Come for the food, stay for the good times. In 2018, what is the role of service, and how has it changed?
The menu may draw people in, but great service makes a restaurant tick. It sets the tone, organises the chaos, and sends you back out into the world with a spring in your step and a smile on your face.
For the best front-of-house teams, helping the diner feel welcome and taken care of while making the whole show seem effortless is what they pride themselves on. But how does it all happen, what’s changed, and where is the art of service going? We lined up some of the country’s finest industry veterans, young-guns and restaurateurs, and asked.
What does service look like in 2018?
Kylie Javier Ashton, Momofuku Seiobo: The less you notice service, the better it is. The customer shouldn’t have to think about what’s next. It’s about being perceptive. Some people don’t want a lot of interaction, some crave it. It’s about being able to read people and take cues to see how you can be thoughtful.
Jeremy Courmadias, The Fink Group: Good service is individualised service. Everyone is looking for something different when they walk into a restaurant. It’s important to know your guests and build a connection – the success of a restaurant depends on its regulars. We don’t want to fill a room with first-timers every day, and building a relationship with people is what restaurants are all about.
Maurice Terzini, Icebergs Dining Room & Bar: For me, good service – regardless of whether it’s 1958 or 2018 – is invisible service.
The kitchen is a trade, and front of house is a n a r t . I t ’s difficult to break down into pieces that you can point at.
Frank Roberts, Merivale:
People tend to focus on professionalism, or skill and speed, but the fundamental concept is how much you care.
How has service changed? Nikki Friedli, Africola:
There’s a lot of innovation and change because of young blood. What’s really fun is that the Australian dining scene, slowly but surely, is starting to lend much more of an ear to front of house. The kitchen is a trade, and front of house is an art. Sometimes it takes longer to understand because it’s difficult to break down into pieces that you can point at.
Mallory Wall, Café Di Stasio: I find it paradoxical that just as attitudes are changing towards careers in front of house, traditional skills have faded. Informed waiters take delight in discussions of the provenance of the fish, but they couldn’t fillet it for you. They can describe chocolate dust methods and “the chef’s story” but they can’t flambé or silver-serve your dessert. The theatre of the great waiter has been somewhat lost.
The role of service and the waiter
Terzini: I don’t want to know anyone’s name; I just want to be served. I feel that service has become overbearing. With old-school waiting, there was a sense of efficiency and less invasion. These days, you get a dish and someone has to give you a thesis on it.
Javier Ashton: If it’s just food on a plate, then what are you paying for and why are you here? As much as ➤
people love good food, I don’t think that’s enough. It’s about the experience. We want people to feel like they’ve come into someone’s home.
Friedli: People are infinitely more curious now – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. People are asking more questions and want more out of their service than just a silent person who makes sure their cutlery arrives at the right time.
Courmadias: In Australia, service staff facilitate and manage the experience. They’re not servants. Whereas in Europe, there’s often a very traditional style of service where you’re a servant – you’re providing the nuts and bolts without interacting.
Paul Guiney, Embla: A waiter has to be much more informed than they’ve had to be in the past. You’re having to learn about all sorts of things: coeliac allergies, fructose absorption, as well as where the food came from, how it was cooked and what those three herbs are on the plate.
Terzini: My Papa was a maître d’ for 25 years. He used to say to us that our only role as a waiter was to make people feel like they had made the right choice to spend money with us.
The role of the restaurant
Terzini: Restaurants have a social role, a culinary role, an educational role and sometimes they also have a fun role. At Icebergs, we let people own their space within the restaurant instead of dictating to them how they need to behave. I don’t mind if guests get up and start spraying Champagne over each other – I sort of like it. And that becomes part of the service because it allows them to feel comfortable enough to behave in a certain way.
Javier Ashton: What I love about our menu at Seiobo, and about what we do, is that there’s a purpose. We’re respecting the Caribbean culture, one that most people have no connection to and that has so much history that’s not spoken about enough. Every day, in our briefing, a team member gives a five-minute presentation about the Caribbean. In Australia, we’re as far removed from there as you can possibly be – you toe the line of cultural appropriation. If you have no connection to a culture that you’re representing, how can you be true to that? How can you really respect what you’re trying to create? Yeah, you might just be putting down a bowl of rice, beans and lardo but the intent behind that and my connection to that dish is so layered and complex. Food is a connector across societies and cultures. There’s a greater mission and meaning and that gives us so much more purpose than just feeding people, and giving them wine and a good time.
Roberts: There are really important opportunities to be nice to each other in society and hospitality plays a massive part.
Equality in the restaurant
Javier Ashton: Typically women have been in front-of-house roles, so when you talk about gender inequality in restaurants, it’s largely due to the lack of attention that they have received. We focus on the chefs, who are often men, so much that we totally forget about this whole chunk of the industry. Celebrating these roles and bringing attention to all aspects of our industry gives a more complete view of what it takes to give good service.
Friedli: I think pulling away from the idea of the rock-star chef that gets to bark orders has made a massive difference. It’s given front of house an opportunity to be creative. I think this change is largely because of open kitchens and chef’s counters. Chefs are now forced to talk to people and realise that maintaining conversation while you’re executing technical tasks is exhausting.
Service as a career
Beverley Woods, Sean’s: I don’t know how you attract people to the industry – you work when other people are having fun – but it’s a great life. You have to have a lot of energy and stamina; it’s not a desk job, but it’s very rewarding.
Javier Ashton: It’s a well-paid job, which people don’t talk about. People tend to think that we’re just shit-kickers. It’s an industry with a lot of opportunities for learning – in areas from wine to management – but also in life skills. You walk out of a restaurant and you can do so many other things. We take it seriously in Australia. It’s a lifestyle.
Wall: Australians are just starting to understand that a career in hospitality can be something worthy, whereas in countries like Italy and France, it has always had dignity.
Roberts: If you’re thinking about choosing service as your career, go and find out who the best people in service are in your area and work with them. Talent attracts talent. It’s an amazing opportunity – people don’t realise how good it is.
A r e g o o d w a i t e r s b o r n o r m a d e?
Guiney: Bit of column A, bit of column B and a nice little slosh of alcohol to tie it all together. A good waiter is someone who interacts well with other people. You can teach someone to carry three plates, and you can help them learn how to work in a busy environment, but you can’t teach people how to like other people.
Friedli: Definitely 50/50. You have to have something in you that’s innately prone to being empathetic, and know how to make people feel comfortable. You can be born with those core qualities, but if you want to be an exceptional waiter, it’s all about training. It’s much more than just fronting up and doing the job.
Woods: It’s something within you, and you don’t even know you have it until you start. You can either do it or you can’t.
Where is service going?
Javier Ashton: I think there will be a shift and we’ll start to really understand that, here in Australia, we’re setting a benchmark. Stop looking everywhere else. Let’s celebrate Australian food and restaurants. I think that’s where the shift is. It’s really about understanding that our restaurant industry is at the forefront. People are coming here to work and to learn. There are so many groupies, too – people who want to be friends with hospitality people. You can join the band. ●
There are really important opportunities to be nice to each other in society and hospitality plays a massive part.
In service at Fleet, Brunswick Heads.