How does restaurant service at the upper end tread the line between formal and friendly? John Newton finds out
It was Julie Manfredi-Hughes, front of house mover and shaper of Manfredi restaurants since The Restaurant in 1983, who first alerted me to something I’d noticed without defining for some time: there had been a subtle shift of service style in the noughties.
Today she is casting a critical eye over the floors at both Bells at Killcare and Balla in The Star. We were talking generally about the Balla start-up and the talk turned to service. Julie told me of the style of service she wants to see on the floor there. “I want service with the starch taken out,” she says. “We have to learn to be up-market without being uptight.”
And as I thought about this, it occurred to me that this really is a difficult juggling act, one in which the word ‘friendly’ has shaped up as pivotal. In the new relaxed service, do we really want the waiter to be our friend?
“Friendly: It’s a big word,” says Tom Sykes of Sydney’s Rockpool Bar & Grill, Gourmet Traveller’s Maitre d’ of the year for 2010. “You want to be friendly, comforting and nurturing without being their buddy. It’s a very fine line between being relaxed and casual, and getting sloppy if you’re not careful.”
John Kanis, currently juggling the two-hatted Pearl in Melbourne’s Richmond and the hot new kid on the block, Chin Chin in Flinders Lane, learned his service chops in America, particularly with the legendary Jeremiah Tower, founder—along with Alice Waters—of Californian Cuisine. Tower’s lesson to his managers was that in a choice between food and service, service is king.
“He said, ‘here I am, I’ve got James Beard awards for my food, but it’s not about me, it’s about service, making sure that every little detail front of house adds up to a subliminal message that people are getting about how we take care of them so they will come back’,” Kanis recalls.
In America, working with Tower and later in various restaurants with the Kings Seafood company, he found one of the key lessons was the value of training. And in coming back to Australia, and opening Chin Chin, he has applied those lessons. “We have a two-week training program for servers here (at Chin Chin),” he says. “We empower crew members to be decision makers, not robots. It’s a long expensive process, but we’re trying to give them the tools to be successful and to hold them accountable for their performance.”
And it works. After a visit to Chin Chin, Melbourne critic John Lethlean pulled Kanis aside and said “for a relaxed environment, this is the most professional service crew I’ve seen.”
“We have a two-week training program for servers here (at Chin Chin). We empower crew members to be decision makers, not robots. It’s a long expensive process, but we’re trying to give them the tools to be successful.” John Kanis, Pearl Restaurant + Bar, Chin Chin
Relaxed and professional? How can you be both? “We made some decisions about what we wanted to do in Chin Chin,” John says.“It was a conscious decision that while we wanted to retain the service standards, the professionalism, the focus on hospitality, we didn’t want to do it in a stitched-up environment. We allow them to wear their own clothes, we allow them to make suggestions around the menu. By training them, we provide them with the tools to tailor the dining experience in a frenetic environment—Chin Chin can be packed with the bar four deep but everyone’s walking around smiling. They’re happy to come to work. Most restaurants expect 25 per cent drop off in the first couple of months; we’ve had virtually no movement.”
If anyone understands the new casual formality, it’s Maurice Terzini. You could argue that the style had its nascence 20 years ago at Terzini’s Caffé e Cucina in Melbourne’s South Yarra. “That was the success of Caffé e Cucina,” Terzini says today. “At one point there we competed with the Flower Drum and The Latin with service—and we did it in a relaxed environment. It comes from your product, and the design is important to create that casual formality. We did manage to deliver far beyond the value of the product: value for money doesn’t always have to be in the food.”
Moving to the present, Maurice asserts that, “For me, the best service in the country happens at Flower Drum. You’re not having dinner with the waiters, but they’re always there—and at the same time, they’re not there.”
The operations manager at Flower Drum is Jason Lui, the winner of The Age Good Food Guide Service Excellence Award. When asked about his secrets, he also looked to the past, deferring to the great Gilbert Lau, the original owner of Flower Drum: “I absorbed him like a sponge and did whatever he was doing. Basically he taught me to have my eyes open. To see what’s in front of you. I took that to heart.”
“The first time I really fell in love with service was a visit to Berowra Waters Inn when Greg Frazer was running the dining room. Everything happened in a seamless way and everybody had a different role.” Julie-Manfredi Hughes, Bells at Killcare and Balla in The Star
At Flower Drum, Jason says, “We study people—see how they react and interact with each other, whether they’re left handed or right handed, drink quickly or slowly. You take notice of these things.
“And when I train my guys, it’s pretty much the same thing. I tell them to keep their eyes open and pay attention. That said, you have to be careful you’re not over-bearing. There’s a fine line between watching too much and not watching enough.”
And the friendly question? “You play on their field. You let them lead you—if they’re casual, be casual. If they’re formal, you be formal.” Generally, Jason says, “I like to think it’s a bit looser without compromising on service. I’m not into that formal starchy manner. That said, I love to make sure everyone’s being looked after without standing over their shoulders.”
Just as Jason Lui and John Kanis look back to early mentors as influences in shaping their modern service styles, so does Julie Manfredi-Hughes.
“The first time I really fell in love with service was a visit to Berowra Waters Inn when Greg Frazer was running the dining room,” she says. “Everything happened in a seamless way and everybody had a different role. And I really enjoyed seeing the food service separated from the wine. Gay (Bilson, co-owner of Berowra Waters Inn) was the first in Australia to relax the French style of fine dining.
“Then I had the good fortune that when Greg left Berowra Waters Inn, he came to work with us for eight months. He said, ‘I’ll teach you everything I know’.”
As for the ‘friendly’ word: “We had a lot of discussions about friendly when we were setting up Balla. We talked about things being fun and friendly and fresh—but you have to re-define those terms. It’s to do with roles. With the line staff, what they have to do is to be the liaison between the kitchen and the diner, to impart to the diner what the chef wants them to know about the food they’ve ordered and take the order. When it comes to friendly and accessible, that’s for the maitre d’ or manager to set the mood for the customers.”
But Manfredi-Hughes goes to the Italian, as might be expected, to find the word that could have been invented to describe this new style of service. “We used the word sprezzatura to sum up the idea of being relaxed and fun and easy,” she says. The word comes from a book published in 1528: The Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione. It says that the ideal courtier (read waiter/maitre d’) displays sprezzatura, a quality which, “conceals art and presents what is done and said as if it was done without effort and virtually without thought”.
“It’s the art of being nonchalant,” says Manfredi-Hughes, “but there’s a lot of work and serious focus behind that nonchalance. That’s what we’re working on.” That would be the quality that many floor managers would be working on. And it takes into account another aspect of service that the very best restaurateurs are acutely aware of: a restaurant is a theatre, and nothing comes by chance. The best waiters, those who can display that quality of sprezzatura, are the best actors.
In a chapter that delves deeply into the entire waiter/waited on phenomenon in his book Dishing it Out (Reaktion Books 2011), Robert Appelbaum concludes, “In order to be happy in your job (in service) you have to do a good job and in order to do a good job, you have to embrace what you are doing… you have to be amused at your own performance.” Work hard, hide the effort. A formula for the new service.