Service!

I'm not really one for reality TV programmes but I've really enjoyed watching Michels Roux's service.Aren't Michel and Fred Sirieilx such brilliant ambassadors for the industry? So much enthusiasm, professionalism and patience with the trainees,I hope the programme helps to raise awareness in this country of Front of House service as a possible career choice rather than just a stopping off post to something else.

I once met Monsieur Albert Roux, albeit briefly.
Many years ago I worked at a country house hotel.The Sous Chef was a nasty piece of work who made the lives of all the waiting staff a living hell. At the time Gary Rhodes was at the height of his TV Chefdom.Sharing a name with his idol was a constant source of pleasure to Gary Sous Chef,predictably, his hair was pimped up in a similar fashion.God I hated him with a passion.
I'm a strong believer that if you wait long enough,the opportunity will present itself to give individuals such as this their come uppance.
News filtered up from reception late one afternoon that Monsieur Albert Roux would be arriving later that evening.Never being one to miss out on an opportunity for self promotion,Gary Sous Chef conscientiously offered to stay back late after service in the event that the great man might require any manner of  refreshment.
He spent all evening preparing a plate of canapes,consisting mainly of smoked salmon and cream cheese pin wheels which were a staple on every buffet at the time.Quite basic stuff really.There were a few other bits and pieces, nothing notable.The plate of delicacies was placed in the fridge with a damp tea towel on top to prevent the treats from drying out.(Yes folks, that's how those assorted buffet sandwiches are kept moist prior to being displayed on your buffet..the Chef will hold a clean(hopefully)tea towel under the cold tap,then wring it out and place carefully over the top of the flat of sarnies.Delicious).
That evening I wheeled the plate of delicacies up to Monsieur Roux's room on a linen clad hostess trolley(country house hotel style).Later, I returned to collect said trolley and when arriving back at the kitchen, as expected Gary Sous Chef was waiting eagerly to check the contents of the plate(yes that's also what we do,check your plates to see if you've left anything..).It had all been eaten.His face was beaming with contentment,he actually flashed me the first smile Id ever had from him,he was positively basking in the reflected glory of his success and fishing for further positive feedback:
'What did he say??Did he like them???'
My chance had finally come.I looked up at him and smiled.I held his gaze,just for a minute to prolong his agony.I spoke calmly and in even tone:

'You bloody idiot,do you really think that a man such as that,coming as he does from the very Temple of Gastronomy is going to be impressed by your bloody stupid poncey salmon sandwiches??Is that the best you can do??The reason he ate them is because he's been travelling all bloody day and he's bleeping starving.Alternatively, he may have binned them in the room to avoid upsetting you,Id have a word with the chambermaids in the morning if I was you...'
Past experience taught me that I had around ten seconds before he exploded.I counted down from ten in my head...

10,9..
look of disbelief beginning to register on his face...
8,7
 breathing becoming short and laboured...
6,5
Starting to fill up with colour,face twitching uncontrollably..
4,3
visibly shaking with anger now,not much more time to go,but I stayed as long as I dared..to enjoy the moment...
2,1
lift off....

I ran ,feet barely touching the non slip safety flooring to the refuge of the fine dining restaurant.
I could see him through the port hole in the door.He didn't dare cross the line between kitchen territory and front of house.He looked like the Incredible Hulk shaking his fist at me,beetroot red though, not green.I strolled around a bit in his line of vision,glancing up periodically and smiling contentedly,I may even have waved at him..
I steered well clear of the kitchen for the next few days,staff meals were an absolute no no, just in case he pulled the laxative trick.
I survived the next few days on dried out leftover banqueting meals courtesy of the Alto Sham.It was worth it though,it may well indeed have been my finest hour...

Service standard can have such an impact on the eating out experience. I'm not saying outstanding service can make up for a bad meal but it definitely softens the blow, as Fred rightly said in the programme:
' if you smile you can get away with anything'.
Well almost anything..

Last Monday we ate at a local pub where one of the Masterchef semi finalists *may* in fact be Chef. Rather than post a negative review,I thought we'd just use the experience as a positive learning curve..


We didn't have a reservation but being a Monday we just headed out on the off chance.
Approaching the bar we were asked if we would like a table.A good start.It was 6pm and wasn't busy.We purchased a drink and were left standing at the bar like a couple of spare parts.After about 10 minutes we were shown to a table.Now at this point there were very few people in the pub,and no one ordering food.

Lesson 1:
Always get early diners seated quickly so that you can get an order to kitchen promptly, thus avoiding a backlog later.Easy.


Seated at the table we were presented with a menu and asked if we would like to 'order a bottle of wine for the table'.(for the table?? what an odd turn of phrase..)
'No' I replied 'Ill just stick to glasses' Chef was driving(his turn).
With the delay,at this point our drinks were almost finished(no flies on us).
In addition to the printed menu,we were informed there was also a specials board which we could choose from(in the bar)so trudged back to the bar to look at it.
We enjoyed a further 10-15 mins chat before our order was taken
Lesson 2:
If there's a specials menu not visible from the seating area,make sure you point this out to your guests prior to sitting at the table(we observed this happen twice more-some of the diners were elderly and moderately infirm)..Or here's a novel idea, why not get the waiting staff to advise diners personally at the table of the specials,providing an opportunity for some dialogue???

