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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You guys want meanies? No problem

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Cartoon courtesy of Comic Kingdom


It is National Waiters Day on 16 May but I assume that covers both sexes. In honour of the day here are a few memorable experiences provided by those who wait on.

THE waitress scuttled crablike to our table, arms outstretched as she put down my plate of lamb shank as gingerly as possible. Then she shot back with relief. “Whatever is the matter?” I asked. “I’m a vegetarian,” she said. This was a girl in completely the wrong job.

If she treated the food with disgust, what was the customer to think? Unlike the veggie waitress I got chatting to in a lovely fish and chip café in Hunstanton, Norfolk. “All I can eat here are peas and the occasional chip,” she said brightly.

I do seem to have trouble with lamb shank, a favourite of bistros in the Nineties, cooked long and slow and low until the meat is falling off the bone. At least, that’s the theory. In another Sheffield restaurant when I cut into mine it was decidedly raw. Naturally I complained, pointing out to the waitress the blood in the centre.

“No it’s not, it’s a trick of the light,” she claimed. The meal did not proceed sastisfactorily. Shortly afterwards the place was sold to a very good chef I was friendly with. “Those ovens, they couldn’t get up to cooking temperature,” he confided. Which explained my undercooked shank.

I have had waiting staff do a runner on me. Once was in France when my wife was served up langoustines, one of which was so rotten and off you could see it black with pus. I summoned the waitress, a slip of a girl, but did not quite have the right French words. “Cette langoustine est tres, tres, tres mort!” She fled to the kitchen where Monsieur le chef was called out. He shrugged. We bridled. But there were complimentary glasses of Grand Marnier to follow.

In a smart enoteca in the middle of Rome the whole waiting staff suddenly decamped to the kitchen in an instant, understandable because a gunman wearing a large red bandana over his face and toting a big black pistol suddenly came through the door. He wanted our wallets but he was not having mine. I played the English and stupid cards.

Waiting staff are supposed to be part of the hospitality industry but you would never know it at one hotel in the middle of Bakewell, now under different ownership. We walked in to dine past reception, down a corridor and into the restaurant passing at least half a dozen staff all of whom passed us silently avoiding eye contact. What a welcome by part of the hospitality industry!

So did the single waitress working overtime in the crowded dining room, avoiding our gaze until I coughed pointedly. She found us a table and gave us our menus, without a word. What a pity we ordered dishes she had neglected to mention were off the menu.

Waitresses – and it does seem to be mostly women and girls who wait at table – have done this a lot to me during my reviewing career. I took it as part of my job to review the front of house staff as much as the kitchen because they are the face of the restaurant. And good service can make up for defects in the kitchen.

Part of a waiter’s or waitress’s job is to know the menu and, ideally, to have eaten it so they are knowledgeable. I always asked some damn fool or idle question to see if they were up to the mark and had been listening when the chef explained it to them.

One chef I knew was so keen on his chicken three ways (roasted, poached and moussed) that he had rung me up to tell me in the hope of a paragraph in the paper. I obliged, then went to taste it. How did the chef do his chicken? I asked the girl. She paused then blagged, “He’ll do it any way you want.” Well, full marks for chutzpah.

I have had food slopped all over my jacket by inattentive waiting staff and my wife nearly had her foot speared by a knife dropped by an elderly waiter.

Of course, I have only given you the bad bits because they are the most entertaining. I have had excellent service over the years and it is always a pleasure to see it well done, so that you almost don’t notice it, rather than overdone.

You know the sort of thing – being asked what you want to drink before your bum hits the seat, asked to decide on the wine before you’ve chosen the food and zooming up to the table to inquire if all is well with the meal after you’ve just had the first mouthful.

I always hate, and this is a generational thing, my wife and I being referred to as ‘You Guys.’ One of us isn’t.  It is an awful Americanism. And being told ‘No Problem’ about almost anything.

Sometimes there is a language problem with so many Europeans in British restaurants and hotels these days. But the biggest one we ever had was with an American waitress working over here. She asked if we wanted any Meanies. We looked blank. She had several attempts before it clicked. She meant mayonnaise!

We’ll end with an accolade, to the long-gone Italian ristorante I reviewed in the Eighties when my tie (who wears one now?) dropped into the tomato sauce. It was whisked away, cleaned, dried and presented to me clean, fresh, pressed and dry at the end of the meal, free of charge. I still have no idea how they did it.