In 1998, a waiter knows what he's waiting for

Food as fashion, restaurant as temple, chef as culture hero, waiter as ... well, waiter probably, but not as you'd have thought of him a decade ago. The voguishness of the dining trade, the knowingness of the customers and the new vistas of the service industries have changed the game. Annabelle Thorpe meets a rhapsodic Roger.

It's 6pm in the evening. Roger Gellman, immaculately dressed in Jasper Conran, casts an eye over his corner of the room. The tables are immaculate, ashtray and condiments equidistant from the tips of the gleaming knives. A quiet hum flows from the bar area, where the first post-work drinks of the day are being sipped - chilled Chardonnay and long gin and tonics. Now is the lull before the storm, a half hour of quiet calm before the glass doors of Mezzo, Conran's Soho emporium, swing open and the great and the glamorous of London take their places in one of the capital's biggest restaurants.

"The evening begins with the first customers, and from then on you don't have time to think," says Roger. "In an evening I'll serve roughly 100 people with one other waiter. It's a case of keeping your head above water and dealing with each situation as it occurs."

Roger has worked as a waiter at Mezzo for two years. His nights are a blur of Bolly and bouillabaisse, of orders punched furiously into his MICROS ordering system that feeds the requests from hungry punters straight into the frenetic kitchen that hustles and bustles behind the huge glass windows. He carries plates, juggles glasses, recommends wines, advises on food, flatters, flirts and generally has the time of his life.

Right now, restaurants are at the cutting edge.Catering is one of the industries of the moment. Eating out is fashionable, food is fashionable.A job which once might have looked like drudgery has acquired a sort of allure it never had before.Chefs are not the only ones whose status has changed in the last few years. Slowly but surely, respect is being accorded to those further down the service industry scale.

"I never imagined a career as a waiter, I was kind of directionless and Mezzo seemed a trendy place to work so I went for the interview. At the time it was no big career choice, but now I wouldn't want to work in any other industry. People think of waiting as the sort of job you do in university vacations when you can't find anything better. In fact it's far more like serving your apprenticeship for a career in the service industries in general and there's a huge choice of careers to go into."

For Roger, a night's work consists of far more than simply bringing plates to the table. "It's a very sales based job," he says, "in some ways more than service. It's about promoting wines, selling particular dishes, using sales skills. We have regular briefings, wine tastings and every time the menu changes we taste each of the dishes. Customers look to us for recommendations and we have to know what we are talking about."

"Being a waiter is not an easy job," says Marian Scutton, General Manager for Circus and the Avenue, two of the most fashionable restaurants in London, "and it's high time the profile of the job was raised. It is a tremendously important job and should be recognised as such. It's not simply a case of serving food and pouring wine, clients look to those serving to advise and guide. The eating-out public is far more sophisticated than it used to be - waiters have to know the food and wines to recommend - they take an active part in the meal itself."

As the worlds of media, fashion and restaurants merge into one another, being seen to be "known" in certain restaurants becomes ever more crucial. "Regulars will ring me up and ask for special attention when they come in with guests."says Marian, "but it's always important for all our staff to make them feel special."

"The more people ask you, the better," says Martin Hobby, who used to work as a waiter before moving on to manage a wine bar in the City. "You feel like the clients value your opinion and the knowledge you have. It can put you on a real high - and if the restaurant is buzzing there's no feeling to beat it. Even if something does go wrong with the meal you can usually rescue the situation. It makes you feel good to know you can still deal with problems even when you're trying to do a million things at once.'

Martin, who missed the days of waiting, believes time served on the shop floor can set you up for life. "If you learn a trade as a waiter in a good restaurant you will never be out of a job. I spent a year in New York and worked constantly in good restaurants. it doesn't matter that they can't phone for a reference, you get a one-day trial - if you've got the experience, the speed and the know-how, then the job is yours."

It is not unusual for top London restaurants to pay only pounds 2 an hour - less than a basic wage at McDonald's - but tips can bring a weekly wage to between pounds 300 and pounds 400. And although the hours may seem unsociable, few waiters simply fade home to bed after an evening on the floor.

It's 1am at Mezzo. Roger, looking slightly less pristine than he did at 6pm, is clearing the last of the tables. As a drunken gaggle of businessmen stagger towards the cloakroom, Roger is busily arranging a venue to meet up with some of the other waiters. At 1am the night is over for the restaurant. For Roger, with his tips in his pocket and Soho outside the door, the night is still young.