Samuel Muston: Waiting staff don't need to be as hot as the dishes they serve


The Nuclear Security Summit, which was held on Tuesday, is, as you might guess, a serious affair. Fifty-three heads of government and half the world's diplomatic corps were holed up in The Hague to discuss an agenda that featured words such as "terrorism", "nuclear bombs" and also (possibly) "doom".

In fact, so sombre was this gathering that it was decided that no female waiting staff would be used in the room where the big swingers were meeting. Explaining this decision, the director of the catering company used for the event, Hans van der Linde, said: "If 20 gentlemen are serving and three platinum blonde ladies, then that spoils the image. The personnel need to act in as reserved a manner as possible, and you can't achieve that by adding a couple of pretty, conspicuous ladies to the mix."

Unsurprisingly, when van der Linde's quote appeared in the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, his comments were met with an outrage that wasn't entirely dampened by a follow-up statement in which he said he initially planned to "only employ ladies… and to have them [serve] in little Delft blue dresses".

Mr van der Linde seems an oddly mixed-up fellow and no mistake. Yet his views seem, to some extent, to represent those of many restaurateurs in Britain's big cities. Get some attractive staff, the thinking seems to go, and everyone will flock to your new opening like starlings.

In London, this has reached epidemic levels. I can think of one well-known mini chain where the staff looks like it has just escaped from a Saint Laurent runway show: so sharp are the cheekbones on display that you wonder if they're used to carve the ham. Another restaurant I can think of seems to require all its front-of-house employees to sport large "sleeve" tattoos.

You can see the logic, of course. It's about creating a brand. We are cool, our staff are cool, if you want to be cool, come through the doors of our restaurants. The truth of the matter is that such places discriminate on the basis of looks when choosing their staff just as much as some fashion houses do – but without drawing the same opprobrium.

The effects of this can be pernicious. When the staff are objectified by managers, the customers may well follow suit. My friend who has spent most of her career front-of-house in restaurants remembers twice being pawed by drunken punters while working in dining rooms in the City of London. She didn't complain, she said, not wanting to cause a fuss with a high-spending table.

Such incidents, I'm told, are few and far between. But still, it does raise the question of what we want from waiting staff. For me, and for most of us who don't go to a restaurant only because the local pole-dancing club doesn't open 'til 11, eating out isn't about ogling the waiters and waitresses.

My aims for an evening eating out are pretty much limited to: consuming nice food, having a chinwag and possibly getting a bit drunk. All I want is for the staff to assist me in that. As long as they are pleasant, don't drop the gravy in my lap or wine down my shirt, I am a happy camper – and that should be the end of it.

A stint at the shows of Milan Fashion Week need not be an impediment to being a good waitress, but neither should a shapely nose or the ability to look fetching in a "Delft-blue dress" be qualifications for it, either.