Shelley cannot help it. Before she can control herself she has given me a light slap on the wrist. She is smiling, but clearly irritated that I am staring blankly at the beautiful display of rock oysters in my hand, having forgotten (again) which table they are for.
In my defense, it is 20 years since I was last a waitress, and this time I have not hit anyone over the head with a tray. However, Shelley Barnfather, the manager of Michelin-starred pub and restaurant the Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent, southeast England, has higher standards, it seems, than the penny farthing cafe, which was the height of my teenage career.
Waitressing “is not just putting down a plate,” she explains, patiently.
The kitchen might send out wonderful food, but “if it’s rubbish out front, the customers won’t go away happy,” she says.
Her words will be music to the ears of service expert Fred Sirieix. The general manager at the Michelin-starred Galvin at Windows in London is on a mission to improve the standing, and standards, of the UK’s front-of-house staff.
“Some people turn their noses up at waiters,” Sirieix says. “They don’t understand the value of the job.”
He is launching National Waiters Day in the UK this month to highlight it as a serious career choice.
It might not be easy. According to the British Hospitality Association’s most recent figures, there were 254,200 waiters, 200,300 bar staff and 196,100 managers working in the hospitality industry in 2011, the majority under 30 and badly paid. According to the British Office for National Statistics, bar staff and waiters were the lowest-paid occupations in the UK economy that year, with an hourly pay of ￡6.25 (US$9.81). However, the association notes that wages vary widely and waiters say it is possible to earn ￡2,500 a month in top London establishments. One restaurateur tells me of experienced waiters earning ￡40,000 to ￡50,000 a year. Sirieix points out that people can rise swiftly and restaurant managers earn from ￡30,000 to six-figure sums.
To get an idea of how rewarding and challenging waiting can be, I have been sent to three restaurants with very different styles of service. Which is how I end up in Seasalter. Determinedly unpretentious and even ramshackle, the Sportsman has won rave reviews for the “unapologetic brilliance” of its tasting menu. People travel from around the world to sample it, so the staff need in-depth knowledge of the dishes.
“There are no rules, no uniforms,” Barnfather says. “But we are interested in food.”
The biggest challenge for them, she says, is being adaptable.
“You have a young couple who have saved up, or a loud family party,” she explains. “You have to make everyone feel welcome.”
You also, I learn quickly, should know intuitively who wants to chat and who does not — oh, and not to hold bowls “like you think they are going to explode.”
To Sirieix, “good service is about forming connections.” He believes the low standing of waiting in the UK is partly down to the British class system.
Barnfather, from New Zealand, agrees. There, she says, “it is seen as a profession. Here the attitude is that you must be servile.”
Russell Norman, founder of London’s Polpo, Spuntino and Mishkin’s, points to the New York restaurant scene that inspired him.
“Tipping is such a guaranteed source of income [in the US] that being a bartender in a cool bar is a matter of pride and this translates as brilliant service — and a viable career. It also means only those who are supremely competent, articulate and charming — and fast — will do well,” he says.