At your service: Michel Roux Jr shares the secrets of Britain’s top restaurants

No matter how fancy the food, a meal in a top-class restaurant can be ruined if the front-of-house staff aren't up to scratch. And in a new BBC series, three-starred chef Michel Roux Jr will teach a group of trainees exactly what that means

Christopher Hirst
Sunday 09 January 2011 01:00 GMT

You can scarcely turn on the TV these days without seeing a professional chef giving a flamboyant demonstration – yet another, equally important, aspect of the restaurant business remains wholly ignored. The subtle, surreptitious skills of service staff – known in the business as "front of house" – are as vital to the success of a meal as anything that happens in the kitchen. Wretched service overshadows even the most excellent food. The jarring repeated enquiry of whether everything is all right, for instance. Or the seething irritation of failing to catch a waiter's eye for the bill. Though perhaps the most exquisite torture is to have your wine secreted away from your table, and no waiter in sight when your glass needs replenishing.

Front of house has to achieve the subtle balance of being skilful without showing off, attentive but not intrusive. Waiters should be there not only for the routine tasks of taking the order and delivering the right meals to diners, but also for coping with the unexpected. Some years ago, I was having lunch in a now-departed Kensington restaurant when a dishevelled tramp walked in. Despite scrutinising the diners for several minutes, he was overlooked by the platoon of French waiters. It was only when he plunged his hand on to a woman's plate, snatched a roast partridge and crammed it into his mouth that they awoke from their torpor. The clochard was hustled out with the bird's legs protruding from his mouth. The ' diner, who herself happened to be French, had a fit of the vapours and refused a replacement meal.

Of course, the waiters had to be French – or at least foreign. For reasons possibly connected with the class system or (until recently) the dismaying nature of our native cuisine, the British don't seem to do waiting. Though this honourable and worthwhile job is valued in France, Italy, America and virtually everywhere else, we tend to confuse service with servitude. The endless feast of cookery programmes on TV has propelled a torrent of recruits into British kitchens, but front of house is still mainly staffed from abroad.

This is an absurd imbalance, says Michel Roux Jr, chef-patron of Le Gavroche, the three-starred bastion of haute cuisine in Mayfair. The restaurant employs 30 in the kitchen and 30 front of house but very few of the service staff ("perhaps 5 per cent") are British. "We know the passion and glory of chefs on television," says Roux. "Front of house requires equal passion and gives equal rewards. You can travel the world and get personal satisfaction out of providing great service."

Known in households throughout this country for his work on Masterchef, Roux is aiming to rectify this weird British disdain. His new eight-part TV series Service introduces eight young people aged between 17 and 24 to this alien terroir. "They all come from different backgrounds, but all had reached a dead end in their lives that resulted in low self-esteem. One had an Asbo, another went to public school and university. I wanted to take them on a journey to prove that front of house is an option for a career, not a stop-gap."

A certain amount of polish had to be imparted before they could even start laying out the cutlery. "Some were poor at conversational skills – please and thank-yous and respect were sorely lacking," Roux sighs. "I was under no illusion that I could turn them round in two months but I wanted to inspire and teach the basic skills: laying the table properly; polishing the cutlery and glasses; the necessity for clean toilets, so very important."

He stressed that anyone choosing front of house rather than the kitchen for a career was not going for a soft option. "It is unforgiving and repetitive work. You should be able to see a chipped glass or badly laid plate a mile off. These are basic for front of house, just like a cook doing an emulsion."

Along with an instinct for perfection in hardware, a waiter needs to develop people skills. "There is more to good service than meets the eye. A good waiter should be able to sell any dish with conviction. In the series we do just that, though one of the trainees detested one of the foodstuffs he was selling.

"We're not asking them to lie, but a lot of service is persuading people that a certain dish is the best thing they'll ever eat. Waiters have to give good advice. If someone chooses cheese soufflé as a starter then a cheese-and-cream dish for main course, they should be gently warned. Waiters need to know the menu inside-out by memory and tasting."

In each of the programmes, the eight trainees work in a different sort of restaurant: a branch of a high-street chain; an Indian restaurant in Birmingham dependent on repeat custom; haute cuisine in Paris; bespoke dining at the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair; a country-house hotel in Dartmoor.

In the final episode, they are let loose in Roux's own Le Gavroche, a restaurant that has few peers for the polish of its service. "They laid the tables and did a full service. It was quite terrifying," Roux admits. "But they did superbly well. You could find fault, but in eight weeks they achieved impressive results. I could have employed them. At the start I was shocked by the negativity and lack of respect that I found, but by the end I was overjoyed."

