Up front and personal in Suffolk's restaurants

PUBLISHED: 14:55 22 March 2011 | UPDATED: 19:02 20 February 2013

Dianne Barrett, front of house at Scutchers, Long Melford, the restaurant she runs with her husband Nick

Dianne Barrett, front of house at Scutchers, Long Melford, the restaurant she runs with her husband Nick

Tessa Allingham meets the 'front of house' at three of the county's top restaurants to learn how to really look after customers

Tessa Allingham meets the front of house at three of the countys top restaurants to learn how to really look after customers

SURLY? Slapdash? Anyone who followed chef Michel Rouxs recent televised quest to mould seven young people into seven young waiters of the future (Michel Rouxs Service, BBC2) will recognise his stern indictment of British restaurant service. The two-Michelin-starred chef-patron of Londons Le Gavroche restaurant is a tough critic: "Service for the most part in this country is pretty bad," he declared during the programmes opening sequence. "Its surly, it can be slapdash."

Diane Barrett, who manages a front of house team of five or six at Scutchers in Long Melford found watching the series hard. "I just wanted that waitress to smile!" Her frustration is evident; she cringes at the thought of the glum-faced girl greeting guests.

For Andrea Palazzoni, food and beverage manager at the Adnams Swan hotel, Southwold, its nothing more complex than displaying "enthusiasm, a willingness to look after people, human warmth".

Rouxs gang of seven may have been raw beginners on a reality TV show, but as Karine Canevet, in charge of the front of house team at top Bury St Edmunds restaurant, Maison Bleue, puts it: "A front of house person needs to be able to say hello and goodbye. Respect and politeness and a nice smile need to come naturally."

These are, of course, only some of the skills that go into making a great waiter.

For Gordon Ramsay, front of house staff have to be "attentive without being noticed" (Kitchen Nightmares, July 2010).

Fred Siriex, general manager at London restaurant Galvin at Windows and trainer of the would-be waiters on Rouxs TV series talks about a "magic touch", the simple action that makes a customer feel special such as eye contact, a spontaneous, warm welcome, acknowledging a regular customer. Siriex agrees with Ramsay that delivering this magic unnoticed is of paramount importance: "A waiter needs to be in and out like a ghost, not seen, not heard," he says.

Sounds easy? Rgis Crpy, owner of the trio of top East Anglian eateries (Lavenhams The Great House, Mariners in Ipswich and Maison Bleue) is desperate for front of house to be considered a serious profession as it is in France or Italy rather than a stop-gap option. Rouxs programme angers him.

"How can they think they can train someone in just a few weeks and have them work at Lasserre [the top Paris restaurant where Rouxs trainees were filmed working a service]? There are so many players in East Anglia who take this job very seriously, who are extremely professional."

Canevet (now 17 years with Crpys team) has embraced his attitude, offering on-the-job skills training even for waiters who come to Maison Bleue with experience, and ongoing product knowledge training.

Shes insistent that, while she can spot potential right away, it can take a long time truly to master the attention to detail a restaurant like Maison Bleue expects.

"Being good front of house is not just about carrying plates properly; its about teamwork, an ability to anticipate a customers needs, to know when to chat and when to stand back and not interrupt. Its about knowledge about wine, cheese, the whole menu."

Canevet is looking forward to welcoming her latest recruit to the team.

"Alex was looking for a part time job. She came in with a smile and shes going to work here Friday and Saturday when were busiest. I could see immediately that she would be good."

Her initial training will have her working alongside experienced waiters, greeting customers, serving water, gradually learning the skills of good service. Shes probably someone Palazzoni who like Canevet has been in the industry many years and has a family background steeped in

hospitality would have liked to recruit.

"I always say to colleagues that technical skills are important, but I prefer a waiter with a fantastic attitude, who is even-tempered, good-humoured, hard-working."

In the Adnams group, training is a structured series of sessions taking new recruits through a corporate induction, departmental training in the place of work, and technical training which for waiters will cover the menu, wine list and the service sequence.

"New waiters start with simple tasks supporting the rest of the team and observing, then Ill buddy them up with an experienced waiter on a quiet evening. About 90% of the training is on the job," says Palazzoni.

Over time, he will expect staff to understand the differing expectations of different nationalities, and instinctively adapt service accordingly an American party will expect a different type of service from a Japanese guest, for example.

At Scutchers, Barrett also lays great store on a waiters ability to "read a situation" and behave accordingly.

All three keep returning to the importance of solid teamwork, however. For Barrett and Canevet this has been taken to the ultimate level, as both are married to their respective head chef. Its a good thing, though, Barrett laughs.

"Marry into the trade, that would be my top tip."

She and husband Nick live above Scutchers and although their daughters are now grown up, they remember the years when grandparents helped out, waitresses would take turns to babysit before starting a shift, jobs would be shared. Its a mucking-in approach that Barrett has stuck to in almost 20 years in Long Melford.

"There are no egos here and I never expect my staff to do anything I wouldnt do I clean the loos, get the logs in, polish the glasses just like they do. I make sure I instill these teamwork values into them."

Canevet adds: "Its not all about the chef; its about the team working together. If something goes wrong front of house then the kitchen will help us sort it out. Theres no friction, it all works smoothly."

The best bits of the job? Cleaning the loos doesnt feature in any answer, but all three are clearly enthused by the variety the role offers, meeting different people and building relationships with returning guests.

"Its a very rewarding profession," says Canevet.

"I want people to leave the restaurant happy and if they do then I know Ive won. Its nice to see the results of your work straightaway."

Palazzoni agrees that the stigma of the service industry is starting to disappear in the UK and a professional approach is gathering momentum.

"The Victorians have a lot to answer for regarding the attitude to service in this country! But now, I feel, theres no shame in serving people. Were selling happiness. What better job can there be?"

Surly? Slapdash? Absolutely not on their watch, thats for sure.

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