Can a Michelin-starred chef make the grade as a waiter?

Tim Allen traded his whites for his best suit for a taste of life front of house. Gillian Orr finds our how he fared
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For staff who are used to ­seeing their boss in the rather casual attire of chef’s whites and an apron, you might think that having him turn up to work in a suit and tie, looking the business, might put everyone on edge. Instead the waiters at Launceston Place merely snigger when the head chef, Tim Allen, arrives at the restaurant dressed as one of them.

“You look like you’re going to a wedding!” exclaims one. “You definitely look a lot less scary. I can’t believe it’s the same man,” offers another.

Allen is a Michelin-starred chef whose restaurant in London’s South Kensington specialises in “great British classics enhanced with an elegant and flamboyant style of cooking”. Here you’ll find Ibérico pork served with heritage tomatoes, broad beans and pan tomàquet with a dried fig reduction alongside English veal with barbequed cauliflower and Madeira jus infused with capers. It is polished food, and the high level of service reflects that.

But this evening, instead of sweating it in the kitchen, Allen has accepted a challenge to work on the floor as a waiter. How does he think he’ll fare? “It’s going to be like something out of Fawlty Towers,” he deadpans. “Nah, but I’m slightly apprehensive. I just want to be natural and relaxed. There’s an art to working out front. I couldn’t do it.”

There’s a sort of reverse upstairs/downstairs thing going on at Launceston Place, whereby the kitchen is in the basement, yet, arguably, in the restaurant hierarchy of power, the kitchen sits at the top. In various waiting jobs that I’ve had in the past, it always seemed to feel that way. I would approach the kitchen with caution, unsure what sort of mood the chefs might be in. I recall some of the biggest dressing downs I’ve ever received taking place over some condiments.

However, Allen is quick to disagree that the kitchen and the floor exist as two separate entities. “In the kitchen you’re not in the public eye. It’s a completely different set of circumstances to be in but you’ve got to work as a team. One thing that is difficult is that we’re downstairs and they’re upstairs; it’s amazing what a barrier that creates mentally. Communication is key, but if someone comes down for a bit of chit-chat when we’re busy then it’s like, ‘what are you doing here?’”

In truth, Allen clearly has a great working relationship with the waiting staff. He says that they don’t get much time to socialise together because of the demands of the restaurant but he will sometimes go for a pint with them. This week he’s meeting one of them for a game of golf. Not quite the devil wears chef’s whites, then. But does he ever lose his temper with the staff?

“Yeah, of course I do. I’m a chef. I don’t know any who don’t. But it’s the little things that piss me off. Just stupid things like delivering the amuse bouche to the wrong table. Or if the two first tables of the evening are sat right next to each other, stuff like that. It’s just schoolboy errors.”

As the first guests arrive, Allen makes no such mistakes, ensuring there is ample space between the two parties. He is polite and calm, taking them through the menu (at least he knows about that), although he does appear a little nervous and is quick to check with the other waiters that he has done everything correctly. But he looks like he’s enjoying chatting with the customers. It must be nice to get the opportunity to see diners arrive, all excited for a night out at a place whose reputation is largely based on his cooking. 

So what does he think makes a good waiter? “Personality; every day of the week. Being easygoing, relaxed but confident at the same time. Some of our staff are multi-lingual, too, which in London is a massive help.”

When it’s time to collect the first food order from the kitchen, Allen sort of grimaces. I ask if he’s worried about seeing his team. “They’re just going to take the piss!” he laughs. As he walks in the kitchen the other chefs immediately start doing just that.

“Table five, NOW!” one of them mock-orders, handing over a plate. Allen merely rolls his eyes. I ask him if he has any horror stories involving waiters; he lets out a huge guffaw. “Yes! The most obvious is people pouring things on customers by accident but at a place I worked at up north a few years ago, one of the staff fell out with the boss. He quit but on his way out the door he went through the restaurant stopping at every table to tell the guests how awful the boss was. The restaurant was full.” 

The evening continues without a hitch; in fact he is the consummate professional. So has he enjoyed his time out of the kitchen? “Yeah, I mean, I like looking after people. When I cook the food you don’t get to see people enjoy it. It’s nice being able to do that. That’s the reward you get working on the floor; that you’ve made someone’s evening a bit special. The waiting staff aren’t robots here to put plates down on tables. They’re here to give a bit of themselves to the guests as well. I think that’s the trick. Less formality, more personality.” And with that he’s off to check on things downstairs. You can take the chef out of the kitchen…