At Le Gavroche, and under the tutelage of Silvano Giraldin, I learned so much. Above all, he taught me that that the customer is king. There was no shred of doubt in his mind about this. I still maintain this same rule. The customer must be happy, therefore it is our task to help put the customer in the best of moods, no matter what it takes. Most of the time, of course, this is covered by following the rules of good service in a restaurant. But sometimes, things are far more precarious than that.
It was New Year’s Eve at Galvin at Windows – the restaurant situated on the 28th floor of the Hilton Park Lane in London, with views over Hyde Park. It was about to be midnight, with the pop, pop, pop of champagne corks, and the guests tipsily breaking into a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne”.
A certain Russian gentleman was about to walk into my life. I believe he was sent to test me to the limit on the idea that customer is king. The lift arrived and this man and his entourage emerged. He was a big guy, in his forties, and he was probably the only person who was not smiling. That was the first problem. Normally, guests arrive smiling, excited to be there and amazed by the view. It is rare that they aren’t, and it is never good.
He had booked a table. As we stood at reception, he pointed to a table near the window, and said, “We’d like to sit there.”
It was New Year’s Eve so we were fully booked, and that particular table near the window was booked for 11 people who were about to arrive. The table I had reserved for them was in the centre of the room, perfectly set up for him and his five guests. Moving things around would not have been possible without disrupting all our careful work.
I told him as much, and of course, he was unhappy. I tried explaining exactly how the table plan worked, giving more detail than I usually would to try and calm him down. Throughout the explanation, I was holding the reservation list. He snatched the piece of paper from my hand and interrupted me: “I don’t care about your booking policy.”
Indeed, few would have blamed me for telling him to get lost. But I didn’t, or even consider saying it, because the customer is king, even customers like this. “Sir, please don’t be upset,” I said. ‘Just enjoy New Year’s Eve. Please … I understand you don’t have the table you want and I am sorry about that. There’s nothing I can do about the table. As you can see, we are fully booked. But I do want you to be happy.”
I added, “The whole thing is on me.” But he was adamant. “It’s not about money. I have come here, to Galvin at Windows to see the fireworks, and I expect that table.” He pointed to the one where 11 people were now seated. “I’ll get you sacked,” he said.
“I’ll buy the hotel and sack you.” I tried reasoning with logic. “Sir, look – that is a table for 11 … So I couldn’t give you that table”. I did not want him to think that I was ignorant and did not know how to do my job, or that I did not care about his frustration and unhappiness. I tried my hardest to show that I understood what he was saying and wanted to resolve the problem.
Eventually, the gentleman and his guests took the table in the centre of the room. It did not matter to me if he was Russia’s wealthiest man, or a man of modest means. As I said to him, and I must emphasise to you now, it was not a question of money. I did not care about how much he had in the bank or how much he would spend with us during that evening. I wanted to make him smile.
For many people in the hospitality industry, the great joy of this job is putting a smile on the customer’s face – even if, at times, this seems like an impossible task.
That was not the end of it. Next, I asked one of the waitresses to take over a bottle of Dom Perignon, on the house. Not the house champagne, which would be my usual choice in this situation but Dom Perignon, at £300 a bottle. I wanted to make clear to him that I was going over and above what others might have done. But did this work? No. From his seat, he glared at me across the room. Then he raised his hand in the air, giving me a two-fingered salute. How charming. I tried to read his actions, and took them to mean that he was saying, “One bottle of Dom Perignon? There are six of us!”
So I sent a second bottle of Dom Perignon to the table. Another £300! Still he seemed dissatisfied, giving me more stern looks. I was determined to give the Russian something – more than champagne, something that no one else in the room would be getting. So we took him and his guests onto the restaurant’s balcony, where they watched the fireworks. When they finally left us at 3am, the previously furious Russian was in extremely high spirits. Indeed, he even left a large tip for the staff – but this story is not about money.
This story is more about how he was treated like a king – the type of king he would recognise – and as a result his attitude changed. One moment he had wanted to sack me and the rest of the staff, but by the end he was pleased, delighted even, and we were all invited to go on a tour of Moscow with him and stay in his dacha for the weekend! Talk about a turn around. Since then, the Russian gentleman has returned many times to eat, drink and be merry. He sends a lot of people to the restaurant, recommending us as a must-visit place when in London. Meanwhile, I tell this story to my staff because it illustrates the need – no matter what your age or experience – to treat the customer as king, and to reason and think sensibly.
Extract from ‘Secret Service: Lifting the Lid on the Restaurant World’ by Fred Sirieix (Quadrille, £16.99)
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