the BBC a few years ago and that was then killed off. Fred Sirieix, who was working with me at Le Gavroche, is probably the one who does the most to raise the profile of service now. He’s always been one of the best ambassadors for the industry.
To motivate my waiters I say we are ‘masters of happiness’. We sell happiness to customers and the only way we can measure it is by seeing them leave with a smile on their face. That’s what keeps you going.
Why did you decide to get involved with the Gold Service Scholarship?
I always remember the mentoring I had from my teachers when I was young, so when I was approached to be part of the Gold Service Scholarship I saw it as a chance to pass on the knowledge I have to young people. The only way I can do that is through a competition. I find they are too scared to come and talk to me otherwise. This competition is a great chance to steer them and give value to our profession.
What three tips would you give to front-of-house personnel to ensure a successful career?
The first tip is not to think about how much your first job pays, just look at the establishment and what you can learn there. The first year will form the rest of your career, so if you don’t have good training you won’t prosper. Second: Be honest. When you do something wrong, don’t lie or bluff your way out. It’s no drama if you say ‘sorry I don’t know’ but if you try to get away with it people will find out and they won’t be very happy. Third: You have to be a good actor and smile. As soon as you enter the room you are an actor, you have to smile and perform for the customer. Forget about what happens outside of the restaurant.
What is your dream dining experience and who would be providing it for you?
There’s only one dish that I would choose and I would have it as starter, main course and dessert. It’s a dish that Michel Roux JR does at Le Gavroche called the Coeur d’artichaut Lucullus. It’s the heart of artichoke filled with chicken mousse and foie gras and served with truffles in Madeira sauce. If I could have a double portion served by Diego Masciaga at the Waterside Inn, with a view of the waterside on a hot summer’s day – that would be my dream.
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor
Photography by Justine Trickett