Still not a proper job?

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Alistair Myers – wants to put a glitz on service (picture from Staff Canteen)

My post on National Waiters Day struck a chord with one leading member of the restaurant trade who would love to get more recognition for those who serve in front of the kitchen door. Here’s how he made it and what he wants to do next.

WHEN Alistair Myers was hauled before his head of year at Tapton School and asked why he wasn’t staying on for Sixth Form and university he told her he wanted to work in hotels and restaurants. “That’s not a proper job,” she countered but he dug his heels in and left at 16.

Today the co-owner (with chef Tom Lawson) and Maitre D of award-winning Rafters restaurant, on Oakbrook Road, Sheffield, has twice seen that teacher as a dinner guest but she has failed to recognise him. Surely, I say, the temptation must be to gently remind her how wrong she was. He shakes his head. His job is all about “creating memories for people and having a red carpet experience.” That might put the damper on the evening.

The trouble is, Tapton and other schools are still saying the same thing 17 years on. With National Waiters Day approaching (May 16) he’d love to enthuse other young Alistairs with a passion for the hospitality industry and talk to their fifth formers. Instead, he is either ignored or told ‘We’d love you and Tom to talk to our Sixth Form.” But that’s too late. He’s got to grab ‘em younger.

If you wonder why British hotels, restaurants and cafes are staffed with young Europeans it’s because in this country the hospitality industry, unless you’re a star chef, is still not seen as a proper job, as it is on the Continent. People mistake service for servility.

The industry is too often seen as somewhere to go if you’re not good enough for anything else or something you just fall into. Few are as driven as Alistair – luckily he had supportive parents who backed him to the hilt – who quickly glided upwards in his career. Mind you, that teacher wasn’t the only one who knocked him back. When he inquired about the catering course at Castle College he was told the waiting side of the course only involved one day a week. “We’ll make you a chef,” they told him. “I didn’t want to be a chef,” he says.

But where had this unlikely passion for the hospitality business come from? At Tapton he had to do his work experience and was given a list. He noticed Trust House Forte’s then crumbling Hallam Tower Hotel was on it, not far from home. He was lazy. “I thought I could ride down on my BMX and be back home in time for tea.”

He found he loved it, particularly when one evening the restaurant was a waiter short and Alistair volunteered, even though it was against the terms of work experience. It was cash in hand and the industry had got him for life. He got a buzz out of making people happy. “If we have an unhappy customer here that can ruin my night.”

If Castle couldn’t or wouldn’t help – he stresses things are so much different now at the renamed Sheffield College – he found his own career path through a multi-skilled apprenticeship at the former Beauchief Hotel, then the Rutland and Aston Hall Hotels before striking gold at Rowley’s. There Michelin-starred Max Fischer of Baslow Hall, its big brother restaurant, recognised Alistair’s talent and he was made restaurant manager at 23. And it was there he met chef Tom, with whom he struck up a friendship and what was to prove a working partnership.

Between them they ran the Devonshire Arms at Middle Handley before taking over Rafters, one of the area’s top restaurants, from Marcus Lane in 2013. “I knew I was going to buy my own place, I just thought it would be a pub,” he grins.

It’s from here that he is anxious to find the next generation of service staff. It could be a battle. “People will say my compliments to the chef but seldom to the waiters. And when they come they all want to be sommeliers – the new rock stars of the restaurant business – but don’t know from which side to lay a plate or how to crumb a table.” They are at the right place if they want to know about wine: last year Alistair became the city’s first certified sommelier.

Alistair, who is 31, leaves nothing to chance. The system is still in its infancy but customers likes and dislikes are recorded and new bookings are researched. That’s how they spotted the Michelin inspector. The last time we went to Rafters Alistair recalled my wife’s love of hake. So had he logged that? “I don’t know how but I just know some things. I only wish I could remember some of the things my wife Toni tells me!” They have a son, Oscar.

The staff are encouraged to get involved in the running of the restaurant. Rafters has a ‘creative hub’ where they can brainstorm ideas. Half an hour before service the waiters and waitresses are briefed on who is coming and how to treat them. On a recent Friday he noticed he’d got a ‘Valentines Night’ ahead, almost all tables of two. Tom looked baffled as Alistair asked staff to just be a little louder to create more of a buzz that evening then retreated to his kitchen and let him get on with it.

