Top of the table: Technology has put the maître d' back in control
As Britain matures as a restaurant-going culture, it seems we are beginning to discover something very important and a little shocking about eating in public. It runs counter to everything we've learned as 'foodies', everything we've been told by celebrity chefs, with their 'vision' and their 'passion for ingredients'. Whisper it low but... it's not just about the food.
Ninety-nine per cent of us couldn't tell a 'hand-dived' scallop from an industrially hoovered one if it stuck its head out of the shell and introduced itself, yet many of our top chefs seem to have lost touch with the awful truth that your grub is just a part of your night out, not the whole performance. It's about the room, the atmosphere, the human interactions, the experience, the conversation with your date, the judicious ingestion of intoxicants and a warm afterglow in the taxi home.
It wasn't long ago that restaurant goers genuinely didn't care who was cooking their dinner; the truly connected epicure wanted to know the maître d'. He wanted to be recognised, greeted by name and led to a favourite table. The maître d' would know his customer's taste in wines, would recommend the best food and generally do everything to ensure the experience of dining out went without hitch. He probably kept a notebook as an aide-memoire. It was worth the effort; remembering exactly how each customer liked to be treated was the key to success. Great maître d's know in their bones that it's the work of their front-of-house crew, and their work alone, that can transform a competently browned steak and a bottle of wine with staggering mark-up into the night you'll remember for the rest of your life.
So who are these all-powerful characters, the restaurant professionals who can 'run a room'; what tools and tricks do they keep hidden in their immaculately tailored pockets and what dark arts do they practise?
Some of London's top maître d's already enjoy a discreet celebrity. Fred Sirieix, the general manager at Galvin at Windows, co-hosted the BBC2 series Michel Roux's Service. For him, service is a profession in which excellence can be achieved through science, training and knowledge. In a different wing of the pantheon is John Andrews, front-of-house manager at J Sheekey. Caprice Holdings are seen in the business as one of the best at training and developing front-of-house talent and Andrews, one of their best, manages the theatrical personalities in his room like the host of a glittering dinner party. His work is all about personality – half craft, half performance and all stylish. The elegant John Spiteri is regarded as the maître d's maître d' and runs the beautiful room at the revitalised Quo Vadis with professionalism that matches and complements chef Jeremy Lee and owners Sam and Eddie Hart. For aficionados of great front-of-house work, this new tri- (or quadri-) partite union will be one to watch as all of them balance their proven skills.
But aside from the traditional and the modern skills of the maître d', technology is also entering the game. Anyone who has ever called a restaurant to book and been acknowledged by name will have experienced the modern equivalent of the maître d's little black book. Restaurant consultant Thomas Blythe, for many years the redoubtable front-of-house presence at Fergus Henderson's St John restaurant, says "Booking systems like Opentable enable managers to enter information about guests they feel is useful or relevant. Contact details are stored when a booking is entered – either online or directly when making a phone booking. What a guest might not know is that the restaurant they're booking for over the phone is using a booking system and that their details have been entered in to a database."
The online bookings system of Opentable and specialised front-of-house software are near-ubiquitous on the American restaurant scene and are now operating on more than 1,800 restaurants in London. Customers book using their website and accumulate 'dining points' which can be redeemed for various offers. According to Chris Wood, UK MD of parent company Toptable, the restaurant side of the system "replaces pen and paper for the FOH and allows restaurants the ability to extend the most personalised service to their guests. A customer record in the Opentable system consists of basic information such as the diner's name, telephone number and email address ... [it] also includes an area for 'free text' and codes to make a note of information relevant to that diner, including most common requests and preferences... [the maître d'] can input information such as whether the person is a regular customer, their food preferences, where their favourite table is in the restaurant, if they have any allergies and even what their partner's name is".
Blythe is something of a traditionalist in these matters. "I would only use the extra information features on Opentable to enter things like birthdays, preferred tables or dietary requirements. On the odd occasion, the information could even be used if a diner was problematic."
That, to be fair, still sounds rather Big Brother but Blythe brings it straight back into the traditional ambit of the maître d'. "You can interpret that as either 'difficult' – and therefore in need of extra care and attention – or 'difficult' in the sense they were rude or abusive, drunk and disorderly. That's not to stigmatise them, but a habitually rude guest might be better served by a more experienced member of staff so you'd work your section planning to make sure that was the case."
Most of us are now used to the idea of businesses holding data on our behaviour. We cheerfully accept supermarket store-card systems which record purchase data on the most private of items and could easily extrapolate conclusions about our lifestyle, health or financial circumstances from them. Our banks use the data collected from our accounts to sell us products and services, so is it really any surprise that a similar system is evolving in a commercial sector as vigorous as the restaurant business?
So do the maître d's, as we all rather suspect, handle celebrities differently to us plebs ? Can David Beckham have a table at seven minutes' notice when the rest of us are on a three-month waiting list for a 10.30pm table? Though none of the maître d's I spoke to would go on the record, they seemed bewildered at the idea that celebrities would not be treated differently. Arranging special treatment for celebrities makes good business sense and is inherent in customer service in a celebrity-obsessed culture. But their unwillingness to talk about it is unsurprising. Good maître d's are a breed apart, believing in themselves able to 'fix' anything, but also be utterly discreet.
Does the maître d' control access to 'good' or 'bad' tables? For a long time most London restaurants seemed to have escaped this odd form ofsocial apartheid, with generally acknowledged 'hot seats' and 'social Siberia' for the outcast but recently it's started appearing in reviews and online comment.
Restaurateurs don't seem to discourage the notion of 'Siberias', though, when asked, they usually deny it, pointing out that anyone spending millions on designing a dining room would be an idiot to place any tables in 'bad' locations. In truth, such a distinction does a restaurant no harm. Having a particularly desirable area does give the maître d' the ability to flatter a favoured customer with their selection of seating while the rest of us, not in-the-know, just feel lucky to be allowed a table at all – particularly if we can enjoy a brief glimpse of the back of a television microcelebrity's shoulder from our table way back near the bathroom.
It's been a couple of decades now since chefs in the UK, empowered by media attention, began to put their own names on the front of the shop and it's probably since then that the people we lump together as 'front of house' have been neglected. We considered they had done their job well if they were effectively invisible. If anything went wrong with our meal, from the cuisson of a steak to the speed of delivery of the bill, it was automatically their fault.
Now it seems that the pendulum is swinging back. A new breed of front of house, better trained, proud of their craft, as socially savvy as ever but supported by new technologies, are back at the podium and running things properly. Perhaps the best way to respond as a customer is the mosttraditional one: seek out and befriend the maître d', behave ourselves when under the influence – and remember to tip generously.
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