Still shouting to the Rafters

 

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My review soon after Rafters opened in 1989

THE chef didn’t cook with onions and garlic, the waiter started a discussion about Adolf Hitler within minutes of us sitting down and we had no idea this odd little restaurant would become such a shining star in Sheffield’s culinary story.

 But by the end of the evening we knew we’d had a damn good meal at Rafters even though we had the whole place to ourselves.

 The other day Alistair Myers, the current owner (along with head chef Tom Lawson) posted on Facebook that the Good Food Guide-listed place was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Great news in an industry where even the best places can be short-lived but it is not the whole story. It may be 25 years since the Bosworth brothers, Wayne and Jamie, put the restaurant on the map but the roots go back even further, to 1989.

 The establishment of the restaurant, the naming and its ambition was the work of three enthusiastic amateurs in the hospitality business although they were not new to another branch of catering.

 They were June Hall , a former bakery worker and mother of six, George Taylor, her partner, financier and, on our night, the rookie waiter, and baker Steve Sanderson, with June, the chef at Rafters.

 Between them they had a burning ambition to run a posh restaurant. So do a lot of other people but it was the way they went about it that impressed. The two chefs honed up their cooking skills at evening classes at Earl Marshall, where June even found the time to learn upholstery to recover antique dining chairs they’d bought on Abbeydale Road.

The upstairs restaurant had previously been the Carriageway café and before that it was known as the Lord Mayor’s Parlour.

 She was determined to get the look of the place right. There was white linen, cut glass, Wedgwood plates and Sheffield cutlery underneath the black rafters which spidered across the ceiling and which gave the place its name.

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Wayne Bosworth in the Rafters van in the Nineties

 We paid £51.50 for our meal, big money back then, which is why, perhaps, we were the only customers that night. They had opened in February and we went in April. But the food was good.

 We began with prawn gratinee (£3.25) and smoked salmon and egg roll (£4), followed by soup and sorbet, the country house fashion at the time. There were 14 main courses, half of them steaks, but we had duck with Cumberland sauce (£12) and veal with a watercress and almond sauce (£12.75). Steve was responsible for the mains. “I cook without onions and garlic and I keep asking myself if I’m doing wrong,” he said afterwards.

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A youthful Jamie and Wayne Bosworth

 It’s fascinating looking back on menus from 30 years ago. There was crab and avocado among the starters and a main called chicken mango, rubbed with sesame seeds and cooked with a mango and cream sauce.

 “I’ll shout it to the rafters . . . that we know something Sheffield doesn’t. They serve a memorable meal” I wrote after we finished off with petit pot of chocolate and a frozen Grand Marnier orange, a sweet from the era of Abigail’s Party, if ever there was.

 Despite my praise it did not thrive. By the time the Bosworths took over Rafters was closed more times than it was open. “They were just opening Saturdays and using the restaurant as a base for outside catering,” recalls Jamie.

He and Wayne, who had come from working at the Chantry, Dronfield, were innocents abroad in those days and set about running it without the restaurant licence they required. To cover themselves either June or Steve sat in the kitchen with them until the licence came through. It was then they saw the quick cheffy techniques which had taken them ages!

Meanwhile the brothers were agonising whether to change the name but they couldn’t come up with anything both agreed on. “It’s not easy. Eventually we settled on Bosworth Brothers @ Rafters for a while,” says Jamie, who is glad they didn’t change it.

The Bosworths put Rafters into the guides and made it one of the city’s leading restaurants. After Wayne’s death in 2000 Marcus Layne joined the partnership, eventually buying the business and running it until, beset by ill-health, he sold it on in 2013 to Alistair and Tom. At 14 years, his has been the longest tenure at Oakbrook Road.

.So while Rafters is right to celebrate those 25 years we shouldn’t forget those brave pioneers who laid the groundwork.

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Tom Lawson and Alistair Myers

 

 

 

 

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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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