I want you to be invisible," says Fred Sirieix, his arm sweeping an arc across the empty art deco dining room, "not seen and absolutely not heard". His words, coming at the end of a long homily on the art of service, bring to mind a particularly strict Victorian patrician. When, in fact, I'm being addressed by the general manager of the restaurant at the Park Lane Hilton in London. Are not general managers of Michelin-starred brassieres supposed to be unctuous and ever amenable to the whims of the general public? Am I too "general" to be worthy of a bit of smarm? I suppose I should have known the writing was on the wall when the doorman didn't touch the brim of his hat as I walked into the lobby.
Perhaps I ought to have expected it. For today I am no punter come in off the street and and up the 28 floors to Galvin at Windows. Today I am staff – a waiter, garçon, the man with the stub pencil and the smile that never falters. And I'm feeling ever so slightly out of my depth.
Galvin is one of those places where plutocrats mingle with politicians and people still drink martinis at lunchtime. Where the shag-pile carpet is so thick you worry you might end up calf deep, and the cutlery looks like a baronial heirloom. In short, it is a place serious people go to impress other serious people. As I push my way through the ebony double doors, I feel the nerves drum in my chest. The problem is, I've never so much as served someone a pint before, having always been pleaded a previous engagement with a text book when my parents encouraged me to get a Saturday job.
And I've certainly never been called upon to carry four plates to a table of hungry merchant bankers and explain what the day's special of "violino pumpkin" is. I confess my lack of experience to Fred as he runs through the day's menu. "There's a first time for everything – don't worry, just follow my lead," he says breezily, as he helps me tie the apron which, with tie and waistcoat, makes up the uniform. If I'm to follow someone's lead, it may as well be Fred Sirieix's. Fred is the best in the business, the restaurant manager everyone wants and not many can afford. After coming to London from Paris aged 20 in 1990, he set about trying to insert himself into the most fashionable dining rooms in the capital. "Name a famous restaurant in London from the past two decades and I've more than likely done a stint there," he says without even the suggestion of conceit. He has directed service at Pierre Koffman's La Tante Claire, acted as head waiter at Roux in the City, and welcomed guests to Le Gavroche and several Conran restaurants.
"I only ever wanted to work with the best," he says with a shrug, "it rubs off." It's no surprise then, that when the BBC and Michel Roux set about creating a TV show which takes unemployed young people and teaches them how to be professional front-of-house staff, they came knocking on his door.
"The eight guys you see on the programme, Michel Roux's Service, are following a similar scholarship model to the one we created two years ago when we set up the Galvin's Chance foundation," he says. "We offer disadvantaged 18 to 24-year-olds a chance to train to become world-class hospitality staff and fulfil their potential."
"As you'll see from the programme, it is very tough. After some training where we teach them the basics of etiquette and laying a table, we send them to various restaurants to try their hand at service. Starting with a high-street chain, they eventually go to the double Michelin-starred Lassere restaurant in Paris – and then we make a decision as to which two are deserving of the six-month scholarship contract." But surely, Fred, I say, it's just a case of plonking the food down? Once you get over the nerves, that is. A look of pain flickers over his face as if I've just pinched him. "That is the popular misconception. The problem is no one notices good service, it's only when it goes wrong that people become aware of it.
"There is so much to really hospitable service. You need to be quick without looking hurried; you have to know what's going on across the dining room and spot if a guest is unhappy; discern their needs and cater to them – and all without being intrusive or overbearing. Just think of a gazelle on Red Bull – that what I say to my new recruits."
I feel more like an elephant on Valium as he passes me on to 21-year-old star gazelle, Jamie. Head waiter at station three, he explains the dark art of table numbering at Galvin. The table closest to the corner we are standing in is one and the numbers increase as the tables slink away up the dining room, until this tranche of tables ends at the far wall with table six, he explains. The numbers then recommence in the second tranche tables, the furthest one being seven and so on until they curve back around to where they started. Any questions, he says. "Er... could you repeat that?"
