What makes a good waiter/waitress?

The new role of Brigade in Black

Our guests are more eager for knowledge and are also seeking a restaurant visit that is an experience. So the service they receive needs to change too. A plea for the customer to be treated in a natural, friendly and well-informed manner.

text: Hans Schloemer  //  photography: istock

Their majesties, the waiters. The customer is king. It’s a mantra recognised throughout the world – including here in France. The whole of France? Well, there’s a persistent rumour that in Paris the waiter remains king. An absolute authority to whom all must defer. After all, it’s his majesty, the waiter, who graciously assigns the guest a table. And who is distinctly reluctant to accept orders unless they are promptly and clearly articulated.

Such prejudices may certainly elicit a smile – even if you have had a similar experience yourself. But times are changing at breakneck speed and the waiter as king has long been a fossil, like the dinosaurs in a natural history museum. After all, species keep on evolving.

Transparent gastronomy

One other species in particular is evolving in a quite remarkable manner: the guest. Today they are more informed, more self-confident and also more critical. And they use social media. Experiences, both positive and negative, are shared with the entire world in word and image. One consequence of this is transparent gastronomy. The approach “Dissatisfied guest? So what? There are millions of others...” doesn’t work anywork. The positive or negative image of a restaurant is always just a click away.

But transparency also offers opportunities. The calling card of a restaurant may be the creativity of the brigade in white in the kitchen. But the people who really determine whether or not the guest has a good time are the ladies and gentlemen in black. The great Michel Guérard, one of the fathers of Nouvelle Cuisine, once emphasised that 50 per cent of the experience in a restaurant is determined by the waiter. It’s a percentage which is probably now even higher. For the service personnel interact with the guest from the beginning to the end of their visit. The head chef – if at all – appears only briefly after the dessert to do the honours.

The restaurant as event

And in addition: people are increasingly experiencing a restaurant visit as an event that goes beyond culinary pleasure. And if on top of this what is being experienced is La Gastronomie française – then the guest’s expectations are twice as great. For the guests of the 21st century are more sophisticated than ever, they are widely-travelled and have more questions. They are interested in knowing what a Voatsiperifery pepper is, what a Japanese Yuzu lemon tastes like and why the chef cooks an egg at 64 degrees?

A service that only takes into consideration the service aspect is inadequate. As identification figures and active influencers of a holiday feel-good sensation, the brigade in black shoulder a great deal of responsibility. The challenge for service today is to redefine its role. Personnel are required who exude warmth, who are natural and authentic and do not act in a haughty manner but are nonetheless well-informed, offering guidance through the evening and advice on the menu whilst remaining friendly and attentive at all times. Set phrases learnt off by heart such as “would the ladies and gentlemen like more bread” or “may we chill another bottle of white wine for you” are no longer appropriate today.

Ability and karma

A good waiter is rather like a psychologist, who listens and absorbs with empathy. This is hugely important given the multitude of intolerances and allergies which the modern guest brings along to the restaurant.

But providing perfect care for the guest does not mean annoying them.

Examples of such behaviour include: the irksome interruption of animated conversations at the table by awkwardly presenting the bread basket, oils or salts. Or the manic pouring of wine and water the moment that someone has taken even the slightest sip. Here a feel for the appropriate moment is required.

If an interested guest asks why a steak has been cooked sous-vide, they will be delighted to receive an enlightening response. “I’ll just pop into the kitchen and ask”, sounds poorly prepared and also a little embarrassing. A waiter in step with the times comes across as a well-informed conversational partner, but never as superior. They are attentive, but not over-keen; friendly without being hail-fellow-well-met.

Advantages for hoteliers

And there is something for us employers to consider: a service personnel with a different self-perception and renewed self-confidence, the chances of sparking the enthusiasm of the next generation for this wonderful profession are good. After all, the sector offers a job guarantee – and around the world to boot. Anyone with the necessary ability works in an attractive environment, meets new people every day, has opportunities for promotion in large hotels and gets the chance to work around the world, travel and learn foreign languages.

And this also pays off in the end for we hoteliers. Making people happy by providing good service creates regular guests, encourages word-of-mouth recommendations and ensures a good social media performance. What more could you ask for?

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