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Man about town: The art of service is back in fashion

Regretfully, while bad service is always remembered, good service often goes unnoticed

A few years ago, the British were a people for whom food was a means to an end. Today, if the growth in the number of restaurants, food programmes and cook books is anything to go by, we have become food obsessives.

This is reflected in our media: if our TV chefs are not salivating over some proper (it's always “proper”, isn't it?) way of preparing salt beef, they are fretting over how the poor are eating too much salty meat.

But regular restaurant goers will know that the obsession with food isn’t always matched with an equal devotion to service. One minute a server with sleeve tattoos will go misty-eyed as they describe the venison cooked sous vide, but 10 minutes later will be (as I had to complain at one hipster place recently) much more interested in playing with his beard than bringing over breakfast. Similarly many will have experienced the obsequious water, overly keen to replace your complimentary bread. While good service often goes by unnoticed, bad service is always remembered.

I’m writing about this as I recently spent a morning watching how it should be done. At Galvin at Windows restaurant at the top floor of the Hilton Hotel in London, I went to see how general manager Fred Sirieix prepares his team for service. Sirieix – who has appeared in this column before in his other role as amateur boxer and charity fundraiser – is a devotee to what he calls The Art of Service, about which he has written, broadcast and even created an educational board game.

I followed the team and made a film of the experience, which you can watch above. Arriving early there was no time for coffee and chatting, as everyone knew what they had to do. No detail was ignored: from table placement to polishing things (which frankly, often didn’t even look like they really needed polishing), to getting the correct angle on soap dispensers in the loos. They were then required to go through some role-playing games where staff would practice serving scenarios, shown how to talk to customers, while having their performances analysed by their managers. Fred made me perform role plays too and I can confirm that they were not easy; but the people and communication skills he was teaching were universal, and not just confined to the restaurant world. Maybe it’s time we became a nation of service obsessives too.