By now our drinks were quaffed,frustratingly we were sitting with vacant glasses.
In the time we'd sat at the table waiting for our order to be taken four more tables were seated.The dining area was quite large,yet the staff chose to seat everyone at the top end of the restaurant on tables sited cosily together.So close, that once chairs were pulled out waiting staff  could not negotiate the gap between without asking diners to shuffle chairs in.We were in the middle of the melee,surrounded on all sides.
The waiting staff(we observed 8)were all congregated at the other end of the restaurant unable to see easily what was going on.It was a game of two halves,'arry.We wondered how long it would be before we were offered another drink.After 20minutes with empty glasses I was parched.Chef wondered if he should make an expedition to the the bar to procure another round,but didn't fancy attempting the narrow space between the tables.He stayed put.The waiting turned into a test of how long it would be before we were offered a beverage.
Lesson 3:
Make sure your staff are positioned so they can easily observe what is going on at diners tables and don't crowd everyone into one area if you don't need to.


As we played the waiting game,we observed staff speedily take orders from all four tables that were now seated, in the space of about 5 minutes.Lets think this through.Though there's more space and usually more staff(except in ours) in a commercial kitchen, why cause unnecessary pressure?Imagine plating up meals at home for 20 people when you could choose to do a few at a time.The same principles apply to a commercial kitchen, I often think people surmise all meals are in the oven cooking just on the off chance the local rugby team might stop by for dinner.Oddly, they're only cooked if someone orders them,so if 20 people order meals at the same time inevitably there will be a wait.Seemples.
Lesson 4:
Stagger the orders in order to avoid the kitchen being in the shit and subsequent unhappy diners.




By now we were seriously considering squeezing past the other diners to solicit a drink,it had got to that stage where one was beginning to regret cutting off ones nose to spite ones face(I mean I only get one night off per week what's the point in going thirsty just for the sake if a stupid test?)
At this point a waitress came over to tell us that our food wouldn't be long.Yes you've guessed it we had been waiting a while *obviously* since all the orders had been checked on together..I was just about to order myself a drink when she spotted the empty glasses and offered.Thank God.We'd sat for 35 minutes at this point..
Lesson 5:
Offer additional drinks to guests a regular intervals.Its the easiest way to increase sales/ensure the profitability of the business- I never refuse a drink if its suggested..


For a further 35 minutes we amusedly observed diners at the tables around us becoming increasingly agitated due to no meals appearing and during which time the eight waiting staff remained at the far end of the room with no interaction with the guests.Every time the kitchen door opened 20 heads turned with eager anticipation,we heard the phrase 'this must be ours' muttered repeatedly. Coincidentally, I once worked with a girl who took great pleasure in purposely doing exactly this.By the time she was finished with her guests they were more akin to a Centre court crowd at Wimbledon than a restaurant full of diners.Tres amuseant..
Lesson 6:
Don't keep going into the kitchen if its not to collect meals,this will only heighten the sense of disappointment for diners as their hopes are repeatedly raised,then dashed.


Our meals came out first.This is mine.

Savoy overload


At this point Id like to go back to the comment made by Fred :
'If you smile you can get away with anything'.


And Chefs:
Rare steak?......methinks not.And look at all that cutlery on the table-we hadn't even ordered a pud...


Now, if we'd had attentive service and an all round enjoyable evening then perhaps the meal I was finally presented with might have seemed a little better.It certainly wasn't disgusting,
The lamb chops had obviously been cooked 'Sous vide'.They were very tender(almost sponge like in appearance) though not particularly tasty.The fat was white and flabby. I've been reading up a bit more on this subject and have had a few conversations on Twitter about this cooking method. I've come to the conclusion that it has its place though we're still undecided as to whether it will suit our style of cooking.Clearly on this occasion the vac pack and waterbath hadn't been used correctly,the meat was unseasoned and it certainly needed to be finished off in a pan to crisp.I wondered whether the Chef had been forced to cut corners due to the checks all coming on together and whether he'd been forced to compromise standards in order to get the meals out in a reasonable time.Maybe he cut out the last important(but vital) stage of the cooking process  and simply snipped the vac bag and placed the lamb on the plate.The temptation to do this under pressurised situations must definitely exist.
As one Chef said to me the other day:'you cant replace skill with equipment'.And if the equipment isn't being used correctly then its there's no point.


Full marks to the Chef though for picking up on the fact that I'm anaemic..


Finally,
Lesson 7:
Having the proverbial 'more staff than customers' doesn't guarantee good service. Far better to have four well trained staff who are kept busy,than eight who are standing idle. If staff look busy diners will be more patient and it will buy an up-the-wall kitchen valuable time...


Rack of lamb cooked in the conventional fashion,outside caramelised,pink in't middle.

PS.This is the lamb dish which we had on our menu last night,not wanting to blow ones own trumpet,but I know which one Id rather eat..

Comments

Alison Cross said…
That was a REALLY interesting post.

We ate out in Glasgow in January and waited from 8pm until nearly 10pm for our meal to be served. The staff kept well away from us, but visited tables (already served) to ask if all was alright.

Eventually someone apologised and I who have never complained in a restaurant in my life, said that an apology at 10pm wasn't good enough.

The bill was amended. But I won't be back. Not because of the food - which was lovely when it arrived - but because they had NO idea on how to run their front of house.

I look forward to more roving restaurant reviews.

Ali x
Pavel said…
Haha I totally agree, a smile will let you get away with anything! I loved Service, I even had a little cry at the end of the last one twas a touch emotional. :^D
tommy said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
There is no excuse for lousy service. There is a place like that on the Island. You can grow old waiting on drinks and food, but their problem is lack of staff.
I don't know how these places survive to be honest. Your rack of lamb looked SOOOO much better.
Gary the sous chef sounds like a twat!

I would only eat your rack of lamb not the other and there's nothing worse than when your steak is overcooked. My next blog includes a few steaks, I've eaten so much red meat this week.

I am loving Michel Roux's Service too. I have two episodes to catch up on now I'm back in London. Hope all's good with you xx
Young at Heart said…
ooh your pink lamb looks utterly delicious....well done for getting your own back on Gary-the-tosser...I'm starving now!!

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