GOOD SERVICE WORTH WAITING FOR
I was recently listening to a young chef extol his hatred for the servers and dismissing their role out of hand as mere plate carriers for his works of art. It seemed to go completely over his head that the server is such a crucial role on the catering bridge between the kitchen and the diner. I actually started aged fourteen as a waiter for a summer in my local hotel as there was no place in the kitchen until the year after and by taking that position on the floor I was guaranteed the kitchen job the next summer. It gave me a superb first taste of catering and I had better respect for servers for the rest of my career.
The job of a waiter is vastly undervalued here but on the continent it is a highly acknowledged career. When you eventually make it up to being a maitre d’hôtel, head waiter or sommelier you really are recognized as a pivotal position in the hospitality world. In bygone years the waiter had much more of a role in the food service with all the plating of dishes actually done in the dining room. The chef merely dished up the meat or fish on silver platters with sauce and garnishes and it was the job of the floor staff to transfer it to the plate table side for the guests.
This all changed in the sixties as chefs realised they needed to be in charge of the dressing of the plates as presentation became paramount in how dishes were to look. Therefore the task of assembling the plate was done at the kitchen hot plate or pass so that the customer received it exactly how the chef wanted it and not how the waiter might do it. It is fair to say that floor staff cannot expect to have the same deft touch as a chef in performing this job.
There were other jobs to be still done food wise at the table though like presenting and plating the dessert or cheese from a trolley or flambéing sweet and savoury dishes, dressing salads, boning out fish and poultry and carving joints of meat. So there is still plenty of theatrics for the service staff to partake in. A current trend is making bespoke teas and Irish coffees in front of the customer and of course there are all the other beverages from pre dinner aperitifs to the wines themselves and the digestifs for after eating. So that is a lot of training to get all that right especially at the high end of the fine dining world. You must also have full knowledge of how every dish is prepared and cooked.
After my initial baptism of fire on the floor as a youngster I was confident enough in my twenties to help a colleague out one time when they were really stuck, for my one weekend appearance only. I had the challenging mission of standing in for a waiter and sommelier on the floor of a legendary French restaurant called Les Halles in Melbourne using every line of my Irish blarney to explain the unfamiliar wines to customers. Since the kitchen was short staffed too the French head chef had me working there too naturally, just to really pile on the pressure.
I had to dart back and forth into the rear of the kitchen and plate the dessert orders I might have just taken. On top of that the house special was hot soufflés made to order making it even more risky and half the desserts would indeed be said soufflés of three different flavours at that. So between racing around opening bottles, garnishing and taking other courses to tables and then sprinting to catch the soufflés rising in the oven.
It was the ultimate ready, steady, cook and serve contest over three nights and I just about got away with it. Okay a tray of three burnt soufflés was the single casualty but apart from that I reckon I got out in one piece. So maybe spare a thought the next time you are eating out and think about the front of house team that are looking after you. I am not saying every server will make your day smiling and chatting to you but when they do your experience is in good hands and they are worth a good tip. I know I certainly earned mine even if it was on a wing and prayer.