Did it work? “The tips jar was full,” he says.

http://www.raftersrestaurant.co.uk
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Has the fish knife had its chips?

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OTT perhaps but does fish cutlery still have a place on the table?

I thought I was being posh when I proudly acquired a set of six Sheffield-made fish knives and forks in an antiques centre but now I know I am just common. Or should that be vulgar? Or affected? Like most things, it all depends of timing.

When they first appeared in the late 1700s they would have been made of silver, to stop the fish and vinegar reacting with the metal. By the mid-Nineteenth Century they were in every middle class home – and that was their downfall. Come the 1920s and with the invention of stainless steel almost everyone could afford a set. It was soon noticed.

The poet John Betjeman sneered at the nouveau riche in his poem, How To Get On in Society, which begins: “Phone for the fish knives Norman,”* in which he pokes fun at them and the lower middle classes for aping their betters.

At one time if you were ordering fish in a restaurant you would be given fish cutlery as a matter of course. “Are you having the fish, sir?” the waiter would purr, removing your ordinary cutlery and replacing it with a fish knife and fork. But it doesn’t seem to happen so much now – or perhaps I am not going to enough posh restaurants.

I had these thoughts on a visit to the top-rated Rafters restaurant on Oakbrook Road, Sheffield, and noticed the locally made Carrs Silver fish knives and forks set out for my wife’s loin of cod with a crab beignet and tarragon-spiked gnocchi. I’m sure it tasted better for the right eating implements!

Rafters co-owner Alistair Myers reckons his is one of the few restaurants still with fish knives. “We do it because it is the correct and proper way. It’s important from the service point of view. Some of the younger staff ask ‘what is this?’ but we believe in keeping the art of service alive. After all, you wouldn’t eat soup with a dessert spoon, would you?”

No one is quite sure why the fish knife with the curly-wurly blade is as it is. There is no sharp edge but then you don’t need one to cut through fish which is why they can be made in solid silver). The point could remove small bones and the wide flat blade is an aid in filleting fish off the bone but if you have ever watched an old-fashioned waiter doing the same job he will use two forks.

I love the fish knife (the fork is little different if slightly more ornamental than its cutlery cousin) because it is a leftover from its Victorian heyday. Manufacturers listed increasingly obscure items in their catalogues to drum up business, aimed at those who wanted ’cutlery bling,’ as it we might call it today. A Victorian place setting could be a bewilderingly complicated-looking arrangement, guaranteed to catch out those lower down the social strata.

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Carrs’ fish cutlery at Rafters

One cutlery manufacturer listed around 150 different items of flatware, as it is called in the trade, but that is nothing compared to Carrs, based on the Holbrook Industrial Estate near Crystal Peaks, with187 pieces, according to managing director Richard Carr, who supplies to the trade and retail. Not that he expects a customer to buy them all. “We have a bespoke place setting of 38 different eating pieces and let chefs decide their own setting based upon what food they serve,” he says.

He has seen a decline in fish knives and forks, certainly on the retail side. “It’s becoming less fashionable with the more casual dining style. If I go to eat at friends’ houses and have fish, invariably they will use normal cutlery.” (According to a survey for Debenhams in 2009 28 per cent of people didn’t have fish knives and could not see the point.)

Richard’s not yet been tempted to carry a spare set in his back pocket but he does use them at home. I confess I get them out for fish and chips from the chippie!

He still supplies fish cutlery to restaurants but this tends to be for places at the top end of the market, such as Rafters. And wealthy Arabs, who buy the whole range.

Sales of fish knives may have declined but Richard is sanguine, like an angler who knows he will one day catch his trout. “If we look five years into the future things (may) come full circle.” Take, for example, pastry forks. Sales have taken off with the boom in afternoon teas and tearooms.

I ask which items of his cutlery are the most obscure and he offers the asparagus tongs (popular in the Middle East) and the snail fork. Of course, if you really want to be super blingy, there’s the silver chip fork. And Americans like the spork, a cross between spoon and fork.