We will be able to follow the trainees' progress over the coming month. The two top performers will win six-month scholarships with the Academy of Food & Wine to train as a maître d' and sommelier. To find out what lies in store for them, I got the low-down from three front-of-house high-flyers.

The maître d'

Silvano Giraldin was general manager at Le Gavroche from 1978-2008. He is now a director of the restaurant

"The full title of the job is maître d'hôtel. He is simply the same as the chef but front of house, so he manages the restaurant from top to bottom. The chef is responsible for what goes on the menu; the maître d' does everything else. He is the chef's ambassador.

"The attitude of the waiting staff is most important. You might put down the wrong meal in front of someone, but if you do it with a smile, you'll never get a complaint. Getting a new customer is important, but having customers come back is even better. You measure success by the number of people who return – that's the best compliment.

"Publicity can attract people, but it's good service and that brings them back. The lifespan of restaurants that fail to bring back customers is five years or less. There is a natural winnowing of amateur restaurants.

"The waiter is the eyes of the chef. If a guest leaves a quarter of a portion, the maître d' should go and ask whether there is a problem.

"Every restaurant occasionally gets a rude customer. Some people are rude up to their first drink – maybe they've just had a bad meeting – but put them at their ease with a drink and they're the best customers after that. If you react, the customer will continue being rude throughout the meal.

"Oddly, complaints tend to come when we're quiet rather than when we're busy. The booking staff will be reading a paper, the waiters will relax, the chef will relax, something will go wrong and you have a complaint. With a full house, everyone is on their toes.

"You can serve 100 people a day for 100 days and nothing will go wrong – then two things go wrong with the same person. You get their name wrong at the door then their steak is overcooked. These awful coincidences happen occasionally – even at Le Gavroche. If things start going very badly at a table, the maître d' should take over. You just have to say, 'Mea culpa.' It's worst if customers don't complain and go off harbouring resentment. They vote with their feet and never come back.

"I've often seen a maître d' behaving badly in other restaurants. They will not focus on tables, so waiters will talk among themselves, failing to notice customers. At the end of the day, customers need attention. The most important two feet in a restaurant is the distance between the top of the table and the eyes of the customer. You have to be constantly aware of whether they need something else. If you don't have that, you don't have anything.

"Upselling – it means getting customers to spend more than they intend – is upsetting. In some restaurants, I won't let the sommelier come near me because they want to upsell. A good sommelier should sell you wine for £5 to £10 less than you'd be prepared to pay. The other day I went for lunch with my wife and the food was £100 and we ordered two glasses of champagne without asking the price. They turned out to be £24 each. The bill was £165 with service. Daylight robbery! Not on! You never go back to such a place. At Le Gavroche, a glass of house champagne is £12.

"Fifty per cent of our customers are returns. Why does it work here? Every day the boss is here. In certain establishments they don't see the bosses or chefs any more. But sometimes things happen that you can't control. We had a waiter called Tony. He looked like Albert Roux, who ran the restaurant before Michel Roux Jr. For two years, a regular customer thought Tony was Albert. Eventually, Tony said, 'I've got to tell him.' I said, 'Don't,' but he did. The customer never came back. He felt we'd been fooling him, I think. You either say it at the start or never.

"At the moment it's easier to replace a chef than a maître d'. Front of house is lagging behind, but restaurants are judged not only by the quality of their food. Service is very important. If, as a maître d', you're kind to waiters, they will be your ambassador – if not, they will be your enemy."

The sommelier

Laura Rhys is the sommelier at Hotel TerraVina in the New Forest. One of 30 Master Sommeliers in the UK, she was Sommelier of the Year in 2009

"The sommelier's job is essentially everything to do with wine and beverage service but also lots of things people don't think about: stocktaking, cellar organisation, wine-tasting and ordering. We have 400 to 500 bins – different wines or vintages on offer. It's a nice size, but people need a bit of steering through the wine list. That's where a good sommelier comes into their own. It's not just advising, but making guests feel at their ease.

"Our cheapest wine is the house wine at £15.50. The most expensive is Le Pin 1995 Pomerol at £650, but that's really exceptional. Most of our wines cost £25 to £60. You can find amazing wines at that price, sometimes more interesting than the big hitters at £100 or more. We're keen not to do big mark-ups. Even the Le Pin is much cheaper than anywhere else.

