the past 20 years, the Capital Region has lifted itself out
of its culinary doldrums and explored the kind of menu innovations
that distinguish other urban markets. Such notions as fusion,
farm-fresh ingredients and hyper-inflated entrée-pricing finally
are coming our way.
we fall down—where we have always fallen—is in service. Or
“front of house,” as the restaurateurs term it. In the back
of the house, the cooking staff toils. Their task is to realize
the design of the executive chef’s menu. It’s highly focused
work that typically is divided into several stations to accommodate
the specialized nature of each dish.
staff, on the other hand, act as sales staff, public-relations
crew and pack mules. They have to interpret, and sometimes
guide, a customer’s requests; convey that information to the
kitchen; make timely delivery of food and drinks; correct
mistakes or disgruntlements; and ensure that the paid-up party
leaves the establishment feeling satisfied.
other line of work, each function would have a separate job
description with a salary to match. In a restaurant, the server
is paid less than minimum wage and must rely on the customer
to supplement that pittance.
restaurant to restaurant, the job is so often performed so
poorly that it’s a wonder any customer is moved to leave a
tip at all.
own salad days, I was hired as a novice (I lied to get my
first waitering job) and nervously spilled food on my first
customer during my first day of work. The owners were indulgent
and I learned on the job, and soon was hired away by a fancy
white-linen inn nearby.
I was fitted with a leather apron, taught how to fold napkins,
and turned loose. I was fortunate to have a knack for talking
with people, and made it my business to get to know the menu
and wine list (for an 18-year-old, the latter was a particularly
waiter, whose name was Mark, suggested that our fortunes—and
the restaurant’s—would increase if we changed the style of
service. He had worked in other fine-dining establishments,
and, based on that experience, he preached the gospel of captain-waiter
thing to go were the aprons. We hit the thrift shops and found
tuxedos. Next thing axed were individual tips. Because we’d
be working cooperatively, we’d pool what was given. Goodbye
to the capitalist approach.
the customer’s point of view, the biggest change was our dining-room
presence. A captain always was on hand. As one mâitre d’hôtel
I worked with put it, “Somebody in the dining room needs something
at any given moment. You job is to figure out who it is, and
satisfy the request.”
a mâitre d’, a friend named Steven who had no restaurant experience
but great communication skills, and he quickly became as fine
a host as I’ve ever worked with. We brought in busboys. When
the system was in place, here’s how it worked:
sported two dining rooms, each with seven tables. Each room
was worked by a captain, a waiter and a busboy. Steven greeted
arriving diners, showed them to a table, gave them menus and
took a drink order. (We had only a small service bar, so whoever
was nearest to it made the drinks.)
none of that, “Hi, my name is Ockey and I’ll be your server
tonight” nonsense. In fact, Steven learned the customers’
names and we so addressed them whenever possible. We remained
served the drinks, because that was the first opportunity
to schmooze with the table. Like a good salesman, you avoided
asking yes-or-no questions because you never want to give
the customer the chance to say “no.” Instead, this was a time
to extol the specials, discuss a wine strategy or, if returning
customers were in the party, murmur something like, “We’ve
improved on that duck special you enjoyed last time,” and
describe the changes. People go crazy for that kind of attention.
came up with I call the “lousy appetizer” technique, best
used on a six-top when the chef is out of earshot. As soon
as the second customer chose a starter, I’d suggest, sotto
voce, that it wasn’t at its freshest. “Don’t get me wrong,
it’s still very good,” I’d explain, “but the chef just made
the quiche, and that one is splendid.” I could feel my tip
amount swell even as I said it.
took the order and handed it to the waiter (in a larger establishment,
this is the “inside waiter”), who presented it to the kitchen—thus
allowing the captain to stay on the floor. Which meant that
each of us working a room knew what was going on at every
table. There’s a rhythm to restaurant service, and you develop
a sense of each table’s progress.
were made by the waiter, who also served the appetizers. Entrées
were the captain’s province, although the ideal was a cooperative
service by both captain and waiter. While the busboy’s job
was to clear courses, anyone—including Steven—would do that
when necessary. Similarly, and especially on a hopping Saturday
night, we’d cover each other at any task.
or busboy served desserts, but the check came from the mâitre
d’ or captain. And, as Mark predicted, the tip amounts skyrocketed
and we had more return business than ever.
is it that restaurateurs pour thousands into design and decor,
kitchen and chef, and then turn a bunch of untrained kids
loose on the floor, each grimly trying to keep up with a half-dozen
tables? Beats me. A small investment in training reaps a wildly
profitable return. Hour for hour, I don’t think I’ve ever
made as much money as I did then.
much more to address on this topic, but I’ll save it for our
Master’s Seminar. Meanwhile, here are a few non-fiduciary
tips for superior service:
volunteer what items the kitchen lacks. Wait until it’s ordered,
then apologize and suggest a replacement.
clear the table a plate at a time. Wait until everyone is
finished before removing a course.
cannot reset silverware too assiduously. Make it a ritual.
deuces hate it when you linger in the dining room. Find tasks
to do to keep you there. But don’t start sweeping the floor
or upending chairs until the dining room is completely cleared.
and serve-from-the-left once were the rules of thumb. We eased
into a more egalitarian approach, designating a specific seat
at each table as number one and working clockwise from there.
Thus were the orders notated on the pad, and thus anyone could
serve a course without having to ask who ordered what. As
to the serve-from-the-left stuff, we did so only if we could
avoid going into contortions at tight-squeeze tables.
service is an art, but it needs the underpinning of good design.
Say what you will about the cooking, it’s the skill of those
working the floor that makes a restaurant great.