When it comes to dining out, we can all too easily slip into restaurant critic mode, directing our attentions towards the kitchen. But how much do we actually know about front of house, which is such an integral part of the experience? Perhaps we use the generic title of 'waiter', or 'sommelier' if the person brings us a bottle of wine? When we interact with 'room service' we do so vaguely and pleased, as if with an exotic animal of which we are content to recognise the existence.
In order to help understand the inner workings of front of house better, we spoke with Giacomo Gironi, maître de at Al Mercato in Milan, who confesses to being "totally in love with his job." He is also Course Director of the Management and Front of House training course launched by Noi da Sala, Lombardy, Italy and Food Genius Academy, one of the most important Italian training schemes in the field. It is mainly thanks to them that in recent years the area has come out of the shadows in Italy.
10 Things to Know About Front of House
1. Who commands
The "maître d." is the chef or 'chief' of the dining room. His/her duty is to connect the kitchen with the diner and comes with the burden – but also the honour – of ensuring smooth relations throughout the operation. It goes without saying that it's a job that comes with extra stress. "Maître" in French comes from "maestro" or teacher, which is explanation in itself.
2. The hierarchy
The hierarchy of service originally formalised in the 19th century is still the common way of structuring front of house service staff and includes: Director/restaurant manager; maître; sommelier and sommelier assistant; chef de rang; commis de rang; runner. In the case of hotel-restaurants it gets even more complicated. "The organogram varies depending on the number of covers and the cost policy" explains Gironi. Whilst memorising it is tricky, suffice to say, there are not just servers or waiters, but a whole hierarchy of staff.
3. The "metaphysical" guest
When you enter a restaurant a silent judgment of you, the diner, is passed. It is not to critique, but to serve as a quick way of gauging how to deliver the best service possible based on a few attributes: "Once the barometer of the main proceedings were the customer's clothes. Now we look at how to gauge customers based on their level of confidence, their general curiosity and how at ease they seem in the environment." It's not simply enough to know the client's allergies, but to understand what is expected of that dinner. And then find the right serving distance, being sufficiently attentive without being overbearing.
It's commonly assumed that the economic management of a restaurant falls solely on the chef, however, this is true only if the chef is also the owner. Terms such as "food cost" or "break even point" also concern front of house, as well as the menu construction (so-called menu engineering) and the management of human resources.
5. ... and everything else
What other skills should front of house possess? "The list varies according to the position held in the hierarchy, but can obviously not exclude in-depth knowledge of what's happening in the kitchen, from an understanding of the main raw materials to having a trained palate. And then, of course, there's the whole arena of beverages, which extends well beyond wine, into beer (A field in which I'd like there was a greater specialisation) coffee, tea, herbal tea, extracts, and distilled and blended drinks. What are they? What is the right way to explain them to the customer? How do you handle the menu and markups? If you thought their job was just to bring your food to a table, that's just half the story."
"In the kitchen there's millimetre precision in executing a dish, in the dining room there's common sense." This is a trade that must always adapt to place, from pizzerias to 200 guests at a star-studded event with starched tablecloths. Adaptating doesn't mean abdicating responsibilities, but maintaining the same "obsessive attention to detail that should characterise anyone working front of house."
7. The Media
As mentioned, It can be easy to overlook the work that goes into front of house altogether: "I wouldn't suggest that we seek all the media noise and attention that surrounds the chef and the kitchen: I'm not asking for 15 minutes of fame, but for the creation of a recognised figure responsible as the front of house position says Gironi. "We maybe be a trade less attractive than that of the chef, but no less complex. The dining room and kitchen should never be disconnected: a review, or an article, should speak of a restaurant as a whole. "
8. Respectable career
"In France and other countries in the area of expertise is much more protected, as well as well-being in the very highest industry," explains Gironi. "It's easy to think that the differences facing the system are gratuities, which, except in Michelin–starred restaurants in Italy, are not covered." Integrating the tips into the bill, instead of using cheap tricks like 'service included,' would certainly be a "tremendous incentive" says Gironi, "but it is not the solution. If you really want to start changing things we must start with education."
9. The training room
"The primary responsibility for the decay of front of house is the front of house. Teaching – like that which we pursue at Noi da Sala – is obviously a key step, followed by an internship, but not only in Michelin-starred restaurants or similar. In fact, we must experience everything , from banquets to large external catering events."
10. Waiter 3.0
If you ask Gironi to indicate an 'ideal' service, he cites Daniel Humm's Eleven Madison Park restaurant in New York: "Youthful, but damn expert, dynamic but super specialised, diligent but calm inside. You must know all the points of perfect service and know how to manage them, as well as when not to care too much. Oh, and of course, learning the languages and possessing a good sense of humour are two fundamental prerequisites."