There is more to a good night out at a restaurant out than merely enjoying the food, as the front–of–house team is an important cog in the restaurant machine that largely escapes the media spotlight.
Great service can elevate an average food experience while a lousy waiter can taint a night of joyous food and wine. To punctuate the importance of service, Toronto food critic Chris Nuttall-Smith savaged Trump Hotel’s America restaurant in a review despite loving the food.
The headline “ The food is amazing – but you shouldn’t eat here, ever” said it all. From the decor to the service, the Globe and Mail critic disliked everything about the restaurant except what the chef delivered. This is an extreme example. But from quality casual dining to fine dining, competent service isn’t accepted anymore as diners want service that heightens the experience with friendly, attentive and knowledgeable staff.
And the little things make all the difference. For Botanic Gardens Restaurant’s Martin O’Connor (formerly of Magill Estate and Bistro Dom), it’s all about making the guests feel welcome as soon as they enter.
“[With] a big smile and a warm greeting,” is how O’Connor thinks guests should be greeted. “A recognition of a special occasion always helps to make people feel welcome.” O’Connor, who has just started at Botanic Gardens Restaurant after a short stint at Melbourne’s Vue de Monde, says the difference between good and great service is “authenticity and passion”.
“A genuine desire to take care of a guest by someone who cares about what they do and how they do it.” Orana and Street ADL General Manager Aaron Fenwick agrees with O’Connor. He says great service starts with a “warm welcome and a comforting atmosphere” and then “tailoring your service to each table”.
“Being able to read body language and knowing what guests want or do not want is something not many front-of-house staff have been taught but I believe is a very important tool to providing great service,” Fenwick says. “Great service feels like you’re serving your best friend who you’ve never known.” This means that not everyone is suited to dealing with a restaurant full of diners, especially ones with challenging or quirky requests and requirements.
“You definitely have to be a people person and enjoy serving people,” Fenwick says. “Being able to make someone smile through quick-witted table conversation and being able to ensure that your guests leave happy with a want to return is a skill not everyone has.” “Not everyone can do it as a certain personality is required to deliver great service,” O’Connor says.
“Gift of the gab obviously helps but a genuine need to look after people and an attention to detail is paramount.” O’Connor, who began as a casual banquet manager before quickly moving to that establishment’s fine dining room, was hooked on a career in service straight after he worked in fine dining.
Along with Fino’s Sharon Romeo, O’Connor is one of Adelaide’s most memorable front-of-house characters: friendly, energetic and attentive, he treats each guest with courtesy and good humour.
O’Connor says the basics are the same, no matter the restaurant’s quality or style. “Everyone deserves a polished, professional and genuine dining experience,” O’Connor says. “The skills and techniques used in different dining rooms may vary but the maxim remains the same: make people feel welcome and treat them warmly and with respect. This is always at the forefront of my mind.” Fenwick is now the General Manager of Street-ADL and Orana after working front-of- house at Orana and Magill Estate.
His career began after receiving a scholarship to Le Cordon Bleu to study an international restaurant management business degree. After working in hotel restaurants, he moved to a standalone restaurant and was inspired to offer great service and create “unforgettable experiences for guests”.
“The style of service that we have created in Orana is very different to the traditional style of service I learned early on in my career,” Fenwick says. “A couple of turning points started with working for Jock [Zonfrillo, chef/owner of Orana].”
Fenwick has worked with Zonfrillo for more than five years and in that time has dined with the chef in some of the world’s best restaurants. “Jock has definitely inspired [me] and continues to push me to think about service in a different way, which is always focused on guests leaving happy. The way we run service in Orana can sometimes feel surprisingly casual but with all the details and flair you would want out of a fine dining experience. It is one of the details that has helped build the Orana brand to become what it is today.”
Aside from the innovative use of native ingredients, one of the great things about dining at Orana is the depth of knowledge the staff have about each dish and how that relates to Orana’s vision for modern dining in Australia. “It is extremely important to know your product, the story and inspiration behind it and why that ingredient is on that plate,” Fenwick says.
“It takes a certain level of skill and general knowledge of the restaurant you work in to be able to pick up a dish, be told what it is from the chef, and convey that message to guests like you have served it for months. “There is a lot of training and background knowledge that my front-of-house team go through to learn the ins and outs of Orana. The first, and one of the most important things I look for in staff, is a passion for food and service. From that foundation we train and teach our staff in the style of service that Orana has become known for. Each staff member becomes an ambassador for the Orana brand and its journey. We have all bought into Jock’s vision of a new look Australian cuisine.”
Both Fenwick and O’Connor believe that the quality of front-of-house service has improved in Australia. “Service has changed to become more accommodating to ensure that guests are being provided a level of service that creates a memorable experience,” Fenwick says.
“There are many small details that I have learned from working mostly in fine dining restaurants that can be simply adapted to more casual restaurants that can have an immediate positive impact to service and guest experience. These details alone have improved the service in restaurants of a more casual atmosphere and environment.”
Is there enough acclaim and coverage for front-of-house in this time of unprecedented media spotlight on food and chefs? “I believe they should and I think the majority of the Australian media are recognising this and are getting behind promoting managers, sommeliers and waiters alike,” O’Connor says. “I think service staff have gone unrecognised for so long as the main skill was to be invisible. One should only notice service when it is absent.”
“There certainly is more light on chefs, food and wines but I see service sta ff as the key element in orchestrating an incredible restaurant experience,” Fenwick says. “ The most rewarding credit service staff gets is directly from the guests we are serving.
There is no ‘us’ or ‘them’ in our staff family. We all work so hard together and we know that a balance of brilliant food, fantastic wines and incredible service is the best formula to create an unforgettable experience.”