"It's like a snake," he says. And he shoots me a look halfway between exasperation and encouragement, the look of father to a child about to fall of his bike for the umpteenth time. "Perhaps you'd better start on reception."
The pantomime of advice and reproach is bought to an abrupt end by the arrival of the first diners. The whole service machine clicks effortlessly into place and everyone – except me – glides off into position in one of the four stations of services. Roman, a handsome Frenchman with dizzying command of the English idiom, gently but firmly tugs me into position at his side as the customers reach the reception desk. "Good afternoon, sir, do you have a reservation?... Ah, Mr Walker, your table is ready for you now... If you'd just like to follow my colleague," he says at top speed. Which colleague? I look to the side. There's only me. The feeling of Roman's foot gently squashing my big toe confirms that I am said colleague – and I'm not moving quickly enough. No matter, I flash Mr Walker a Hollywood grin, bow slightly and lead them to table 18: "Just this way, sir." Having safely delivered them to their seats, I stalk back to the reception desk. Seemed to go well – I'm getting the hang of this. Was that OK? "Fine, fine, though perhaps go easy on the bowing," says Roman. "You don't want to be too servile."
The staff at Galvin are anything but servile. Fully trained in silver service and all forms of table etiquette, they're paid as much as skilled workers ought to be. The most junior staffer earns £20,000 and senior waiters pull in up to £36,000 – three times the national average for such a job . "I work hard and I'm proud of what I do," says Roman, "and I think our pay reflects that."
It's 12.30pm and the place is starting to fill up. Feeling a breeze of feckless courage blowing across me, I ask if I can move on to order-taking and water-proffering. The boss nods. The computerised booking program tells me that table six and seven are the senior managers of a Northern haulage firm. I home in on their table in a flurry of apologies for the interruption ("I'm awfully sorry, but I wonder might I just..."). I offer the water, starting with who I assume is the chief executive. Still or sparkling? "Sparkling, please," comes the reply. At this point I begin to think my self-confidence might have been a little misplaced. I have two bottles of Italian water in my hand – one fizzy, one flat –and can't remember which is which. The chief executive, a good, kind man who knows his Italian water, whispers: "The one with the blue label." Roman looks on, the father-son look back on his face.
I fear I may be a failure as a water waiter. But I am keen to explore another side of the job: tipping. I'm fairly sure that as my table of hauliers had to pitch in and assist with the water service, it's unlikely I'll be leaving with a pocket bristling with their £20s. What we need, I say to Roman, is a table of well-upholstered bankers or a half-drunk barrister. As the words slip from my lips, salvation enters from the bar. Proceeding with a stately gait to table 16 came Ann, a perfectly sober solicitor and an old friend of my mother's – a woman known for her generous birthday envelopes. Despite the fact that I hadn't seen her for a couple of years, I would have bet my waistcoat on her recognising me.
Braced for a volley of good-natured teasing, I pirouette around her table, serving the doctor on table 15 and the television producer on 17. Several minutes slip by, I do several more laps. Nothing. Zilch. Not even a flicker of recognition. Noticing her table had yet to receive any bread, I see my chance, grab a couple of rolls and head over. In best butler-esque fashion, I bow my head just a touch and put the bread down in front of her, showing the toothiest of smiles: "Bread, madam." "Thanks" she says without breaking off her conversation. She did not even give me a second glance. Oh aunt Anne.
Am I invisible? Is there a cloaking device in this waistcoat? What's wrong with me, I ask Fred as he passes. "Not seen, not heard" he laughs, "perhaps we'll make a waiter of you yet."
'Michel Roux's Service' starts on BBC2 on Wednesday 12 January.
What makes a good waiter?
Self-confidence: You need to an exude an air of togetherness and serene unflappability.
Smartness: If the front of house staff are dirty and unkempt, what will the kitchens be like?
Politeness: The customer is paying for the dining experience, so it is essential you're pleasant to them at all times.
Sharp instincts: Great service means sizing up the diner and guessing their needs before they've even figured them out for themselves.
Calm temperament: Whatever a customer says or does, no matter how obtusely they act, you must never lose your temper.
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