"I don't ask how much people want to spend. Instead, I give a few options at different price points. Often I can gauge their price preference by their responses. When people ask for suggestions, I'll have looked at their food order so I know what country and style will go with their courses. Some people give you free rein. Others have preferences, such as lighter styles of red or unoaked whites.

"Of course, everyone has a different taste in wine. You have to develop an intuition about what people will like. ' It's hard to explain exactly how I decide, but there's a lot of reading of body language.

"Personally, I think the biggest mistake of sommeliers is arrogance. At the end the of day, it is what your guests want, not you. You have to give people satisfaction. Upselling – getting people to go for a more expensive wine – drives customers away and it has a knock-on effect on people's ideas of sommeliers as a whole. People lose confidence in them and that's a shame.

"You get the odd awkward customer. Occasionally we have a bottle sent back. Even if there's nothing wrong, we'll replace it. I'm quite lucky that most of our guests are wine enthusiasts. People are really interested in wine, often quite excited about it. I'm very lucky to be working in this field. Choosing the right wine for the cellar is a very important part of the job. Wine purchasing represents a huge investment for the owner.

"I believe people are being more adventurous. My own favourites are Burgundy and Alsace. I love northern Rhône wines. But with so many different regions and countries coming in, there is always something new to try. Spain has some amazing wines at the moment from less well-known regions such as Catalonia and the north. I particularly like wine from the north-central area of Ribera del Duero.

"It is a career still dominated by men, but the number of women doing it is increasing. It's a wonderful job. You occasionally find someone a bit surprised that you're a woman, but it's nice when you can change someone's opinion. I've never come up against antagonism. I would recommend it for women – though you do have to be able to lift boxes."

The waiter

Shaw Malcolm from Washington State in the US works as a waiter at St John Restaurant, Smithfield, London

"I used to teach English at a community college in Seattle and found myself looking for something completely different. Through former students, I started bartending, then serving at restaurants in Seattle, New York and London. I'm not a desk person. The act of being on a restaurant floor, interacting with colleagues and guests, allows a variety of human experiences I wouldn't get behind a computer

"You can't expect to do it well right from the start. It takes a lot to run a full section of six to nine tables on a busy Friday night. If a waiter makes it look easy, that's a good server. It is hard, exhausting, intense work. There are no breaks and you are constantly on your feet, catering for the needs of maybe 22 people. You have to juggle a lot of different demands.

"The job feels a contradiction at times. You basically have a desire for guests to lose themselves in that delicious experience but at the same time you want them to be aware that they're not the only table in your section. By the end of the night, you want people to say that's the best meal of their life. It definitely involves collaboration between guest and waiter.

"The best experience is where guests have been open-hearted and open-minded about food and wine. I've experienced situations where guests can be neurotic and abusive. There's only so much a server can do in such circumstances.

"When a guest arrives, the perspective they bring has a giant impact on the experience. You can describe dishes in great detail, where it comes from and how it's been cooked, but if a guest arrives with preconceived notions, it becomes very difficult. If they look on a server as subservient – maybe projecting their own mental baggage – you do your best to kill with kindness. Drink can exacerbate a bad mood. The idea that the customer is always right is shaky. It's not OK to be abusive or take frustrations out on another human being. There aren't many awkward customers but, once in a blue moon, you have to hand them over to management.

"When someone asks what they should have, I ask what they're in the mood for: fish, meat or vegetarian? Roast or braised? It can be time-consuming, but it's helpful. You get closer and closer to a guest making the decision. That's when guests say they have had the most enjoyable experience. It's a real gamble to give free rein to a waiter. Whenever I've suggested dishes, it's worked out, but there are obvious risks.

"I'd recommend becoming a waiter, but only if you're going to take it as seriously as any other profession. It requires a lot of emotional and physical stamina. And you have to be willing to be humble and keep learning. It's not just answering questions and bringing food. For instance, I find myself having to alter my behaviour from table to table. One may be quiet and serious. Another may be fairly noisy.

"Having worked in London for two-and-a-half years, I don't believe the British can't serve at table. I work with a British waiter who is phenomenal. The style at St John is very collaborative; we help out with each other's tables. When we're very busy, I have to remind myself to be fully present at a table.

"In general, guests at St John are educated about food – and it's a great experience to serve people great food."

'Service' airs from Wednesday on BBC2

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