‘The customer is king until he dethrones himself’ is how Fernando Peire answered a question on whether the customer is ever wrong. An interesting concept from the managing director of The Ivy and now the face of Channel Five’s Restaurant Inspector, who happily admitted he throws at least three people out of The Ivy every year.
Alongside Mr Peire on stage at the National Theatre last Friday night was the Observer’s Jay Rayner and food writer and critic Matthew Fort. They had gathered on stage, the set of ‘In the Kitchen’ in the backdrop, to discuss restaurant service. We were here to see if these three had the answer to the Holy Grail for all restaurateurs, ‘What is great service?’
We all have our own opinion of what is great service. Fernando Peire believes that it is all about understanding who the customer is and most importantly never interrupting them during their meal to ask if everything is ok. Simply, service is everything other than what is on the plate.
The Brits are always criticised for never complaining in restaurants to the same passionate level of that of an Italian or fiery New Yorker when we are on the receiving end of poor service. The Fawlty Towers scene with Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby comes to mind. The two of them sat there complaining about how awful their dinner is, when Basil strides over, rudely interrupts them and asks if ‘everything is ok?’. The two of them enthusiastically reply that it is lovely.
Interestingly, both Jay Rayner and Fernando Peire believe that the British customer has evolved over the past few decades. No longer do we maintain the stiff upper lip when service is crap. It seems as a nation we have finally learnt how to complain. Let us not forget that restaurants need feedback from their customers to learn from their mistakes.
The likes of Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay have sexed up the image of being a chef but little has been done to make the front of house role look so appealing to a wider audience. Jay Rayner linked this to the fact that being front of house is still not taken seriously as a career path but rather the cliché of a job to pay the bills before they go off to start a real ‘career’.
The front of house are the unsung heroes of the restaurant world. They are the eyes and ears for the kitchen. If, as Fernando Peire believes, the quality of service is going nowhere in this country then we need people to realise that a career as front of house is just as respectable as a career in law or accountancy.
Restaurant service has come on leaps and bounds over the past few years thanks to the amount of new restaurant openings and the quality of restaurateurs we now have. However, one thing has remained the same and that is the fact that great service is most definitely an art and not a science.