There can be no doubt what Betjeman would have said about that!

http://www.carrs-silver.co.uk

*Betjeman uses words then thought common: phone, for telephone; Norman, as a name; fish knives, as a product.

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Richard Carr, go-to man for a silver chip fork

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My When Harry Met Sally moment

Rafters' belly pork gave me a When Harry Met Sally moment

Rafters’ belly pork with oriental flavours

I’m thinking 50 Shades of Grey as I sit down in the new-look Rafters restaurant in Nether Green, Sheffield. It’s had a makeover and there are greys on the walls, chairs and tablecloths.

The owners have cracked the whip when it comes to décor and given the place a new look from top to bottom. Sheffield-made Carrs Silver Sterling cutlery with Rafters engraved on the blades gleams under the brand new lights.

A splash of colour wouldn’t go amiss I say then I realise it’s on my plate. My starter of belly pork arrives, a colourful assembly of glazed brown meat, green purple sprouting broccoli and an orange blob of sweet potato. But the real colour is in the kaleidoscope of flavours on my tongue.

Forget 50 Shades, I’m having a When Harry Met Sally Moment although I’m not making any noise except Mmmmm. The Moss Valley pork has been cooked very, very slowly (72 hours) so the soy-infused meat is so soft under its sensuous fat you could cut it with a glance.

Flavours are given an extra oriental twist from the crushed cashews pressed on top. It’s very close to what foodies used to call an orgasm on a plate.

I was going to have the smoked trout when I overheard a woman at the next table order it with passion in her voice. I’m having what she’s having! Madam, you were right.

We’re here for an anniversary Sunday lunch at a place where, if restaurants were in the habit of giving long service awards to diners then we’d get one as we’ve eaten here through all the changes of ownership over more than 20 years.

It started by a couple who re-upholstered all the chairs themselves to save cash and had a chef who hated cooking with onions, was taken over by brothers Wayne and Jamie Bosworth, then Marcus Lane joined Jamie until Marcus ran it himself before selling up to a duo from the Devonshire Arms, Middle Handley, front of house man Alistair Myers and wunderkind chef Tom Lawson. He’s 23.

We arrive at the restaurant with its newly painted exterior to be asked “Is it any good?” by a chap studying the menu outside while his wife chose new windows at the shop next door. “If you have any money left over, go,” I joked.

Rafters has long had two USPs: good quality food and consistency. You may well pay the price (£42 before coffee in the evening, £34 for three courses on Sundays) and portions can seem small but you do get the full whack when it comes to taste and flavour, plus all those little extra bits: a trio of amuse bouches came one after the other and there is a pre-dessert.P1020222 Rafters  sirloin

Breads are engaging: a sticky black treacle granary, black pudding bread in the shape of a banger and a classy sourdough white with an eggshell crisp crust. Full marks to pastry chef Jodie Wilson. And while we’re giving accolades my wife says the sticky toffee pudding is the best she’s had.

Traditionally I’m a roast meat man on Sunday and the sirloin here is soft, tender and if it could moo, it would. All the trimmings matched up – sweet glazed carrots, a sophisticated cauliflower cheese, sprightly spring greens and turned roast potatoes, all crisp exteriors and creamy insides. And here’s my only complaint: three spuds is not enough.

My wife had a fishy lunch. Her starter was buttery-tasting scallops on the sweetest of roast fennel. Loin of cod sparkled brighter and had more flavour punch than you’ll get in a chippie. It came poshed up with a crab beignet (fritter), crabby sauce and tarragon-spiked gnocchi.

They do some decent wines by the glass: my Old Vines Garnacha from Spain (£6 for 175mls) was a pleasing, juicy, soft red wine.

If I’m sounding enthusiastic it’s because I was. This is highly expert, ultra confident, sparkling cooking backed up by smooth, professional service. When the bill came (this was not a freebie) it was almost a joy to pay. It was certainly a joy to eat.

Rafters is at 220 Oakbrook Road, Sheffield S11 7ED. Tel: 0114 230 4819. Web: http://www.raftersrestaurant.co.uk

Rafters' new exterior - in grey!

Rafters’ new exterior – in grey!