Chef Michel Roux Jr insists that waiters are as important as kitchen staff, because “a good meal can be ruined by bad service.”
It is hard to imagine this happening in Roux Jr’s restaurant Le Gavroche in London. The service — like the food — is classic French, with a strict hierarchy and a fearsome number of staff.
“When I took over from my father [Albert Roux] it was the typical service you would expect from a Michelin-starred restaurant — uptight and severe almost,” he says, whereas today British service is better than in France because it is “more approachable, convivial and has a slightly quirky, relaxed edge.”
When I was a customer at Le Gavroche a few years ago, I felt the waiters were involved in a complex, graceful dance around me; turning up at 9am to be given my smart black jacket and white shirt is like going backstage at a theater. The young, mostly European, staff are busy cleaning. One maitre d’ is scrubbing the light fittings with fierce concentration. General manager Emmanuel Landre tells me that waiters can move up the ranks quickly — his assistant managers took just six years to rise from the lowest rank of commis waiters.
However, I am starting at the bottom. It may not sound like much responsibility, but prepping the butter almost defeats me. It is cubed with a hot knife and rolled between two spatulas into perfect balls.
One beleaguered waiter takes an hour to do them all; I take 15 minutes on one pat. The menu briefing is so fast I cannot jot it all down. Next comes a sharp telling-off for misdemeanors — rubbish down the drains, slouching, incorrect uniforms. Then praise for hard work.
I had harbored ambitions of pushing the vintage wood and silver ice-cream trolley around, but as a new waiter, I am left to observe as cartoon-like silver cloches are simultaneously removed to display the dishes below. It is all seamless.
“A good waiter should read your mind,” Lander tells me. “If you drop your napkin, a waiter should have put a new, folded one by your side before you have noticed.”
At my final destination, Jose’s — Spanish chef Jose Pizarro’s popular London tapas bar — the atmosphere could not be more different. The tiny bar is often so busy that customers eat standing up.
So, despite having fewer than 20 seats, manager Gilberto De Souza tells me they serve up to 200 customers a day. The focus is on creating a friendly, lively atmosphere — regulars are greeted with jokes and even hugs, by the young, mostly Spanish staff.
However, the laid-back demeanor is backed up by serious knowledge. The waiters arrive early to help the chefs and know exactly how the small plates of tortilla, prawns in garlic and croquetas are cooked.
Enthusiasm for food and drink is a must, says De Souza, who is slightly appalled that I do not drink. I find the chatty enthusiasm of the staff hard to emulate and loiter behind the safety of the bar.
“Eating here should be a personal experience,” De Souza says. “Talk to the customers, find out whether they have been before, what they are doing here — just chat.”
The focus on friendliness means staff here work only 35 to 40 hours a week, to ensure they are on top of their game.