Service, please

I recently interviewed a mâitre d’ in a London restaurant. Unlike many of his tribe who seem to be hired for looking imposing in a suit and sneering to a high degree of competence, this one had actually trained, at a catering college, several decades ago. Talk turned, as it often does, to the erosion of standards. “Of course,” he said, by way of emphasis, “when I trained we had Fuller’s Guéridon & Lamp Cookery as a set book.”

The guéridon was a cart that the waiter could wheel alongside the diner’s table to whip up, over a spirit lamp, simple recipes such as steak Diane, bananas Foster and crêpes Suzette designed to delight and impress.

It seems odd to us now. We expect our waiter to have a pleasing manner, discretion and an extrasensory perception of our possible needs 30 seconds ahead of real time. We want competent wine knowledge, if only to prevent us having to engage with the sommelier, and today, of course, it’s de rigueur for the waiter to be able to recite absurd menu descriptions, verbatim, without laughing out loud: “Chef has prepared a hand-reared, rare-breed lamb four ways – reading from your left – with a tobacco tar; an espuma of its own mucus, sous-vide for 18 months and beaten to a purée with a cricket bat.”

That, one could reasonably opine, would be all one could expect from someone on minimum wage plus a share of tips but there used to be more … much, much more. Grand restaurants used to be run by a floor brigade, led by the mâitre d’. Career waiters, like those that can still occasionally be spotted on the continent, were entirely responsible for the customer’s pleasure. The kitchen brigade were entirely subordinate.

A really talented waiter ran a gamut of flambéd and deglazed specialities, many of which began on the cart and have since passed back to the general menu. Fettuccine Alfredo, lobster Newburg, beef stroganoff – all would have had their original incarnation on the wagon.

Next time you’re grilling yourself a quiet steak, have a go at a steak Diane. Sear the meat, then lift it out of the pan and let it rest. Throw in a knob of butter and soften a handful of chopped shallots and mushrooms in it. Flame it with brandy, add a glug of Worcestershire sauce and some Dijon mustard and then enough cream to induce coronary thrombosis in an allosaurus. It’s an organisational challenge in your own kitchen but imagine doing all that, twice, in a penguin suit, at the side of a table while a short-tempered plutocrat attempts seduction over martinis.

All that flaming and business with special tools and little piles of ingredients was catnip to the diner and almost demanded a generous tip. Fuller’s book explains how the waiter serving, for example, crêpes Suzette should insist to the kitchen that his tray was arranged with a perfect mise-en-place of pre-measured ingredients … pancakes fresh-made and wrapped in a napkin, Curaçao in a quill bottle, lump sugar and oranges, segmented and deseeded. I would give good folding money to see a waiter go into a kitchen today and demand that from a hassled chef.

It’s a ridiculous way to treat food – and I’m sure that the results usually had the texture of an espadrille. But the skills that the waiters displayed were the difference between the success and failure of a meal, and measured, in a marvellously Darwinian way, by the size of the tip.

In later chapters Fuller elaborates the other service techniques that we might still recognise today – carving a joint, composing and dressing a salad or filleting a fish. Other skills have survived less well; flambéing meat on sword-like “shashlik” skewers was predicted as a hot new fashion as the second edition went into print.

It’s easy to laugh at the stereotype of the oleaginous waiter performing for tips, but with it has passed something lovely. At the Fat Duck they’ve tried to revive it when a specialist waiter visits the table with a guéridon equipped for “cooking” with liquid nitrogen.

Perhaps we should give more of our waiters a chance to shine again, to step into the spotlight so long hogged by the chefs. I’m all for letting them set fire to things in the dining room. It might even be time to “reinvent” the shashlik skewer in all its flaming glory.

Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer;; Twitter @TimHayward

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