I trained as a chef in Bristol initially, but after experiencing a 9 month work permit at the Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich in the summer of 1971, I realised that I wanted to work in a restaurant, not the kitchen. It was enchanting, the people so full of grace, it was something I wanted to be involved in desperately and I consider myself so lucky to have been a part of it, and even luckier that I can now pass down my experience and knowledge to others in our great industry.
I went to school at The Lausanne Palace, growing from a Commis de rang to Head Waiter, mentored by an amazing old school Restaurant Manager, Maurizio Santambrogio; who eventually opened his own Italian restaurant and took me with him, so much was learnt.
Then on to working with Fredy Girardet, his self-named restaurant in Crissier, Switzerland earned three Michelin stars, and before Girardet’s retirement in 1996 was often called the greatest restaurant in the world.
While with Fredy Girardet some friends of Terence Conran came to dine from London, they gave Terence my name and that’s how I arrived in London in 1987 to open Bibendum as Restaurant Manager.
Then through my early career I was fortunate to be part of Mosimann’s , Guy Savoy, Château de Bagnols, The Lanesborough, The Square, The Lanesborough – 2nd time, CHE, Cecconni’s and Morton’s Members Club.
It has always been about the guests in the restaurant, but as my experience grew I understood that the team and teamwork was of paramount importance, a happy team do the best work.
I’ve served, Charlie Chaplin, Michel Platini, Richard Burton, Princess Diana, Richard Nixon, and Freddy Mercury (who thanked me for, what he called, a culinary striptease) the list goes on and on. But, prince or pauper, they deserved the restaurant’s respect, the team’s respect, as well as that of the team in the kitchen including the KP’s.
Offering good service is understanding your restaurant, understanding your guests requirements, and working well with the kitchen.
In the mornings when you go to work, if you’re front of house, pop into the kitchen with a simple, “morning all, how are you?” They might not always answer enthusiastically, but that doesn’t matter, you’ve done your bit, and you’re creating a better environment through embracing the kitchen. You can’t work without the kitchen, and neither can they without you.
Greet your managers; let everyone know you’re there.
Be the most popular guy in the restaurant, not only with your guests but also with other members of the staff from all departments. It makes such a great difference and it should be the most natural thing in the world.
Every point of contact is crucial, from the first impression to the last, from the KP to his Lordship.
The art of hospitality is just as specific as it is all encompassing. The obvious may not seem so obvious, when are the best times to speak to guests and how to read their body language? What are the teamwork skills that build confidence and bring more success to the business? How to diffuse difficult situations with ease and grace?
What do you think of service levels in the UK currently?
Service over the years has changed much, the approach to the guest has become friendlier and more open, owners understand more how important it is to have good positive and energetic staff.
Unfortunately, even now ‘Service’ is not always looked upon as a career – just a job to fill in a few months.
How exactly has service changed in the UK over the last 40 years?
More focus on setting and maintaining standards; staff training is now one of the keys to having a successful FOH team and staff product knowledge has improved so much – so important in this day and age of allergies and intolerances.
But saying that, there are unfortunately still a number of establishments who do not live up to expectations… mainly due to lack of proper training & motivation.
One thing I do miss in certain restaurants is some kind of tableside work form the restaurant team, there are so many wonderful skills that can be shown at the table.
Where have you received the best service in the UK?
I will always remember a dinner at the Connaught in the 80’s, I came to London with Fredy Girardet to watch Tottenham v Coventry at the Wembley Cup Final, and we had dinner with Egon Ronay cooked by the wonderful Mr Michel Bourdin. I remember the meet & greet, being shown to the table, I saw the managers/sommeliers have a discreet word about who was who at the table, it was a flawless flow of appropriate attention to every guest.
The service at the Ledbury is always for me at the top of the game, attentive, knowledgeable and friendly and of course over the years Royal Hospital Road with Jean Claude and his team and Le Gavroche.
The question is always what is the difference between service and hospitality?
I want to see the technical side but also what I call an emotional side to what we do, not forgetting the real meaning of hospitality – The warm & generous reception and entertainment of guests.
Many people can name a restaurant’s chef, but not its restaurant manager, why don’t front-of-house share the limelight? Yes, very true, Chefs are very creative people and a lot of thought, passion, and frustration can go into the preparation of their recipes. Going back to the 80’s we all knew the names of Bocuse, Troisgros, Guy Savoy, Raymond Blanc, the Roux brothers, but not the Restaurant Manager. The media have always concentrated on the Chef or Chef Patron, but we also have recipes front of house – How do I carry a menu? Where do I stand? Who do I give the menu to first? What do I say? Subtle and disciplined training leads to the delivery that some diners overlook, but it’s an art.
I think more recognition for the ‘face’ of an establishment would help with one of the biggest issues in the industry at present which is recruitment. Managers have to show that they are ‘in charge’ but in some establishments are not always on the pitch, where they need to be seen and conducting.
Why did you decide to get involved with the Gold Service Scholarship?
When Willy Bauer called me asking if I would like to join the other trustees I was very proud, it made me think about what I have learnt from some amazing people over the years without briefings, tasting notes and trips, we learnt on the floor by looking ,and it made me understand that it was an opportunity to share all this experience on a larger scale and with some of the best in the industry, we really can share so much and I think the success of the Scholarship now speaks for itself.
What tips would you give to front-of-house personnel to ensure a successful career?
Think is this really what you want to do, it is an amazing and rewarding profession but requires commitment and some sacrifices, there is a lot to learn (A LOT and it takes time).
Be a good team player, it is so important to work together toward the same goal – caring for each other and our guests (the 10 years at Girardet were a super lesson in teamwork) and as you grow in the industry remember that looking after your teams will give you time to look after your guests – and make a name.
Take responsibility for what you do, you represent many people when you are at work apart from yourself, the establishment, your Chef and your team but also your family – you are the one that is going to leave an impression – make it a good one.
What is your dream dining experience and who would be providing it for you?
WOW what a question…it would have to be bit of a melange.
I would like to eat at the Lausanne Palace, have Maurizio Santambrogio take my order, Fredy Girardet cook and have the room full of all the great people I have met over the years.
Thank you for the interview John, one that we will doubtless follow up on soon. Taking a trip down the hospitality industry hall of fame with you and learning so much about the ‘names’ you have worked with was a privilege.